When the cloning of Dolly the lamb was announced last February, it loosed a babble of wildly uninformed debate. The thousand-dollar question was whether humans could be cloned, and everyone who could find an interested talk-show host had an opinion on whether they should be.
Gina Kolata's "Clone" is the book we might have wished all those overnight experts had for homework. Kolata traces the history of cloning from the first manipulations of fertilized eggs in the early part of the century to the corporate-funded livestock breeding projects that eventually produced Dolly. Designed for the reader who possesses more interest than expertise, her tale is a comfortable blend of distilled scientific explanations, gossipy anecdotes and philosophical head scratching.
Kolata, a science reporter for the New York Times and author of several books, is an expert at mixing this brew. She's got the popular-science writer's knack of hinting at all sorts of fascinating complexities without belittling the average reader. Just when a minute discussion of "blastocysts" and "appended blebs" has you flailing, she'll toss in a description of the backstage politicking at Nature magazine or the "shock of light brown hair flopping over" the brow of "near-mythical" scientist Steen Willadsen.
Her tale of the history of cloning is equally reassuring. She sketches a compelling picture of the myopic world of modern science, where researchers labor over absurdly circumscribed areas of study and the direction of advancement is determined not by scientists' priorities, but by where the money is. Ian Wilmut, the man who cloned Dolly, was himself funded by a company that wanted to breed animals to produce drugs inside their bodies -- he calls them "living drug factories." When Kolata asks him about the implications of Dolly's creation, he simply says, "This is my work. It has always been my work, and it doesn't have anything to do with creating copies of human beings."
Wilmut and his fellows' blinkered outlook may be due to science's long-standing discomfort with ethical concerns. Kolata notes that the field of scientific ethics didn't even emerge until the late '60s, and then it was driven by public outcry over scandals like the Tuskegee experiments, in which syphilitic black men were monitored without being treated. Scientists themselves distrusted and disdained ethics for years. One of Kolata's interviewees, a founder of the Institute of Society, Ethics and the Life Sciences, remembers having "no budget, no endowment. [The institute] literally existed hand-to-mouth."
The upshot of all this is the implication that no one is more qualified to weigh the ethics of cloning than the "Clone" reader himself. Kolata feeds this in her concluding chapter, "The Path Ahead," where she outlines several conceivable developments from Wilmut's breakthrough and sketches the ethical dimensions of each. Here, again, the reader's comfort is paramount; the dilemmas discussed are strictly of the "My, how interesting!" variety. We're told that cloning could help families desperate to have children, for example, and several philosophers weigh in on the humanity of cloned fetuses. But Kolata never asks whether it's ethical to invest in state-of-the-art fertility tricks when a global population crisis looms.
And that, finally, is the secret of cloning's fascination: It lets us exult in a godlike freedom from consequence. Separated by its newness from the realm of the practical, it gives us a golden opportunity to indulge our fear of, and titillation at, science itself. Kolata's democratic attempt to empower the lay reader unintentionally fosters such fantasies. But fortunately, there's nothing wrong with dreaming.