Remembering Dolly the Sheep

The sheep called Dolly, the first viable clone to be made from an adult cell, was born at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh twenty years ago. Her birth was certainly a remarkable achievement, and the anniversary is understandably being celebrated this year at Roslin and elsewhere. Dolly herself died of Dollylung disease in 2003, and was donated to the National Museum of Scotland. There she was stuffed – it’s still done, evidently – and the result has recently been put into a new display in the Museum’s Science and Technology galleries, with associated salesmanship (“she’s a science superstar and one of our most iconic objects”). There she’ll stand, thus insulted, for the remainder of her material existence.

The research at the Roslin Institute, as at the Pirbright Institute spoken of in the previous post, is said to be “focussed on the health and welfare of animals”. In both cases this is largely a euphemism for new and better ways of putting animals to human use. Thus the Dolly research had as its main aim to breed animals which would produce human medicines in their milk. According to an anniversary article on the subject in last month’s Scientific American, “interest in that idea has declined with the rise of inexpensive synthetic chemicals” [‘Twenty Years after Dolly the Sheep Led the Way – Where is Cloning Now?’, 5 July 2016]. However, cloning apparently continues to interest people who make money from livestock. The same article quotes one cell biologist as saying “The benefits genomically for production excellence and driving up production parameters is very good”. In so far as one can see through that cloud of words, the meaning seems to be that cloning will make animals yet more useful and profitable to humans.

But whatever the immediate applications of the cloning success at Roslin, it was undoubtedly a momentous advance in science’s long-term ‘men like gods’ project (to use the phrase of H.G.Wells). And it’s in this connection that the choice of name for the sheep is somewhat ominous.

The sheep’s laboratory name, for purposes of identification, seems to have been ‘6LLS’. It was a very suitably opaque name for an animal whose identity was uncertain in a revolutionary way, and who would be making way for the exploitation of further millions of de-individualized sheep, cows, pigs, and others. It hints, too, in its suggestion of a series, at all the messy and painful failures which formed the history to that one successfully cloned animal (and which evidently continue to characterize cloning projects today).

However, for public use, the brilliant and ingenious scientific minds leading the research hit upon the more saleable name ‘Dolly’, facetiously connecting the mammary gland cell, from which the sheep was made, to the busty singer Dolly Parton. You couldn’t call this joke, if such it is (or leer perhaps), improper; it’s only puerile. While the research comes from the highest reaches of science, the joke comes straight from behind the bike sheds of human culture. An apocryphal extension to the joke, also enjoyed by these science giants, is that Dolly Parton’s agent, on being asked for permission to use the name, said that there was “no such thing as baaad publicity”. If the Roslin team’s science had been of a piece with its larger culture, as suggested by these forays into life outside the laboratory, they’d have been making stink bombs rather than clones.

Perhaps it would have been better if they had been. In such institutions as Roslin they are making new worlds which we shall all, including of course the animals, be obliged to be part of. In that sense, they are men and women like gods. It’s worth wondering how fit they are, or can be induced to be, for that elevation.

When the Liberal politician Norman Baker spoke to a VERO audience in Oxford last year [see VERO’s web-site, at http://www.vero.org.uk/events.asp], he began by expressing concern about the moral or emotional immaturity of many scientists. The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act of 1986, for which Mr Baker once had responsibility at the Home Office, is one way in which the larger national culture, such as it is, tries to keep scientists within the pale of its own hard-won humane values. Unfortunately we can’t rely on politicians to help in this sort of way; most of them are as easily dazzled by the prestige and futuristic promises of scientists as any other people. Here, for instance, are the words of a member of the 2001 House of Lords Select Committee set up to examine the working of that 1986 Act. He is commenting on the idea that animal researchers might respond to criticism by making more effort to explain and justify their work:

I think a lot of it [i.e. the criticism] is nothing to do with science but is to do with the sentimentality of the population as a whole … about dear little animals which is coupled with the sort of nature programmes which tend to encourage that kind of approach.

This helpful prompt allows the scientist giving evidence to the Committee at that moment to speak with modern science’s characteristically absolutist voice:

If I may just add, my Lord Chairman, I think there has become an increasing gulf and disconnect between the necessary exploitation of animals by man and this fluffy image.

The noble spokesperson for the national conscience in this case was a church minister, whose priestly caste used once to enjoy, for good or ill, the cultural authority which now belongs to science. The respondent giving evidence, and succinctly putting the case for scientific pragmatism, was a representative of Huntingdon Life Sciences, and is now Director of Veterinary Services in the laboratories of Oxford University.

Of course it’s too large a question to encompass in a blog-post, but by way of contrary illustration, here is a reminder of the sort of dis-interested attention to the living (including human) world on which Western culture at its best has always been founded. It’s the sculptor Henry Moore, explaining how he came to make his own studies of sheep:

These sheep often wandered up close to the window of the little studio I was working Sheep 1in. I began to be fascinated by them, and to draw them. At first I saw them as rather shapeless balls of wool with a head and four legs. Then I began to realize that underneath all that wool was a body, which moved in its own way, and that each sheep had its own character.

The art critic Kenneth Clark shows how art of this kind acts as a moral education:

We expect Henry Moore to give a certain nobility to everything he draws; but more surprising is the way in which these drawings express a feeling of real affection for their subject. It is no exaggeration to say that many of his sheep are drawn with love … We do not think of the brilliant technique. We think only of the sheep, and we grow to have an affection for them almost equal to that of Moore himself.

Of course I don’t offer drawings of sheep, or comments on them, or any of the art, literature and philosophy which constitute the ‘humanities’, as an alternative to the science of genetics. What they are, or ought to be, is the setting or condition for that and every other science. This is how the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch puts the case:

It is totally misleading to speak … of ‘two cultures’, one literary-humane and the other scientific, as if they were of equal status. There is only one culture, of which science, so interesting and so dangerous, is now an important part … We are men and we are moral agents before we are scientists, and the place of science in human life must be discussed in words.

Scientists have no special privileges in that discussion, or oughtn’t to have, and its quality and progress will be far more important to us in the long run than any of the wonders with which they meanwhile astonish the world.

 

References:

The official description of the Roslin Institute is from http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/research/institutes/.

The Scientific American article can be found at http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/20-years-after-dolly-the-sheep-led-the-way-where-is-cloning-now/.

For the cloning and naming of Dolly, as recounted by the people involved, see http://www.nature.com/news/dolly-at-20-the-inside-story-on-the-world-s-most-famous-sheep-1.20187.

The exchange from the House of Lords enquiry is from evidence taken on 10 July, question and answers 334 and 335, accessible at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld/ldanimal.htm.

Henry Moore’s Sheep Sketchbook is published by Thames and Hudson (1980).

The Iris Murdoch quotation comes from The Sovereignty of Good, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970, p.34. Other quotations are from the relevant web-sites.

The photograph of Dolly is used by courtesy of the Roslin Institute, the University of Edinburgh, U.K.

 

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