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Cloning: The Ultimate Human-Potential Movement | SCIENCE

Limitless Promise, Limited Delivery By John Horgan

March 02, 1997|John Horgan | John Horgan, a senior writer at Scientific American, is the author of "The End of Science" (Abrams)

NEW YORK — Early last week, a Scottish biologist named Ian Wilmut announced that he had extracted DNA from an adult ewe, inserted the DNA into the ovum of another sheep and induced the ovum to grow to term in the womb of a third animal. The first successful cloning of a mammal has triggered a frenzy of fretting by scientists, ethicists and other learned types about scientists "playing God." No less a sage than George Stephanopoulos intoned: "What this creates is the possibility of immortality."

But before we start conferring divine powers upon ourselves, we should put this claim in perspective. Wilmut tried to clone DNA from 277 sheep in all--and only one took. Until his feat is replicated, some experts caution, no one can be sure his technique really works. And even if sheep can be reliably cloned, the technique may not work in humans because of peculiarities of our embryonic development.

Still, let's assume that cloning humans turns out to be feasible. Given how few people are likely to take advantage of what would probably be a difficult and expensive procedure, it does not seem to merit so much hyperventilation. Many commentators simply find the notion of genetically matched humans to be extremely creepy. The millions of identical twins living around the world must be getting a little annoyed by now.

In the midst of all the hype over the cloning of Dolly, we may need a reminder of just how far we are from achieving truly Godlike mastery of our own flesh. By focusing almost exclusively on the advances of science, the media have credited science with much more power than it really has. Science has made little or no headway in crucial areas of research, and some of its reputed advances have proved to be illusory.

Take behavioral genetics, which seeks the genetic basis for various complex human traits and disorders. Over the past decade or so, the media have served up story after story proclaiming the discovery of genes "for" schizophrenia, manic depression, alcoholism, novelty-seeking and homosexuality.

These reports, like the case of the cloned lamb, inspired heated debates about what we will do with such knowledge. The homosexuality findings generated the most lurid speculation. Would a right-wing administration test people for homosexuality and exclude them from government service? Would straight couples abort fetuses with the "gay gene"? Would gay couples eliminate straight fetuses?

But these concerns may be moot, given that follow-up studies by other scientists have failed to corroborate the initial claims about gay genes. In fact, none of the claims involving genes for complex traits have, so far, held up to the scrutiny of other researchers. Unfortunately, the negative results, unlike the initial claims, are usually buried in the back pages of newspapers, if they are covered at all. So the public is left with a false impression of inexorable scientific progress.

To be sure, genuine progress has been made in finding genes associated with certain diseases, such as Huntington's chorea, cystic fibrosis, Lou Gehrig's disease and early-onset breast cancer. Tests are now available for identifying those who carry these genes and thus are likely or certain to contract the associated disease. But none of the promises of therapies based on this genetic knowledge have been fulfilled.

Cancer research poses a similar paradox. Since President Richard M. Nixon officially declared a "war on cancer" in 1971, the United States has spent some $30 billion on research. Scientists have taken enormous strides toward understanding how different types of cancer occur, and they have invented sophisticated methods for detecting the disease and tracking its course.

But mortality rates from cancer have remained, overall, virtually unchanged during that period--and, in fact, for the 50 or so years for which reliable data exist. All the research on cancer since 1971 has had a disproportionately minuscule impact on treatment. Basically, physicians still cut cancer out with surgery, poison it with chemotherapy or burn it with radiation. Maybe, someday, all our research will yield a "cure" that will render cancer as obsolete as polio and smallpox. Maybe not. Maybe cancer is simply too complex a problem to solve.

Science has also made pitifully little progress at understanding our fantastically complicated and often troubled minds. To be sure, researchers have acquired powerful tools for probing the brain, with microelectrodes, magnetic resonance imaging and positron-emission tomography. But all this work has failed to yield either a powerful new theory of the mind or truly effective treatments for its assorted disorders.

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