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Book reviews: Stem cells, enhancement and cloning

Genetic Crossroads
August 4th, 2006

Stem Cell Wars
by Eve Herold (2006)

Stem Cell Wars is noteworthy for its almost-insider account of the unraveling of the Korean cloning scandal. Eve Herold, director of public policy research and education for the Genetics Policy Institute, visited Korea in October 2005 for the opening of the World Stem Cell Hub. When University of Pittsburgh stem cell researcher Gerald Schatten publicly withdrew from the consortium in November, a senior aide to Dr. Woo Suk Hwang asked Herold to return to help with communications with the English-language press.

Nine of the book's eleven chapters, however, give an unashamedly partisan account of the controversies over embryonic stem cell research.

Herold focuses on the hopes of patients and repeats the often exaggerated promises of stem cell researchers; those familiar with the field are not her real audience. Her writing about history and science is perfectly adequate—always bearing in mind her point of view—but her vignettes about people are vivid and often sharp. These include not only suffering patients but also, for example, participants in the Clonaid court hearings in Miami in early 2002, and DC antagonists like Weldon and Brownback.

In Seoul, Herold used her considerable powers of observation. She questions the health of the cloned dog Snuppy, largely because of its reserved behavior, and conveys her initial bewilderment that the egg scandal provoked such an intense reaction from the scientific team. Surely they must have more to hide that that, she thought, if they were so frantic. Of course, they did, and they soon closed ranks to freeze out the foreigner.

Herold does not pretend to give an in-depth account of the Hwang debacle, which already somewhat unbalances this book. But she does give a sense of the personalities and culture, of the lab and of the country, and thus of the forces that drove it.

Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontiers of Life
Lee M. Silver (2006)

Lee Silver's new book is a missed opportunity. Silver is a Princeton professor with a background in mouse genetics who caused a stir with his 1997 book, Remaking Eden. Provocative and conversational in its assertion of the inevitability of using biotechnology to manipulate future generations, its terms "GenRich" and "Naturals" neatly encapsulated the possibility of an entrenched genetic aristocracy.

Silver managed to parlay these jaw-dropping scenarios into a moderately high-profile second career as a prognosticator. He appeared numerous times on television and in the pages of newsweeklies and other publications, and acquired various prestigious titles, most notably at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Challenging Nature seems designed to buttress these credentials. In it, Silver attempts to analyze the belief systems of biotechnology critics. Unfortunately—to quote Nicholas Wade in the New York Times—he "may have unnecessarily restricted his audience to those already converted by using the bludgeon as his weapon of choice." That's being kind. Virtually the whole book is an assault upon a straw target of Silver's own creation, spiced with irrelevant criticisms of outdated examples of unscientific thinking.

He is notably unfair, disingenuous and sloppy. He describes developmental biologist Stuart Newman, for instance, only as a left-wing or anti-biotech activist, never mentioning his scientific credentials. He misrepresents several scandals in the field of agricultural biotech. Some of his quotes are mangled; some of his citations are wrong.

Astonishingly, he quotes Dr. Woo Suk Hwang as a Buddhist without mentioning the cloning scandal. And on the same page, separated only by a sub-head, is a quote that Silver proceeds to ridicule, which begins: "Truth, famously the first casualty of war, is now falling victim to the latest skirmish in the biotech wars." Irony does not seem to be his strong suit.

If Silver had spent some time examining his own "truths," he might have been able to say something interesting about them. But he didn't—that is the real missed opportunity. Instead, he wrote a really bad book about what he thinks other people think.

After Dolly: The Uses and Misuses of Human Cloning
Ian Wilmut and Roger Highfield (2006)

Ian Wilmut's After Dolly is a timely reconsideration of the science, politics, and ethics leading up to and surrounding Dolly the sheep, the first mammal cloned from an adult cell. In many respects, the first half of the book is the E! True Hollywood Story version of how cloning came to tickle the public's imagination; it revisits the background stories and personal melodramas that led to Dolly's emergence as a pop culture icon.

Wilmut writes as an eminent embryologist and cloning researcher, but draws heavily on his father's battle with diabetes to humanize the science. He anticipates a day when cloning and gene transfer techniques will allow scientists to "treat" an embryo genetically predisposed to disease. Put another way, Wilmut argues that cloning can serve humanity through germline engineering—that is, through "fixing" disabilities at an embryonic stage to ensure that these corrections are passed down in perpetuity.

Wilmut is not in the transhumanist camp. He strongly condemns efforts at human reproductive cloning, and has similar objections against creating enhanced designer babies. "[E]nhancement would be an experiment," he writes. "I find it unacceptable to experiment on children. I believe that we ought to accept ourselves and our children for what they are, rather than attempting to breed an improved race of human beings."

Wilmut's unwillingness to apply his own reasoning to other biotechnologies is both peculiar and disappointing. Though his opposition to human enhancement is surely genuine, he is ready to put his considerable reputation on the line in favor of opening the Pandora's Box of human germline engineering.

It's odd that Wilmut opposes human reproductive cloning out of concern that there are more acceptable and safer ways to reproduce, yet embraces inheritable genetic modification (IGM) to "treat" disabilities. He discusses neither the experimentation on children that IGM would inevitably entail, nor the effects it would have on people with disabilities, nor the unprecedented social risks that controlling the genetic make-up of future generations would pose.

In spite of embracing a technology that many consider one of the most consequential on the horizon, After Dolly recognizes the need for public oversight of technoscience. Wilmut notes that "past events warn us of the very real danger of tragic consequences if developments in reproductive technology escape regulation" and that these technologies are "too important to leave to the scientists, the clinicians, or even the prospective parents." Too important, indeed.


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