The widespread hand-wringing over what must be one of the greatest scientific feats ever--the cloning of an animal--is sad testimony to the growing politicization of genetic research. Instead of celebration, there is a chorus of Cassandras and a wave of worry. President Clinton talks of the "troubling" implications of cloning, and an army of bioethicists worldwide immediately warns of society's being unprepared for the Frankensteinian implications of replicating life.
When Scottish embryologist Ian Wilmut stunned the world by creating Dolly--an exact living copy of a lamb--he put a spotlight on science's recent explosion in understanding life and how to alter it. It goes way beyond cloning. Just as the past hundred years made up the century of chemistry and physics, so will the next be the century of biology. Imagine new medicines, better crops, and even biocomputing. Gene-altered animals could produce hearts for transplants and drugs for treatment. Disease-resistant rice and wheat could sharply raise yields. What better model is there for storing information than the sequence of links in the chains of DNA?
Yet genetic research, while it fascinates, also scares people. Such movies as The Boys from Brazil, about cloning new Hitlers, and Jurassic Park, about the dangers of replicating dinosaurs, touch something deep in many people who are uneasy about the manipulation of life. Even Multiplicity, a comedy about a harried man cloning himself so that he may double- and triple-task through life, shows one copy turning out to be a dumb, drooling, defective human being.
This distrust of using biological science to tamper with life has haunted genetic research from the start. Despite centuries of animal and plant breeding, opposition to gene-altered tomatoes and potatoes delayed their introduction for years. The U.S. Congress has virtually banned all government-funded embryo research, thanks to the politics of abortion. France and Germany have banned genetically altered food and drugs. The result? The research shifted offshore. The thousands of parents who now have children thanks to in vitro fertilization can thank British researchers for their families.
There is no question that the notion of individuals cloning themselves is not only repugnant but also raises important questions: Should humans be cloned to provide body parts for dying children? Is replication reproduction or slavery? The legal questions alone boggle the mind.
Fear of the future should not quell the budding biological revolution. Thanks to the Human Genome Project and similar projects for animals and plants, scientists are poised to know the complete blueprint of life. Rejecting this knowledge in a reactionary spasm of scientific know-nothingism would be a tragedy of immense proportions. It would choke the human spirit of adventure, of challenging the old, and pushing the envelope of what can be done. The world should embrace the biological revolution, not cringe from it.