Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Dog Clone, or the Mystery of Hwang Woo Suk

The University of Seoul investigatory committee released its report on Hwang Woo Suk today on his in February 2004 that he had successfully cloned a human embryo and his August 2005 unveiling of Snuppy, the "cloned Afghan. " The '04 paper was a fabrication, but Snuppy is for real, apparently. It's early and the reports are incomplete, but the ccommittee seems not to have been quite unitedd on that one. The committee will have to explain the poor dog can be a clone with question mark, but the caveat, born less of scientific uncertainty, I suspect, than of deep, justified human skepticism that anything Hwang does can be honest. They are liable to remain that way until someone else clones another dog using Hwang's technique. But Hwang's supporters will proclaim that the world rushed to judgment and that he has now been vindicated, redeemed---and from what he has said to date to the media, Hwang might well be in the forefront of this effort. Their argument will be that the techniques are the same for cloning dogs and people.

Putting the best face forward, the committee has given Hwang ambivalent endorsement for one-third of his spectacular scientific firsts. It is half a redemption, a redemption interruptus, as it were, that leaves Hwang an enigma wrapped in paradox, cloaked in the fog of ambiguity that many Americans find unsettling. Why do such a thing? In many way it's easier to understand the person who would fabricate everything, at least for me, than the one who, having achieved something remarkable, decides to start taking short cuts, to cheat, especially since, once exposed, the fraud colors everything that person produces, forever.

Saying that, I remind myself that reality is invariably stranger than fiction--and more complicated and messy. Reality doesn't follow a simple, straightforward narrative line--that's something people impose. I'm not very fond of simple "narratives" myself, although, like everyone else, I latch onto them. It's easier to make someone like Hwang a brilliant scientist or a charlatan, than to recognize him as both of those and much more--and, on top of that, a product of several cultures that are in combination, if not individually, mysterious to us--those of South Korea, western science in general, and international reproductive medicine, to name three. Then there is the question of why so many people swallowed his fabrications.

He's thoroughly 21st century, let's say, to pigeon hole him--so ambitious that no amount of fame, glory, or money was enough. But to begin to get at such a character and how he was able to rocket through what by self-profession is an inherently skeptical discipline--science--we have to reject the contemporary American and British obsession with "traditional" narrative, with simple story telling, and turn to the masters of modernism for inspiration. They understood that in the age of relativity and quantum mechanics and psychoanalysis, in a world already made smaller by communication and travel, in which time and space collapsed on themselves, "reality" could only be partly captured through multiple perspectives., multiple narratives that coalesce in a particular time and place, each woven of multiple other narratives. The need to find a way in writing to "clarify," as opposed to "simplify," has never been greater, but the forces being exerted against that approach have also never been greater--by lazy critics and readers and pandering, celebrity and bottom-line obsessed publishers.

(I'm jetting off for a few days; forgive the typos.)

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