Twenty Years after Dolly the Sheep is Cloned: A Conversation with Eric Juengst

In which we discuss bioethics, pop culture, myths, Cyberculture, and extending our legacies beyond this immediate life.

eric juengst
via the UNC Department of Social Medicine

I will be the first to admit I am bad at science. In fact, I told Dr. Eric Juengst this fact as soon as I walked into his office. He laughed at me and told me he was glad I was at least able to navigate a graduate-level science building to find his office.

My extent of knowledge on cloning comes from three things: Orphan Black (a favorite TV show of mine), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Dolly the Sheep. (And from the first chapter of Hilton Als’ White Girls.) (Oh, and also all of those Mary-Kate and Ashley movies where they pretended to be each other to be better at sports or pass a test.)

I am, indeed, a product of pop culture.

The first thing I put on my list when I was researching big events of 1996 was the cloning of Dolly the Sheep. I don’t remember when I first heard about Dolly, but I feel like I was raised with her. (Well, I kind of was; she was born 37 days after me.) I cannot remember a time where I didn’t see some kids show or sci-fi movie alluding to Dolly or the impact that Dolly had on society. So, I decided I needed to find someone with whom I could talk both about the science side of the cloned sheep, and the implications of the sheep on our world.

Enter Dr. Eric Juengst. Dr. Juengst is the type of nerdy, well-read, hyperconnected, bearded old professors that I would aspire to be if only I were a man who had the ability to grow a beard. (Everything else about him I still aspire to, honestly.) And, it should be known that Dr. Juengst makes his own suits of armor.

Complain as I may about my inability to comprehend most things related to the world of science, Dr. Juengst makes so much sense of suits of armor in that video and science in the interview below, that it makes me want to learn from him forever.

Morgan Vickers: In school you studied biology and philosophy. What drew you to that combination of studies at that time, and what eventually led you to studying bioethics?

Eric Juengst: I was a biology major in college [at Sewanee] and was just fascinated by what we were learning in biology in the 70’s, including newly developed techniques for cutting and splicing genes – the Recombinant DNA technique. As that got discussed more and more, it became a topic of social controversy as well, [like] ‘Are we going to create the Superflu?’

I did a senior thesis on the Recombinant DNA debate and the debates around it and found myself getting interested in how science and society talk to each other, and [asked]: what are the limits of scientific inquiry?

So, I started looking around for graduate schools that would let me pursue those types of questions – not very well-formed in my mind, but, you know, science policy questions or science and society questions. And my biology professors all encouraged me, (laughs) [saying,] ‘The lab is not your strong suit!’ (laughs) ‘Yes, a more theoretical direction would be great for you!’

So, I found this graduate program at Georgetown that was advertising itself as concentrating itself on something called ‘Bioethics,’ which I had not necessarily heard of. Actually, there was a chapter on Bioethics in my undergraduate biology textbook, I noticed years later, and what they meant is what we would now call ‘Environmental Ethics.’ What they were talking about was environmental issues, which is interesting because it has gone so much in the direction of medicine.

But, the program – even though it was interdisciplinary, in the sense that they were looking at ethics issues – was based in the philosophy department of Georgetown. And so, I had to do some remedial philosophy work to catch up with everybody else, to learn the language. But then I went on to get my PhD in philosophy and have been interested in the questions that genetics and genomics raise ever since. I was lucky to get a job out of graduate school and medical school at UCSF, and so I’ve never really looked back. I don’t think a regular philosophy department would know what to do with me. (laughs)

MV: You talked about how you started studying bioethics in the 70’s, meaning that by the time Dolly the Sheep was cloned in 1996, you had been studying it for almost three decades at that point.

EJ: (thinks about that number, sighs, and laughs) Yeah, I guess you’re right!

MV: (laughs) What was the climate like at that point in time in bioethics, and what was your reaction to the cloning?

EJ: It was a little like Déjà vu because when the field started in the 70’s, one of the hot spots was the use of cellular manipulations in biology. Cell biologists were actually getting pretty good at taking nuclei out of cells and moving them around in frogs, and so the topic of cloning – human cloning or other types of artificial reproduction – was on the table. It was all hypothetical.

