Skip to main content

After Dolly: the uses and abuses of human cloning – Ian Wilmut and Roger Highfield *****

More often than not, the most famous individual of an animal species is fictional (think Bugs Bunny, Wiley Coyote and Lassie), but ask most people to name a well-known sheep and they are likely to come up with a very real example – Dolly.
The first artificially cloned animal (though as you will find when reading the book, in one sense, at least, Dolly wasn’t a true clone) was inevitably going to have a lot of publicity surrounding it, and who better to tell the true story of what really happened, and how the scientists got to that stage, than Ian Wilmut, one of the lead scientists at the Roslin Institute where Dolly was produced.
Along the way you will find out fair amount about Wilmut’s personal history, and the many other animals who were in their own way just as important in the chain of discovery as Dolly, but never got the same levels of attention.
If the book had been just this – the inside story of Dolly’s production, life, death and fame – it would have been worth buying, but there is a lot more to it, as the title suggests. In fact the main focus of the book is not on animal cloning but on the much more contentious field of human cloning. Wilmut explores the different types of human cloning, and spends a lot of time on the nature of an embryo when it only consists of a few cells and on the ethics of working with these active human cells. As well as really explaining and exploring the nature and importance of stem cell research, Wilmut gives us the true picture of what would be involved in reproductive cloning – if scientists did produce a true, cloned human being. Not only does he cover the ethical side, he also looks at the practical difficulties, and concludes with most governments that reproductive human cloning should never be attempted. He is, however, very positive and persuasive (some world leaders could do to read this book) about the importance and acceptability of stem cell research.
This book is a real treat to read, and that reflects the combination of Ian Wilmut’s on-the-spot expertise and Roger Highfield’s experience as a professional science writer. So often a book by a scientist can make dull reading, but that’s not the case here. With Highfield’s guidance, Wilmut tells the story in an approachable, personal way and manages to combine his own story, the real facts about Dolly (which are almost always wrong in the press) and some worthwhile thinking on the rights and wrongs of different aspects of human cloning to make this a definitive book in the genre. Highly recommended.
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

Everything You Know About Space Is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

What we have here is a feast of assertions some people make about space that are satisfyingly incorrect, with pithy, entertaining explanations of what the true picture is. Matt Brown admits in his introduction that a lot of these incorrect facts are nitpicking - more on that in a moment - but it doesn't stop them being delightful. I particularly enjoyed the ones about animals in space and about the Moon.

Along the way, we take in space exploration, the Earth's place in space, the Moon, the solar system, the universe and a collection of random oddities, such as the fact that Mozart didn't write Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Sometimes the wrongness comes from a frequent misunderstanding. So, for example, Brown corrects the idea that Copernicus was the first to say that the Earth moves around the Sun. Sometimes there's some very careful wording. This is used when Brown challenges the idea that the Russian dog Laika was the first animal in space. What we discover is that, i…

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs - Lisa Randall ****

I did my PhD in galactic dynamics - which is an awkward subject when people want to know what its relevance to the 'real world' is. So I was excited when Clube and Napier's book The Cosmic Serpent came out, around the same time, because it provided me with a ready-made answer. It argued that the comets which occasionally crash into Earth with disastrous results - such as the extinction of the dinosaurs - are perturbed from their normal orbits by interactions with the large-scale structure of the galaxy.

I was reminded of this idea a few years ago when there was a flurry of media interest in Lisa Randall's "dark matter and the dinosaurs" conjecture. I was sufficiently enthusiastic about it to write an article on the subject for Fortean Times - though my enthusiasm didn't quite extend to purchasing her hardback book at the time. However, now that it's out in paperback I've remedied the situation - and I'm glad I did.

Dark matter is believed to exi…