A Psychologist Talks with Dr. Ian Wilmut
By Alma H. Bond, Ph.D. (AlmaBond@compuserve.com)
What is it like to be Dr. Ian Wilmut, the first scientist in the world to clone an adult mammal? Is he pleased with Dolly the sheep or is he sorry he thought of the whole thing? Does he believe science will ever be able to clone human beings? What does he think of the idea? Is any scientist working on cloning of human beings now? I e-mailed Dr. Wilmut to ask if I could come to Scotland and interview him to find out some answers to my questions.. He responded with a request that I tell him a little more about my interests generally and specifically in cloning.
I answered that I am a psychologist who is concerned with how
development comes about, and who thinks we have a great deal to learn in
that respect from the growth and maturation of human clones. I added that I would like to write a book for sophisticated laymen on the Nature-Nurture debate, or (possibly) a novel in which I can contrast the similarities and differences that might occur between the young and the old “twins.”
Dr. Wilmut responded with an invitation to visit him at Roslyn the next week. Although I was delighted to accept, I wondered why this famous man who is bombarded with requests for interviews agreed to see me. I was not to discovered why until late in the interview.
I drove up a nondescript country road that looked like nothing
important had ever happened there. I saw only one rough sign, indicating
where store supplies should be delivered. It turned out that the “store
supplies” were not the kind I anticipated. “Where are the T-shirts and
little plastic Dollies cloned out by machines?” I wondered. The main
building was of a prefabricated variety, of the kind plunked down in the
60s; neither modern enough to predict the future nor old enough to have any kind of history. It could easily serve as the headquarters of a light bulb manufacturer in the United States.
The waiting room with its plastic chairs and walls of faux wood
could belong to any young doctor in the United States. Many bulletin boards were bedecked with blown up copies of scientific papers: none was about or authored by Dr. Wilmut. One was entitled, Osteoporosis in Laying Hens Has a Strong Genetic Component.
Dr. Wilmut was an hour late for our appointment, as he was detained at a meeting. A pleasant-looking balding man of 55, he has a round face framed by a small beard. He is of medium height, with a sturdy-looking physique. Wearing rimless glasses, he was in shirt sleeves and tie. He looks as if he could be a high school teacher.
As if on cue, he began to speak as soon as we sat down in his
small, sparsely furnished office.
I.W.: I don’t think cloning is a fair thing to do to a child. I
cannot foresee that you could have normal relationships in a family with a cloned person in it. I have three children of my own and a grandchild. Let’s say my wife and I were in our mid 30’s and copied me. You could get a perfectly normal person who has been cloned, but I can’t believe a parent could treat a copy as they do other children. I know that we place expectations on every child, but they would be different for a clone. I can’t believe that you could design an appropriate environment for a child living with parents if he knows he is a copy. For instance, by the time the guy was 20, he would know what he was going to be looking like at age 59.
There are so many things I would like to talk about with my father, who died three years ago. When I was younger, I did not perceive the similarities between us. Even now it surprises me at times when I see a trait in me that I didn’t detect in him. If I knew I was a copy, I wouldn’t have this sense of discovery. In the abstract, however, it is possible that a child raised in a different family could make for a perfectly normal situation. It’s not an end of the world state of affairs. I just don’t think it would be good for the child.
Half the cloned pregnancies that we start fail, one fifth of the
lambs die. They have abnormalities, birth defects. We couldn’t risk doing that to a human child. If you read in the papers that the animals cloned by other scientists are free of birth defects, don’t believe them. We are aiming towards it, but who knows when it will happen. We start a lot of pregnancies which seem perfectly normal even when seen through ultrasound, but then the lambs die.
There is no form of infertility that can be cured only by cloning. You need an egg and sperm from a donor to produce a clone, just as you with other reproductive methods. I don’t see why anyone needs to clone a human child.
