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Post-Clone Consciousness

By Jessica Mathews

Monday, March 3 1997; Page A19
The Washington Post

Thinking about the post-Dolly world, let it first be clear that there will never be a human clone in the sense that that word is generally understood, namely as an exact replica of another individual. As applied to humans, a clone is a literary conceit, not a scientific possibility.

A cloned sheep proves that it will probably soon be possible to make a genetically identical copy of a person, but that is not remotely the same thing as making another you or another me.

This is so because a human's genetic inheritance is not, as the usual metaphor portrays it, a precise and fixed blueprint. It is, rather, a set of changeable potentialities that act on an individual's environment and are acted upon by it. Much more than any other species, we are the result of nature (genes) and nurture (environment) -- not merely the sum of the two but the product of a constant interplay between them.

A physical or emotional characteristic of our environment interacts with a particular genetic endowment to elicit a particular behavior that in turn puts the individual into a particular environment and so on and on in an endlessly complex pattern that makes a person unique.

Identical twins reared separately provide a rough idea of how similar cloned people would be. While eerily alike in some respects (twins reunited in adulthood have shown up on the appointed day each wearing five rings, distributed on the same fingers), these genetically identical individuals also can be quite different. Clones would be even less alike because they would not have shared the same uterine environment. So much for apocalyptic visions of multiple Hitlers or even of the fantasy of reproducing oneself.

Dolly is an exciting scientific step because until now it was thought that cell differentiation in a higher organism -- the pattern of gene expression through which an embryonic cell becomes a liver cell or a taste bud -- is a one-way process that could not run backward. Dolly's genetic parent cell was in effect tricked into starting over. Animal cloning opens up enormous commercial opportunities with benefits for human health, food and more. And it promises tremendous insights into the cellular basis of aging -- is Dolly seven months old, or six years and seven months, the age of the cell from which she was replicated?

For all that, however, this is more a philosophical than a scientific turning point. The great breakthroughs came 25 years ago with the discoveries that made it possible to clone genes: that is, the ability to fish out one gene from among the tens of thousands in an organism and make any number of copies of that particular stretch of DNA. With that came the ability to manipulate the gene in all kinds of ways, including transferring it from cell to cell or species to species. These were the discoveries that made bio-engineering possible, and they are the ones that have changed our lives -- and perhaps the nature of human nature -- forever.

Within the next 10 years, the 60,000 to 100,000 genes in the human genome will have been fully deciphered. Long before then, this flood of genetic information, combined with what biotechnology can do, will change the way we think about ourselves and our children-to-be and challenge ethics, religion, social values, personal privacy and legal protections.

When genetic screening becomes routine, will pregnancy become a matter of choosing among fetuses with hun dreds of different dangerous or undesirable traits? What will it mean for religion when characteristics that have been innate through all of human history become a matter of choice? Do we share our genetic predispositions with a prospective spouse? Would we want to know them ourselves -- do we have a "right" not to know?

If, as is likely, it becomes possible to alter genes that give rise to inherited diseases wouldn't we say yes to human eugenics? What about improving intelligence? Where will we draw lines?

What will happen if/when the genetically screened rich begin to diverge from the mass of humankind? How will the rest of the world feel about a global commerce based on genetic intellectual property -- once considered God's work or nature's -- and all of it owned by companies in the developed world?

In one sense, Dolly is best understood as one drop in a towering wave that is about to crash over us. The achievement will prove enormously valuable if it galvanizes us into readying ourselves for this inundation of helpful, treacherous, value-shattering and life-saving information.

Americans will have to divorce the discussion of what should be allowed and what should not from the debate about abortion. The link is through research on human embryos. Responses to Dolly this past week have ranged from Just Say No (ban human cloning and related work) to Just Do It (allow what comes but keep government regulation out). Neither is realistic. Science and commerce will march on. What now seems incomprehensible will be routine. The only good outcome is sensible, humane regulation, based not on courtroom decisions, but on broad, informed public debate. Understanding the science is the first, essential step.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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