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A freak event

21 September 2012

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ONE of the better-known footnotes in the history of cell biology is that Dolly the sheep was named after the generously endowed singer Dolly Parton, because the world's most celebrated sheep came originally from a mammary gland cell.

The idea - as revealed on The Reunion (Radio 4, last Friday) in which members of the Roslin Institute team who created Dolly were invited to reminisce about the events of '96 and '97 - came from John Bracken, the anaesthetist on the project, who was determined that this ground-breaking animal could not go around called simply 6ML3.

What seems to have been forgotten is Ms Parton's response to the compliment: her agent is reported to have said: "There's no such thing as ba-a-a-d publicity."

The Roslin team, headed by Sir Ian Wilmot, have cause to disagree. The news of Dolly was intended to be released as part of a learned article in the journal Nature, accompanied by press releases that explained the processes involved and their implications. Unfortunately, the press got hold of the news first, and a whirlwind of freakish stories enveloped the team.

Sir Ian was called to answer questions from the Parliamentary Select Committee on Science and Technology, and was asked to speculate on all manner of scenarios, including the possibility of human cloning. At the same time, the American physician Dr Richard Seed and the Italian biologist Dr Severino Antinori both started boasting about how they would be creating cloned humans in a matter of a few years. "We are going to become one with God," Dr Seed is reported to have claimed.

The Reunion is such a compelling programme because of the civilising effect of hindsight juxtaposed with the frenzied commentaries of the time. The debate has moved way beyond Dolly - who stands, stuffed, in the National Museum of Scotland, slowly rotating to provide a 360-degree view to visitors.

Dire predictions of Frankenstein creatures and a brave new world of human clones naturally reflect more the anxieties of the time than any realistic assessment of scientific progress. And it was ever thus, argued Juliet Gardiner in The History of the Future (Radio 4, Monday to Friday last week).

We are not as imaginative as we think; and our prognostications invariably draw on patterns established by history. Thus cloning seems to entail the suppression of the individual, for which we can turn to the atrocities of 20th-century dictatorships for exempla.

By this token, the greatest futurologist of them all, Nostradamus, did not believe in the future at all, but in a continual replaying of the past. For him, the future was articulated in the tropes of biblical revelation. At the same time, the power of prophecy conferred on him a licence -deployed so as to avoid charges of heresy - to speak truth to power.

Where the book of Revelation fits into this discourse, however, is hard to tell; not least because Gardiner chose to focus in that episode of her series not on the historical context of the book's composition, but on its reception in 13th-century Europe, which was enthusiastic: a fact that the book's first-century author, having predicted the imminent end of days, might have found somewhat bewildering.

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