Reactionaries attack science

Like a bad rash, ‘Frankenstein’s Syndrome’ has infected the media, if not the nation, once again. The trigger for this round of science-phobia was the news that scientists at the Roslin Institute - in tandem with the biotechnological company, PPL - had ‘cloned’ a sheep.

It was only a short step from this announcement to front page articles in the Daily Mail, splashed with the headline: “Could we now raise the dead?” (February 28). A full parliamentary debate was demanded. By Tuesday last week the Nobel Prize-winning British physicist, Joseph Rotblatt, was warning of the dangers of these “dreadful developments”.

Despite the ludicrous hoo-ha, and the hyper-inflated claim by Chinese geneticist Zhang Jaming - and later by US president Bill Clinton - that the creation of Dolly the sheep is the equivalent to the discovery of nuclear fusion, what actually occurred at the Roslin Institute was quite a simple affair - which is not to diminish its potential significance either. They had managed to use a cell from an adult sheep to create a baby clone. This was achieved by ‘turning off the genetic mechanisms that control cell division, thus making it possible to then remove the nucleus of an egg taken from a ewe and effectively replace it with the nucleus of a different cell, one taken from the udder of another adult sheep. Put like that, it does not sound particularly sinister.

But this has not stopped the ‘we should not play god’ chorus - as if we do not ‘play god’ every time we turn on the radio in the morning and tuck hungrily into our Weetabix, not to mention going on the train or bus to work. Since when has Weetabix and Rice Crispies developed naturally? More importantly, humanity - the human race - can only exist and sustain itself by ‘playing god’. As the apparently controversial scientist, Richard Dawkins, observes in his brilliant book The blind watchmaker:

“Left to itself ... the body tends to revert to a state of equilibrium with its environment ... More generally, if living things didn’t work actively to prevent [equilibrium], they would eventually merge into their surroundings, and cease to exist as autonomous beings. This is what happens when they die” (London 1991, p10).

However, the most genuinely alarming aspect of the ‘Dolly scare’ has been the reaction to this scientific breakthrough - which has largely been characterised by a quasi-superstitious mixture of genetic determinism, notions of predestiny and ‘it’s all in the blood’ ideas of human nature. Daily Mail-type fears that ‘mad boffins’ will soon be able to ‘raise’ or recreate Adolf Hitler - or Deng Xiaoping perhaps - are all predicated on the irrational, and profoundly reactionary notion that the ‘essence’ of Hitler (or Deng) is to be found in DNA cells, and hence merely replicated in a test tube.

This is all nonsense of course. There can never be another Adolf Hitler because - quite simply - he is dead. He was the product of a unique set of social/cultural/political circumstances that can never be repeated - even with the aid of a time machine (as yet uninvented). All human beings, as Marx put it, are the products of a “social ensemble”, of their social environment, not clusters of DNA.

Therefore, sub-sci-fi(ish) nightmares about a race of identical human beings are paranoid, backward and anti-scientific. Even if at some point in the future it was possible to ‘clone’ an exact copy of yourself, you would be in for a big disappointment or a pleasant surprise: your ‘twin’ would develop into a totally different human being, clone or no clone. This explains the jocular and eminently sane comments of Dawkins in The Guardian, who cheerfully confessed that he would like to be cloned:

“Mightn’t it feel almost like turning back your personal clock 50 years? And wouldn’t it be wonderful to advise your junior copy on where you went wrong and how to do it better?” (March 2).

Of course, not all the fears and doubts expressed are manifestations of superstition and science-phobia. The current research is, predictably, motivated and funded by commercial interests. Science in the service of profit is an alienated science and hence such science can be turned against humanity and the common good. The research at the Roslin Institute, for instance, has been propelled by hard financial/commercial interests, not out of an idealistic love of science and human knowledge (which is not to say though that such an urge was entirely absent amongst the individual scientists). The main consequence of the work and experimentation at Roslin will be to affect the world of agriculture. ‘Cloning’ animals is a powerful means for standardising products - ie, animals in this case. We already have rows of identical vegetables and fruit in the supermarkets. So, from the point of view of capital and profit, why not animals as well?

But a healthy suspicion about the motives of the scientific-technocratic community and their backers should not lead us to blindly reject the actual science itself. American scientists have genetically changed pig milk to produce human protein C, an anti-coagulant that is used to control clotting. It could also eliminate the risks of contamination with the HIV or Hepatitis C virus. In the Netherlands researchers have produced a treatment for the genetic disorder, Pompe’s disease, using milk from rabbits. There is also the exciting possibility that in the relatively near future gene and ‘cloning’ technology will be able to cure, limit or drastically alleviate terrible and painful conditions like breast cancer, cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s chorea and heart diseases, to name just a few.

We should not be afraid of such technology, like Stone Age men and women staring fearfully at fire from their dark and cold caves. Communists aim to place science and technology under the control of the whole of society, in the interests of society, not leave it in the commanding hands of the bourgeoisie and the profit margin.

Eddie Ford