Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Cloned Canine

We have bamboo in our backyard, and, like all bamboo--as far as I know--it reproduces clonally. Each new shoot is genetically a carbon copy--except for the glitches, an unknown number--of every other shoot in this stand and others. But each one is different, not only because of those errors in copying but also because they were formed and broke into light of day under different circumstances. I think of that bamboo whenever I read a new article about the next animal or plant that some hotshot geneticist somewhere has cloned. Today's news is full of the South Korean scientist, Woo Suk Hwang, and his lab at Seoul National University. They cloned an Afghan hound, no less, and named it Snuppy [Seoul National University puppy--cute]. The scientific communication is in Nature (subscription required).

Gina Kolata
, writing in the New York Times, calls their feat, "the Mount Everest of cloning." Initially, I thought the statement what I called in my editing days "hyperbolic exaggeration"--bad writing of the worst sort--but then I realized that it was, in fact, a runaway metaphor, one of those cases where the author says something they don' t intend, and that something, although the opposite of what they intended, is right on. Thus, Kolata presumably meant to praise the Korean work as heroic, forgetting that George Mallory when asked in 1924 why he wanted to climb Everest, reportedly replied, "Because it is there." Nothing "heroic" about that--maybe imperialistic, but not heroic.

Mallory died on the mountain's slopes, and now, 52 years after Tenzig and Hillary made the summit, the well marked routes to the top have become thoroughfares cluttered with climbers, littered with garbage and corpses. Similarly, the path toward a cloned dog is littered with rejected eggs, embryos, and expectations, not to mention dogs.

There are now more reasons not to climb Everest than there are to climb it, yet each year, base camp becomes more crowded because as "the world's highest peak," it remains the "ultimate" climbing challenge in the eyes of many. Call it the homogenization of experience--the end of diversity in adventure and exploration--as surely as cloning is an assault on genetic diversity--the driving force behind evoluion for most plants and animals, including humans. Sexual reproduction, involving, as it does, the mixing of genes is, at times, a sloppy process. but slop is more interesting than sameness.

Cloning is the genetic equivalent of having to wear the same clothes as everyone else; it's the scientific manifestation of the unfortunate trend of putting the same"branded" shops in every community in the world. Cloning is the enemy of diversity. Most people in the media can't even begin to make that connection.

What's the point to cloning a dog, then? First, bragging rights for the people who did it--no small thing. Second, refining the techniques for cloning humans. A world-class geneticist told me some years ago that the only reason for learning to clone the dog, was to master techniques for cloning a human, and to make cloning more acceptable! If my beloved Dawg, why not me? Hwang Woo Suk and his colleagues say that they want to use cloned dogs to study diseases in humans and dogs and that they would never clone a human. The Koreans might not, but people elsewhere want to be the first on their block to clone humans, for both the glory and the notoriety.

There is no reason to clone, where it is not the natural form of reproduction. Cloning is the ultimate limit on diversity. Selling it as some sort of resurrection of a lost pet is wrong; it plays upon people's naive genetic notions and nostalgia, for like my bamboo shoots, the two will not be the same. Claiming that cloning the dog will lead inevitably to the cure for diseases common to humans and dogs is bogosity, a play on people's emotions to justify something that shouldn't even merit a "yuk test." There certainly are no grounds other than propaganda for saying it will have any lasting scientific merit.

People want to clone in order to prove they can manipulate the forces of evolution. They probably can't, but even if they could, it must be said that judging from the mess people have made of purebed dogs, there are more good reasons to ban cloning of any sort, than to allow it.

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