As far as selective breeding is concerned, part of the problem would be that the copy would turn out to be unlike the original. The mitochondria of the egg donor have different DNA in them, and the environment and the times are completely different, so the original and the clone might be quite dissimilar. The events in the life of the new person would be different from those that helped shape the character of the first one. This would make for tension between them. Some people think that by cloning they can improve the intelligence or the character of their children. That is fallacious thinking. You couldn’t know the outcome of those traits in advance. We have so many genes that interact in unknown ways that the child might turn out to be of mediocre intelligence or an absolute bastard. You couldn’t raise a daughter to be Mother Theresa. She could turn out to be a criminal. Cloning a famous athlete might result in getting a violinist instead.
I can understand the motivation to bring back a dead child. But
people who want to be cloned in their search for immortality are practicing self-deception. Their genes would be passed down, but not their personality. This is not immortality. In an academic sense, cloning a human being is an interesting idea, but it is not fair to experiment with people. We would be taking a risk in cloning a child.
A.B.: Nothing in life is risk-free. Aren’t we asking too much of an innovation when we insist on a perfect outcome? It seems to me that if you can get the same percentage of healthy children by cloning as in normal births, there would be no reason not to do it on that account. If you are worried about people not doing justice to the cloned child, why couldn’t we have strict rules and restrictions about who is fit to raise a cloned child, such as people have to go through for an adoption?
I.W. (Taken aback.) It is very unusual to have an American talking about regulations. Usually if you can afford to pay for something you’ve got it.
A.B. What do you think about regulated cloning?
I.W. For the same reasons society does regulate adoption, society should also think about cloning. But if they did regulate it, they probably would be against it. The only reason I can think of for cloning a human being would be to make a copy of a very young child that dies. I am very uncomfortable with any others.
A.B. Do you think there are scientists who are now working on
human cloning in secret?
I.W. No. Certainly people are thinking about producing cells and tissues of humans but not a complete person. Have you ever heard a
reputable scientist saying he would clone a human being?
A.B. Isn’t it possible that some scientists who are in favor of
cloning people are afraid to come out and say so publicly? It is not
politically correct, and they would risk losing their reputations. How
about Lee Silver, the Princeton professor of Microbiology? In his book
Remaking Eden he comes out very much in favor of cloning.
I.W. He is not a clinical scientist, but teaches ethics. Silver’s opinion is not based on reality. For example, let’s say you have a lesbian couple who want to have a child together. They each get inseminated . You mix their embryos and get a chimera. Did you ever see a chimera? If one of the women was blond and the other dark, you would get a person full of patches of different color hair. (He opens a book and holds up a picture of a white mouse who looked as if it were splattered with black paint.) The child would look like this, with strands of dark hair mixed in with the blond. They are not going to be able to hide the patches. If the child were formed by mixing black and Caucasian embryos, you would get a person with patches of black and white skin. Also, the child of that chimera is going to be the child of only one of the women, and the grandchild will be the descendant of only one of them. I dislike the entire concept of the market taking over reproduction. I find it deeply offensive. When I was a young father we had salesmen come to our doors selling encyclopedias. They
said, “Buy this book to give your child an advantage.” I wouldn’t want to see children designed by parents as another way to raise superior children. I am appalled that Silver speaks that way in an academic book. I sometimes wonder if he isn’t trying to provoke people to find out whether they really would use this technique.
I think the biggest inheritance from the Dolly experiment will be to provide cells to treat diseases like Parkinsons and Diabetes, which will repair damage to cells that are unable to repair themselves. We all startedas one microorganism that divided at times. The view used to be that you couldn’t take a cell back to its origin, where it was still dividing. In the next 50 years we will find ways of making them go back to their beginnings. In a patient with diabetes, a clinician will be able to take a cell from him or her and correct it to repair the diabetes.