In fact, by the 80’s, one of my bosses published an article – [one] that is interesting in retrospect – [called] ‘Three Settled Issues In Bioethics: Euthanasia, Cloning, and Psychosurgery.’ (laughs) Because everybody [at that point in time] thought, ‘Well, we’re done with cloning because that’s so futuristic and not likely to happen.’

So then in ’96 – boom! – cloning in mammals happens. It was not a terrible surprise because everybody knew these developments were coming along and in the meantime we learned how to do In Vitro Fertilization and various kinds of manipulations with eggs and cells. So, I don’t think anybody was surprised, but it was like, ‘Oh, right. Here we are, back again.’ And a lot of the conversations about the uses of cloning for reproduction, or that sort of thing, led straight back to the early discussions of the ethics of In Vitro Fertilization. [We asked,] ‘Was this a mechanism or a means that would be appropriate for humans to use?’

MV: I’m not a science-y person. It’s not very much my strong suit. But since cloning in mammals came into existence, it’s become kind of like a trope on TV, in movies, and in popular culture, so I feel like the average person – even if they don’t know the scientific intricacies of it – has a grasp on the ethical arguments for or against cloning.

EJ: (stands up and walks to cabinet in the back of his office) (takes out magazine) Yeah. Like this, for example! New York Times Magazine.

MV: Wow, that’s incredible. That’s so funny.

The New York Times Magazine shown to me by Dr. Juengst

EJ: (laughs)

MV: So, why do you think pop culture latched onto this idea, especially in the realm of science fiction?

EJ: Well – I think maybe this illustration is part of it – it’s the idea that being able to replicate ourselves directly has the cultural roots and resonance. [People say,] ‘Wow, I can make a copy of myself?’ Which, of course, cloning couldn’t do. But, the way in which it’s portrayed in popular culture is like – boom! – you have an exact copy of yourself and you’ve extended your personality and your being that way.

I think we’re always interested in trying to figure out ways to extend our presence in the world, whether that’s by having kids the old fashioned way, by trying to leave a legacy of something – you know, having a building named after you – or simply spreading your memes through social media. We want to go viral. And this is just another interesting, science-fictiony example that was easy to grab hold of at the time.

I don’t think that was anything specific to the 90’s. There was still popular interest in this idea in the 80’s. There was a great movie called The Boys from Brazil that was about a clutch of Hitler clones (laughs) that had been secretly shipped off after the war from some scrap of Adolf Hitler and were being raised. It was kind of a Nature vs. Nurture movie; [the question was] would they turn out to be evil psychopaths or not? And that was long before Dolly.

That’s another piece of it, I think – the debate over Nature vs. Nurture. It was really strong in those days.

MV: I took a computer science class last semester on the topic of Cyberculture, and we talked about Frankenstein and how tropes in the book about creating a human versus letting one be brought into the world organically. And, like you were saying, it’s an ethical issue that has been brought up time and time again.

 I think in TV shows, and things like that, there are entire shows, like Orphan Black, dedicated to cloning, or I saw a Buzzfeed Video the other day of a woman who cloned her dead dog. So it’s definitely a fascination, I think, in popular culture even now. Or maybe especially now.

EJ: Yeah. So there’s the idea of having another “me.” There’s also the life-after-death idea of extending life through cloning, which is hard to imagine for people, but with pets and things like that, this is a way to continue to have the experience of this animal.

The creation trope is, of course, another powerful story background of this because we were already talking about ‘playing God,’ you know, and the dangers of ‘playing God.’ Just with the Recombinant DNA Technique itself, that was a central device in the discussion, and there was lots of literature written around it and statements of concern by religious organizations and things like that.

MV: I read part of your ‘Origin Myths and Bioethics’ paper and I found it really interesting, especially when you talked about the importance of group identity and solidarity with the [human] race in which we exist. I found it fascinating that there’s such a fear of clones, especially in that if someone were cloned, you wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell visibly – because they would look just like any other human. But why is there this fear that we are not the only version of us?

EJ: And [people also ask] do you think it’s a fear for the cloned person, or is it a fear for other people who can’t distinguish between the cloned person and its clone? I think you see both out there, in the same way that [some people] think twins are creepy (laughs) because they can’t tell them apart. And we have lots of cultural myths about special abilities of twins to be the same person. So that’s where I think I see the ‘shiver factor’ coming into people’s reactions to cloning.

