08 Jun Essay: Gods & Monsters / Buffalo Zine
In the cavernous central hall of Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland stands a taxidermied sheep in a glass box. She looks out sagely from her final resting place, a modest grey plinth decorated with a smattering of hay. Her name is Dolly.
Born in the summer of 1996, Dolly was announced to the world in February of the following year, where she became an overnight media darling. She is, it’s safe to say, the world’s most famous member of the ovis aries species. Photographs from the time show her in her pen surrounded by the flashbulbs of press photographers, like a Hollywood sweetheart making her red carpet debut. Her glamorous name alludes to the part of the body from which she was cloned, namely the mammary glands of an adult Finn Dorset sheep; her creators said they couldn’t think of a more impressive pair of glands than those belonging to Dolly Parton.
Yet, behind the effusive coverage that accompanied Dolly’s immaculate conception, there was something more sinister at work. There had been 276 attempts before Dolly to clone a sheep from an adult cell, most of which ended in disaster. All but 29 didn’t even make it to the stage of inserting the nucleus into the enucleated egg, the first part of a process which then sees a jolt of electric current zapped into the cell, kickstarting the growth of an embryo to be placed inside a surrogate mother. Dolly’s grand entrance prompted panic in corners of the scientific world: many experts had thought cloning from an adult mammal cell impossible, and with the humble birth of a cuddly Scottish sheep had arrived the chilling possibility of cloning humans. Whether this will ever be legally permissible, nobody can be sure, but it hasn’t stopped people trying. In 2003, a sect of the controversial Raelian cult claimed to have cloned a human baby in the otherwise innocuous surroundings of a Holiday Inn in South Florida. Experts were sceptical.
Whenever cloning hits the headlines, it arouses instant suspicion, tapping into cultural anxieties so profound that entire franchises have been built around them: from Jurassic Park to Blade Runner to Resident Evil, the ability to clone is associated with villainy and world domination. The word cloning derives from the Ancient Greek word for twig, the link being an organism that has been propagated asexually. We’re all familiar with Medusa and the Cyclops, but less so with Talos, a creature from Apollonius of Rhodes’ epic poem Argonautica constructed from metal by a god as an ancient warrior android. According to the American historian Adrienne Mayor, Talos’s existence within Greek mythology represents an early distrust for technology’s ability to create new life. More importantly, however, the place of Talos in the ancient imagination speaks of that ineluctable trait of the Greek antihero: hubris.
After all, why would anybody want to clone a human if not to satisfy their own vanity? Sure, there’s the possibility it could lead to major medical breakthroughs; last year, the Chinese macaques Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua were cloned in an effort to offer insights into stem cells, drug testing, gene editing and brain research that would otherwise be impossible. But once the power of cloning leaves the laboratory and enters public hands, we inevitably err towards more selfish motives – look at Barbra Streisand, who last year debuted in the pages of Variety the two clones she made from her beloved Coton de Tulear, Samantha, by swiping cells from her mouth and stomach before she died. The cloned being isn’t dangerous, the ability to keep our innate narcissism in check is.
The possibilities are seductive: could we commission clones of ourselves to harvest as organ donors once we enter the latter stages of our lives and disease hits, like the faceless public of Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian novel Never Let Me Go? Could we revive a beloved or idolised figure, as in the real life case of Joe Basile, a Californian pastor who embarked on a worldwide relic hunt to track down the DNA of Jesus Christ, with the hope of artificially setting into motion Christ’s second coming?
Humans are idiots; we can’t be trusted. Our history plays like a macro version of the inevitable arrival of a hero’s doomed fate in a Greek tragedy, an endless loop of the same mistakes, futile wars, economic crashes, massacres, extinctions. We use science to exert our dominance over the planet just as quickly as we lose control of it, from antibiotics to fossil fuels, plastics to nuclear warheads. If our track record is anything to go by, we’ll start cloning ourselves and soon be living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, ruled by an artificially resurrected Jesus and populated by Barbra Streisand’s dogs.
The horrors intrinsic to the clone are different to the probing red eye and eerie calm of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL, or the Agents in bland business suits that stalk the dankly lit corridors of The Matrix. The hideousness of clones lies in the possibility they will become as hideous as we are, the monster of Dr Frankenstein inheriting the tortured anxieties of his maker. Clones feel like us, speak like us, tell stories like us, have imaginations like us. Clones are us. An overlooked fact about Dolly is that she fell in love: the scientists who created her made the decision made that she should live as normal a life as possible, so she was introduced to a small Welsh mountain ram with whom she mated and gave birth to six lambs (the first, Bonny, in 1996, twins the following year and triplets the year after that).
In The Philosophy of Fashion, a seminal 1904 text by German sociologist Georg Simmel, he describes the modern phenomenon of fashion as one of duality: a choice to either imitate others, or to stake our claim as individuals. By conforming, we differentiate ourselves; by differentiating ourselves, we conform. The clone is the ur-fashion victim, stuck on repeat doing both until we mercifully bring about its end by harvesting its organs, then bring it back to life to suffer all over again at the miserable hand of human whim. The ability to question what it means to exist might have made us the superior species, but that doesn’t mean our clones can’t ask that too. Whether they like what they find is a whole other story. Perhaps Dolly the Sheep isn’t a cute and cuddly visitor attraction after all – she’s the endgame stuffed with sawdust.