A.B. With Dolly, you took the cells back to their beginning by
I.W. Yes. When cells are developing they grow and divide. At a certain points they exit the cycle and stop dividing. We mimic this stage by starving the cells. That makes them stop growing and puts them in a hibernating state. A hibernating cell is much easier to work with, but what we think is important is that its genetic information now has a different structure, so it is easier to take it back to the early state and reprogram it. We discovered that by accident. Serendipity probably happens more often than people think. It is ideas and overseeing which is exciting to me. We probably have eight or nine scientists working on cell cycles now. This number will probably double in the next six months to 12 to 24 people.
A.B. For a man of such profound accomplishment, you have much
I.W. It is serendipity. About three or four people were working on the same thing. I just happened to be lucky.
A.B. Can you tell me something about your background? I understand you didn’t begin as a biologist.
I.W. That’s right. I came up through agriculture. I guess I am an embryologist. I initially disliked the idea of working in a building. When I was 10 or 11, I wanted to be a sailor, but I am color blind. I have always loved animals, so I started to look around and settled on farms. It was a challenge, but I realized I would n’t be good at that, so I got the idea of working in a lab as a student, trying to understand how a pig knows it is pregnant. I helped someone understand the cycle. I would have liked to go on with it, but couldn’t think of anything else I could do. I just administer now and give talks to raise money. My job now is a joy. My function is to provide an environment, money, and equipment to develop an initial scientific idea. It leads to many things without completely breaking away from the lab. There are my mascot functions, public lectures, TV interviews, and reports to congress. I do one interview a week and travel a lot, which is a mixed blessing.
I sometimes wonder what people will think about me in 50 years. I believe what is extraordinary about me is the way I’ve coped in the last few years with having to be the mouthpiece, one of the very few people who started to talk to very small audiences about cloning. It’s hard work and requires total concentration. Not everybody is very keen on the idea of cloning. It subjects one to a greater or lesser degree of violence. In the United States, I risk being shot at by the Right to Life people, and the animal activists. It makes for a conflict, for I feel I have a public responsibility to inform.
A.B. Dolly was born on July 5, 1996, yet you didn‘t publish until February 27, 1997, in Nature. Why didn’t you come out earlier with your results?
I.W. The only proper way to publish these things is through a
refereed scientific journal. Otherwise no scientist will believe it is bona fide work. If a company comes out with press releases that say they have done this or that without publishing the results in a scientific journal,-don’t believe it.
Most of the books written in favor of human cloning are pure self indulgence. They are done to appease the ego of the profession, instead of thinking about something new. I would like to write about cloning for the layman, but I don’t write very good English. You have to recognize your limitations. I am a good speaker. I have learned to play audiences, lay as well as scientific. I would like to write anyman’s version of cloning, but I can’t write well enough.
A.B. I think you should write the book.
I.W. Science should be much prouder of what we have done. But with children you must be very cautious as to how you proceed. That is not to say never. I don’t know when we will ever understand enough to know what to do about it. The time may possibly come when we can clone a human being. If so, I hope to be here, but I’m not sure I could cope. Imagine all the hoopla and publicity! In the last six months I’ve tried to get it into context. It would cause a lot less harm than drugs, and the damage caused by the failure to provide health care to all citizens. You have to get it into context.
People have compared me to Robert Oppenheimer, who directed the
development of the atomic bomb. Its destructiveness tormented him. I would not like to have such a weight on my conscience.
A.B. Dr. Wilmut, I am struck by the fact that a man as busy and
renowned as you are agreed to see me. May I ask why?
I.W. Because I was interested in what you as a psychologist think. What do you think about human cloning?
A.B. I believe the time will come when it will be taken for
granted that the human race will be cloned, to improve our genetic
heritage. I think you have made a great discovery, which will change the
course of evolution.
I.W. It is hard to get used to being put in the class of
Oppenheimer. . I think I am more important than immunologists and
anaesthesiologists, but less so than Watson and Crick, who in discovering DNA made the most important scientific breakthrough of the century. I also think we had a lot of luck Four other groups were working on something similar, and we just happened to get a break. Serendipity is always a part of science.
By Alma H. Bond, Ph.D. (AlmaBond@compuserve.com)