Friday, 18 May 2007

After Dolly: the uses and abuses of human cloning – Ian Wilmut and Roger Highfield *****

More often than not, the most famous individual of an animal species is fictional (think Bugs Bunny, Wiley Coyote and Lassie), but ask most people to name a well-known sheep and they are likely to come up with a very real example – Dolly.
The first artificially cloned animal (though as you will find when reading the book, in one sense, at least, Dolly wasn’t a true clone) was inevitably going to have a lot of publicity surrounding it, and who better to tell the true story of what really happened, and how the scientists got to that stage, than Ian Wilmut, one of the lead scientists at the Roslin Institute where Dolly was produced.
Along the way you will find out fair amount about Wilmut’s personal history, and the many other animals who were in their own way just as important in the chain of discovery as Dolly, but never got the same levels of attention.
If the book had been just this – the inside story of Dolly’s production, life, death and fame – it would have been worth buying, but there is a lot more to it, as the title suggests. In fact the main focus of the book is not on animal cloning but on the much more contentious field of human cloning. Wilmut explores the different types of human cloning, and spends a lot of time on the nature of an embryo when it only consists of a few cells and on the ethics of working with these active human cells. As well as really explaining and exploring the nature and importance of stem cell research, Wilmut gives us the true picture of what would be involved in reproductive cloning – if scientists did produce a true, cloned human being. Not only does he cover the ethical side, he also looks at the practical difficulties, and concludes with most governments that reproductive human cloning should never be attempted. He is, however, very positive and persuasive (some world leaders could do to read this book) about the importance and acceptability of stem cell research.
This book is a real treat to read, and that reflects the combination of Ian Wilmut’s on-the-spot expertise and Roger Highfield’s experience as a professional science writer. So often a book by a scientist can make dull reading, but that’s not the case here. With Highfield’s guidance, Wilmut tells the story in an approachable, personal way and manages to combine his own story, the real facts about Dolly (which are almost always wrong in the press) and some worthwhile thinking on the rights and wrongs of different aspects of human cloning to make this a definitive book in the genre. Highly recommended.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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