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Book Review - Understanding Cloning
Understanding Cloning
by Scientific American (Editors)
Warner Books, 2002
Review by L. Syd M Johnson, M.A.
Feb 5th 2003

Given the recent hubbub over Clonaid's likely bogus claims to have successfully cloned two human infants, Understanding Cloning, a volume in Scientific American's "Science Made Accessible" series, could have benefited from a more substantial discussion of the perils and pitfalls of human cloning. The popular media generally does a rather poor job of explaining cloning, leaving the general public ill-prepared to assess, in an informed way, the kinds of wild claims often made about it. While Understanding Cloning is not primarily about human cloning, it does address some of the pros and cons of cloning mammals in Ian Wilmut's chapter "Cloning for Medicine." Wilmut expresses his hope that human cloning will never come to pass, and offers a reasonably objective summary of the current shortcomings of the cloning method he developed, such as high mortality and birth defect rates among clones. Ronald M. Green's chapter "I, Clone" gives a clear summary of some of the social and ethical questions raised by cloning, particularly those surrounding the philosophically tricky question of clone identity.

While human cloning receives an extraordinary amount of attention in the popular press, and in the imaginations of the general public, Understanding Cloning rightly emphasizes that reputable cloning researchers are more interested in cloning mammals for slightly less provocative purposes, such as the creation of transgenic animals for pharmaceutical production and organ and tissue transplants, the breeding of livestock and endangered species, and therapeutic cloning to produce human embryonic stem cells. President George W. Bush's speech, in which he outlined the White House position on limiting human embryonic stem cell research, is presented in the book without commentary. Given the poorly reasoned and inconsistent nature of the government's policy, some explanation of its pro-life agenda, and its negative implications for research, would have provided much-needed balance.

The breadth of Understanding Cloning is quite substantial for such a small volume, with chapters covering such diverse topics as the early roots of cloning in horticulture (where it produced the ubiquitous Russet Burbank potato), and research on artificial life, still in its infancy, on the creation of self-replicating machines.

Overall, the science of cloning is clearly and precisely explained in the book, and Understanding Cloning succeeds, where so many have failed when it comes to cloning, in balancing optimism and hype with hard reality.



© 2003 Syd Johnson


Syd Johnson is a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy at SUNY Albany, where her primary focus is on genetic harms to future persons and the ethical implications of genetic technologies such as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, genetic enhancement and gene therapy.