Babies without sex
Jon Turney teaches science communication at University College London. He is the author of "Frankenstein's Footsteps", to be published later this year by Yale University Press
"Remaking Eden:Κ Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World" by Lee Silver, Avon Books/Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 20,
YOU must have been a beautiful zygote, 'cos . . . well, because we made you that way. Lee Silver wants to get us all up-to-date on the many new ways we have of making babies, now that sex is unnecessary for human reproduction. Louise Brown, the first test-tube baby, will be 20 this year, and the technology has moved on apace.
ΚΚΚ The range of techniques already proven in humans or animals is impressively wide. Silver covers cloning, of course. But the ability to transfer cell nuclei, which made possible the creation of Dolly the sheep last year, is probably more significant. This and other laboratory tricks mean that virtually any combination of biological, social and genetic parenting is now possible.
ΚΚΚ And, Silver argues, they will all be used. Individual freedom is the American way, and that commitment, along with commercial imperatives, is likely to override any objections to particular applications. Then combine the virtuoso manipulation of embryos with our burgeoning knowledge of human genetics, and we are taking the first steps down a new evolutionary path. Unnatural selection will supplant the much slower natural variety.
ΚΚΚ This vision has been put before us increasingly often during the past few decades, but it is still striking to see the technical details being outlined as (mostly) accomplished facts. Silver, a Princeton biologist, is an excellent guide to the properties of human germ cells, and to the many procedures which prospective parents may now adopt to tip the odds in the reproductive lottery in their offspring's favour.
ΚΚ He is also a stimulating guide to the possible consequences of this reproductive revolution, up to a point. His basic assumption - what he sees as the rational as opposed to the emotional view - is that there is nothing special about human reproduction. That being so, there is no reason not to apply any of these technologies, provided there is no obvious harm to the individuals involved. And he is quite inventive in offering scenarios - real or imagined - in which someone feels they benefit enough to make use of every technique described, cloning included.
ΚΚΚ He is also consistently optimistic about individual outcomes. Yet he sees them adding up to a less appealing result, a class society defined by its genes. Eventually, like H. G. Wells's Eloi and Morlocks, the gene-rich and gene-poor will become separate species, unable to interbreed.
ΚΚΚ Working out the consequences of this would require a novelist of Wellsian powers, and Silver does not really try. Instead, he tops and tails the book with a much longer-term evolutionary story. It begins with a rather commonplace discussion of the origins of life, and ends with a grand, Dysonesque vision of new, genetically enhanced subspecies of our descendants spreading out through the Galaxy