Baaa Humbug

Scientific progress seems to accelerate the very pace of time itself. The arrival of Dolly, the cloned sheep from Scotland, proves this beyond any doubt: two shakes of a lamb’s tail now requires half the time it used to. Dolly has entered the record books as the first mammal in history to be a perfect gene-for-gene copy of another animal.

Much is being made these days of the ethical dilemmas that await us once we begin to clone humans. Is your clone a child or a sibling? Should you get into Stanford just because your clone did? Is it okay to gorge on chocolate ice cream as long as your clone stays thin? Will the Elvis impersonators get along with the Elvis clones? That sort of thing.

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Vexing as these questions are, consider that from a sheep’s point of view, the ethical dilemmas are already here. I confess that when I first heard about this cloning trick, like many others I thought to myself: Clever bastards, choosing sheep like that. Much simpler to pull off than cold fusion; who can tell the difference between two sheep? Talk about pulling the wool over our eyes. It made me wish I had scooped them last week by holding a press conference in which I presented two identical fruit bats to a stunned world. Both named Barney.

The passage of time, however, has revealed that these Scots are not charlatans. They have actually xeroxed a sheep. I began to puzzle on this. First of all, sheep have a pretty hard time of it anyway. Easily frightened and famously dim-witted, they contribute the word “sheepish” to the language. You’ve just got to figure that the clone of a sheep is going to have some serious self-image problems, perpetually living in the shadow of another sheep. I picture her in therapy with some expensive uptown shrink, nervously inspecting the sheepskin diplomas on the wall. Perhaps she might be soothed by news of her lasting fame. After all, we well remember what’s-her-name, the first test tube baby. It will be far tougher for the cloned sheep that follow Dolly. But then again, I guess that’s what sheep do best.

What’s really interesting is how similar, philosophically, the cloning process is to copying software. Dolly is a perfect copy of another sheep’s most intimate details. The next century will bring a head-on collision between computer science and biology. Intellectual property and livestock will come to be much the same thing. Let your neighbor walk your prize-winning dalmatian, and you might just find the neighborhood crawling with a hundred and one exact copies next week. Cattle-rustling becomes cattle-piracy. I envision animals shipping with license-managers and other copy protection measures (Question: “Waiter, what’s this keyboard doing in my soup?” Answer: “The backspace?”). When wool meets code, softwear becomes software (“In order to receive technical support for your new sweater, please return the enclosed registration tag immediately”). Paradoxically, as animals become more like software, software comes to resemble animals. Advances in genetic algorithms on computers may mean that you’ll pay a stud fee some day to let your copy of Excel 56.2b enjoy a blissful rut with the latest Lotus 1-2-3 down at Kip’s Happy Spreadsheet Kennel.

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In the meantime, the future beckons. What other animals should we duplicate? If cats already have nine lives, it hardly seems fair to clone them. I’d say they’ve got an unfair advantage right out of the gate. I vote for cloning dogs instead. They’ve got that whole one-year-equals-seven-years thing to deal with. But we might just find the most intriguing possibility of all high in the Andes. What are the religious implications of cloning the Dolly Llama? Maybe the Tibetans prefer a Dolly Yak instead. As Saint John might have remarked in his Gospel text, “Behold the Lamb of God. Both of them!”

Still, I tire of the shrill voices of pundits who claim that science is eroding the foundations of our society, speeding us along too fast for our own good. No, I won’t lament that we are playing God. But it does make me want to graft a slightly more prosaic ending onto William Blake’s poem, “The Lamb.”

Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed,
By the stream and o’er the mead?
Well, it was Dr. Ian Wilmut
And a team of researchers at the
Roslin Institute near Edinburgh, Scotland.
Full stop.