When Dr. Ian Wilmut published his recent research in a British scientific journal, he gave the world pause. Every forum from the CNN Web page to the late night FOX show, "Politically Incorrect," was buzzing about Dolly the now famous lamb clone that catapulted Wilmut into the spotlight.
The questions were quick and biting: "Do you have any idea of the implications of this research?" snapped one reporter. Is there anything sacred about life? Will humans be next?
That one lamb could spark so much debate and ethical insecurity is so startling as to be almost unbelievable.
Why are we so afraid of cloning? Why did President Clinton, after forming a commission to study the matter, unilaterally ban research funding for human cloning this week? And why are European leaders moving to take similar steps? Surely, we are not afraid of Wilmut, a humble scientist in Scotland who just wants to turn animals into milk and drug factories.
The truth is, we are afraid of cloning for very good reasons, but the possibility of human cloning is not really one of them. Wilmut touched a raw nerve in the public consciousness, but not because he threatens to duplicate people anytime in the near future.
We are still decades away from the prospect of creating human beings by injecting the DNA of a living person into an unfertilized egg. The challenges overcome by Dr. Wilmut pale in comparison to the obstacles presented by primates and people. Even optimistic scientists concede that creating Albert Einstein II is still a distant prospect (Never mind that Einstein is dead and cloning dead people will be even harder that duplicating their live counterparts).
Moreover, the cost of cloning is prohibitive. Even if we master the art of copying over favorite people, it will never be an efficient way of producing human beings. As one scientist put it, "it's far too expensive and a lot less fun than the original method."
Yet cloning scares the living daylights out of us. Cloning for many marks the end of all hope for any universal standard that limits our behavior.
When angry reporters ask about human cloning, they are really asking, "Is anything sacred anymore?"
As citizens of the twentieth century, we have seen the mixed blessings of the relentless march of scientific "progress." Science conquered polio, but it also gave us the atom bomb. We live in a time when scientific ingenuity lights up our eyes with wonder even as it frightens us with the prospect of technological terror. The stinging criticism of Dolly is in part the sigh of a world community exhausted by the ethical dilemmas presented by science in the last sixty years.
This cloning feat also comes at a time of intense globalization. It is harder for communities to define themselves, to set norms and to formulate a vision of the future independence of the new world order. As a result, fundamentalism is on the rise everywhere, and a resurgent religious movement in America seeks to establish through political power the values once bred in families and communities.
Dr. Wilmut's success is thrust upon all of us. Whether or not we approve of tampering with the fundamentals of life, there are people doing just that. Dolly triggers, perhaps irrationally, our fears that powerful ideas will make out future something we don't want it to be. Scientific discoveries have always done that, but this one comes with a sense of immediacy and at a time of growing concern that individual communities will be lost in a global economy.
We should all be afraid of human cloning. And we should all pray that God denies humans the knowledge to ever make it a reality.
But we should also realize the deeper fears inspired by Ian's little lamb. Without communities that uphold standards and that can transmit their values without resorting to hate, violence, or xenophobia, we may yet be scared by things less significant than little lambs.
Ethan M. Tucker's column appears on alternate Thursdays.