by MERLIN CROSSLEY
About 25 years ago the first sheep was cloned. A lamb had been created using DNA taken from an adult sheep’s mammary gland. It was named Dolly, after the famous singer Dolly Parton.
Dolly the Sheep lived happily and had six lambs of her own. This time sired by a Welsh Mountain Ram, called David. Dolly experienced a number of minor health concerns but subsequent work in sheep cloning has suggested that cloned animals can have normal health and a good outlook.
Over the years a number of other animals have been cloned. The first cat was nicknamed Copy Cat and a dog called Snuppy was produced in Korea. It’s sort of understandable that families might want to clone their most loved pets, but I’ve never met anyone who has organised this.
There are isolated reports of cloning being achieved in other species. But these days animal cloning is rare. In 2015 it was banned in the European Union. Human cloning is also illegal and has never, to my knowledge, been seriously contemplated. Plants, on the other hand, are cloned routinely by taking cuttings.
Despite the expectations of many, cloned monsters don’t roam the planet. They are like hoverboards and teleporters. They exist in our imagination and films. They are talked about by futurists. The reality is that cloning is just too hard.
Dolly was generated as part of a project which included nearly 300 unsuccessful attempts – the other embryos didn’t develop properly so were never born. No one has succeeded in improving the technology, and there really isn’t much incentive to do so. The scientific insights were spectacular and showed that DNA could be reprogrammed, but in practice the technology was not a success.
Over the years I have seen optimists become wildly excited about what they see as “exponential technologies” that they argue will explode. For example, CRISPR-gene editing has arrived, so very soon we will be able to modify any – yes – any living thing. In reality, it’s going to be hard to modify sperm whales and even if we tried, we’d struggle to know what modification to introduce.
Let’s say you could change one gene in yourself or in your unborn child with CRISPR. What gene would you choose?
You can probably only answer that question if your family has a known genetic disease. Otherwise, you will be like a town planner with a small grant trying to improve the city of Sydney. You would do well if you chose to repair a pothole but would find it difficult to do more and would, quite rightly, worry about the unintended consequences of blocking off a particular road or building a new bridge.
Knowledge is power but there are some things that are technologically complicated and hard. Cloning is hard. Transplant surgery is hard. Cancer treatment is hard. Hoverboards are hard. Town planning is hard. CRISPR genome editing is hard. Despite the temptation to be inspired by optimism, often it pays to remember that sometimes progress is slow and occasionally failure is written in the stars.
It’s important to accept failure and doing this can help us work together. When we look at those in power, responsible for solving hard problems, we often frame their failures around human weakness – the flawed hero, brought down by their own hubris. But sometimes the tasks of Hercules are simply too much. When the odds are never in your favour, no one’s winning streak lasts for long.
Politics is hard. Think of any leader around the world, past or present (particularly one you didn’t vote for!). All can be criticised. Many political careers end in failure. Kings and emperors seldom died in their sleep. No one is perfect, but were all these people so deeply flawed?
Excessive optimism and high expectations are contagious, and the spirit can inspire us to commit to leaps of faith that sometimes deliver miracles. But zeal can also prevent us from adapting to failure and can make us waste time on lost causes or distract us into preparing for absurd scenarios that will never eventuate. Hype is a bad thing. Cloning was a scientific triumph. But as a technology it never delivered – possibly to the relief of many.
Nevertheless, it has taught us an important lesson. Science can achieve great things but not always. We should be cautious. Not only of the power of science, but also of the power of exaggeration and we should be wary of “promisers”, and “snake oil sellers” who over-state benefits and inflate dangers.
And we should accept the fact that sometimes the best thing is not to expect paradigm shifts, but to calmly go back to the drawing board to gradually, incrementally, work on complex solutions to complex problems.
Professor Merlin Crossley
Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic