Cloning Splits The Experts


Edited by Martha Nussbaum and Cass Sunstein

W.W. Norton

288 pp., $26.95


By Bryan Appleyard


208 pp., $23.95

As professor of public understanding of science at Oxford University in England, Richard Dawkins is a frequent commentator on scientific subjects such as cloning. He finds discussion among fellow scientists as well as experts in law and philosophy helpful. But the contribution of religious leaders in the debate over such issues has, so far, left Dawkins less than impressed.

Dawkins's views on religion and cloning appear in a new book of essays, Clones and Clones, edited by Martha Nussbaum and Cass Sunstein. He tells us that the opinions of religious leaders on scientific subjects are sought, not because of "their specialized knowledge or their proven ability to think intelligently and express themselves clearly," but rather "because all the religions ... have their point of view, and they all have to be represented lest their respective 'communities' feel slighted."

To support this low opinion, Dawkins cites his recent experience on a television show. On this occasion, a religious leader was asked "to spell out the harm that cloning might do." According to Dawkins, his only response was "that atomic bombs were harmful." Furthermore, "the representative of a rival religion on the same panel" seemed not to know that identical twins are effectively clones when he "voiced the common fear that a human clone would ... be a soulless automaton."

Unfortunately, not all the essays in this collection are as lively as the one by Dawkins. In the opening essay, five biologists, writing together, are able to be no clearer than this: "We suggested that inducing the donor cell to exit the growth phase causes changes in chromatin structure that facilitate reprogramming of gene expression and that development would be normal if nuclei are used from a variety of differentiated donor cells in similar regimes."

Despite Dawkins's reservations, religious views on cloning appear in a brief report from the US National Bioethics Advisory Commission. The result, however, is not a rousing rebuttal of the Oxford professor's low view of religion. In fact, beyond a general sense of alarm, the main impression left by this report is the substantial disagreement between religious traditions.

This impression is reinforced in an essay by David Tracy who recalls that the UN Declaration on Human Rights was passed in 1948 without reaching any agreement on why such rights were basic. "Jews and Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, Confucianists, and people of several indigenous religions found it possible to agree with the practical list of basic human rights - but each for their own ethical, metaphysical, or religious reasons."

Lack of relevant scientific knowledge as well as lack of ethical, metaphysical, and religious agreement are not the only barriers to public debate on cloning. According to British science writer Bryan Appleyard, most of the world is currently sleeping through a genetic revolution of extreme significance.

In order to waken and educate, Appleyard has written Brave New Worlds. Here, in clear and intelligent form is the crash course we all must have in order "to understand - and argue about - genetics now, before it is too late, and before our selves are irrevocably changed."

Appleyard will not please Richard Dawkins by trying to bring the public into the debate over cloning and related issues. Nevertheless, Appleyard sees these issues as too important to be left only to the experts. In support of a wider debate on genetic issues, Appleyard quotes American chemist Linus Pauling, who in 1949 suggested "that there should be tattooed on the forehead of every young person a symbol showing possession of the sickle-cell gene."

If Appleyard is right that we cannot leave such decisions to experts like Pauling, then we, the public, must let our views be known on genetic issues. To make a difference, however, we must have better information than the unfortunate religious leaders have that Dawkins ridicules. I can think of no better place to start than by reading Bryan Appleyard's slim volume.

Essays, such as those collected by Nussbaum and Sunstein, give us a way to listen in on the current debate over cloning. But Appleyard goes further and, in a compelling and readable way, shows us how and why we must get into this debate ourselves.

* David K. Nartonis does historical research for The First Church of Christ, Scientist in Boston.

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