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Hello Dolly

CLONE: The Road to Dolly and the Path Ahead.\o7 By Gina Kolata (William Morrow: 276 pp., $23)\f7

April 26, 1998|ROBERT LEE HOTZ | Robert Lee Hotz is a Times science writer

No single story from the annals of science claimed more public attention last year than the tale of the Scottish scientist who became the first in history to clone an adult mammal. The creation of Dolly, as sheep 6LL6 became known to the public, by Ian Wilmut at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh was science's newest challenge to fundamental notions of existence.

As an unprecedented demonstration of human control over nature, it prompted awe. As a symbol of the hubris implicit in such control, it triggered second thoughts. Whatever its ultimate scientific or commercial importance, the unsettling reality of cloning--the ability to cultivate an entire being from a single adult cell in an act of asexual reproduction--undercut a human faith in the uniqueness of individual identity, even though it is not possible to duplicate human personality or the life experience that produces it.

Public surprise was electric. A tabloid fever infected press coverage. Many stories were oddly off-point about the implications of the breakthrough, lingering, for example, over the biology of identical twins while paying little attention to the fierce commercial forces driving the discovery. Yet ethicists have been brooding about the prospect of cloning since the early 1970s. Such uneven reactions from the press and the public appear to arise from a crippling credulity about cloning. Conditioned perhaps by too much fiction, the public has embraced science as a special effect, with little appreciation for its gritty technical limitations or the economics that shape it.

Indeed, news of Dolly was the third time in a decade that the popular press announced the advent of cloning, based on a series of incremental advances in reproductive cell biology since scientists first cloned frogs in 1962. As early as 1988, one distinguished American science writer pronounced solemnly, though somewhat prematurely: "The age of cloned mammals has arrived." Just four years ago, cloning again was the stuff of headlines when a team of Georgetown University researchers claimed, incorrectly, to have cloned four dozen human embryos: Their procedure involved little more than artificially dividing cells with a razor. And in January, an elderly Chicago physicist named Richard Seed triggered a national media furor simply by telling a radio reporter about his half-baked proposal to clone humans.

So if normally skeptical journalists, jaded by a succession of poseurs, fakers and failed experimenters, were breathless in their coverage of Dolly, it may have stemmed from the realization that cloning--declared impossible by so many scientists for so many years--had been truly achieved. And, by the same token, if the public seemed unprepared, it might simply be that, like townspeople who have heard the false cry of "wolf" so many times, they were caught off guard when the cries of alarm were finally true.

In a more welcome vein, the first in what promises to be a series of books examining the implications of cloning has been published. "Clone: The Road to Dolly and the Path Ahead," by New York Times reporter Gina Kolata, lucidly separates science fact from fiction, reconstructs the history of scientific developments that led to Dolly's creation and offers a thoughtful overview of the potential pitfalls attending the discovery.

With skill and dispatch, Kolata has written what, when the true import of this discovery becomes clear in years to come, may well be regarded as a crucial first chapter in the most important science story of the next century. She is at her best detailing how scientists themselves, blinded by their own insistence that cloning could never be done, ignored growing evidence that cloning was rapidly becoming a technical reality.

This is a book that grows out of Kolata's daily newspaper coverage. Its virtues are those of effective deadline journalism: It is fast off the mark, accurate, diligent and comprehensive.

Yet its flaws arise from the same root: Too often it is one-dimensional and reads as if dictated under pressure. Indeed, its most serious flaw is that it was written while the headlines from which it was drawn were still being parsed by pundits. Kolata was too busy covering the events that form its subject to offer any broader insight into their meaning. Through no fault of its own, the book cannot begin to convey how these events will eventually affect humankind: This is a story that has only begun to unfold.

Certainly, the publisher wasted no time in pushing the account into print, no doubt to capitalize on the imprimatur of The New York Times before the public's fascination with the story waned, by promising to offer something more than what Kolata has already delivered to her newspaper readers.

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