MV: In your paper on I-DNA-Fication, you had a quote that was particularly interesting to me: “If one goal of social justice is to prevent mere group membership from imposing undeserved social burdens on individuals, the collective impact of any new generator of genetic information should be part of its risk assessment.”

EJ: Ooh that’s good! I like that! (laughs)

MV: (laughs) I like that quote a lot! So do you see your work in terms of bioethics as a form of social justice in a way?

EJ: Sure. All of these issues are connected.

There are two, kind of, baseline worries about new technologies like this. One is: it’s unnatural. And that’s kind of the essentialist critique, that we’re just not made to reproduce this way or that it’s playing God, it’s against nature, it’s bad for those reasons. The other basic critique is that it’s going to exacerbate injustice in some way. It will create new classes of people or we will use our clones as spare organ supplies, or it will drive wedges into the cracks that already separate us by reifying race or class or tribe.

That’s where, personally, I usually go when thinking about what are the particular dangers of a technology. It’s part of the cloning debate, but I think even more seriously and more broadly in terms of how we want to use our growing knowledge about human genomics, because the obvious use for that would be to learn more about how we’re different and use that knowledge about differences to tailor medicines and public health approaches and things like that. But to do that, you need to decide: What are the groups we’re going to compare?

That’s one place where it’s easy to fall into various forms of racism – using categories that we’ve already created, and kind of reinforcing them with science now, by structuring our research in those terms. A lot of the work I do now is focused on those issues: How can we do this genomic variation research that we want to do for medical purposes without it coming back to haunt people.

MV: This goes back to the way we see bioethics play out in popular culture, but there’s a show that I referenced earlier and I watch that’s entirely based on the concept of cloning; it’s called Orphan Black. The consulting scientist for the show – her name is Cosima Herter – said, “[S]o many of us in this culture… seek to decode our genes in an effort to predict or guide our futures.” In this way, for you personally, what drives you to continue doing research in this field that may at times seem very large or difficult to conquer?

EJ: What do you mean, that there’s a kind of momentum to genomics that nobody’s going to be able to get in the way of? (laughs)

MV: Well, from what I’ve studied in my computer science classes about the ethics of that technology – a lot of the ethical problems are very similar to the ethical problems of biomedical fields.

 EJ: Yeah.

MV: When we have those discussions in those classes, it’s one of those mind-boggling types of things because there are so many potential ethical problems that are to dealt with when dealing with any new technology, really. So, I guess my question is: What motivates you to continue in this field and work towards fighting these potential problems?

EJ: That’s a good question. I am fascinated by the questions [of this field], and it’s reinforced all the time by the development of new scientific capabilities, [such as,] “Oh, now we really can clone mammals. Guess we better think about that!” (laughs)

I guess I have some kind of social conscience that makes me interested in trying to anticipate the problems before they’re actually upon us. I’m not sure where that comes from.

MV: Because it is so difficult to predict where we will be in ten years from now or twenty years from now in terms of the technology, where do you hope the field of bioethics will be in twenty years from now.

EJ: I hope that it continues to grow in the sense of the range of disciplinary perspectives that come to it. It started out as philosophers and clinicians and a few interested scientists, but increasingly, we’re working closely with a larger range of scientists – neurobiologists and genome scientists and cell biologists are active collaborators – not just our doctor friends. That’s going to be an active part of keeping up with scientific progress.

On the other hand, you don’t want to be totally embedded or swallowed up by the scientific enterprise. We’ll have to try to keep some critical edge as well. That often means bringing people in from other humanities and social scientist disciplines who have outsider perspectives on the science.

Dr. Juengst provided me with an unfathomable amount of resources during our meeting. In fact, he said the following before sending me on an Easter egg hunt for all of the goodies that the world of cloning and bioethics has to offer:

EJ: So you picked cloning as a kind of story of twenty years ago that would be interesting to unravel, look back at through an oral history? 

MV: Yeah, exactly.

EJ: That’s great. It doesn’t seem very long ago to me. (laughs) Maybe partly because that particular story hasn’t continued to evolve very rapidly. But, there is a lot of good material to look at: the National Bioethics Advisory Commission did a good report on cloning at the time.

Below you will find some resources should you wish to dig further into the world of bioethics and cloning:

Published by morganpvickers

still figuring it all out.

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