Lessons from Dolly

Institute of Ideas Genes and Society Festival, Battersea Arts Centre, London

At the Genes and Society Festival, Harry Griffin, Acting Director of the Roslin Institute, reflected on the scientific significance of Dolly the sheep. In a follow-up interview, I asked him whether he thought she had any cultural significance.

With the creation of Dolly,the Roslin Institute succeeded, in the first successful application of nuclear transfer, to produce a clone from the cells of an adult mammal. Griffin said she had become an ‘icon in the biotech industry’, the subject of numerous theses, and a backdrop to discussions on genetics. I suggested that perhaps the media’s hysterical reaction to the Dolly episode reflected a broader trend in society. Did he have any thoughts on the source of the anxiety and mistrust in GM technologies being expressed? He responded that the ‘vested interests’ on both sides of the debate feed an opportunistic news agenda.

For some, ‘the future is not to their liking’ and rather than recognising today as the best time to have lived, they’re inclined to hold the view that we are ‘heading for the dog house’. Griffin thinks the hysteria around the application of biotechnology, and transgencic animals, has become a lightning rod for these kinds of attitudes and personalities. But why, he asked, is it being singled out for attention as a vehicle by the misguided trying to ‘right the world’s wrongs’?

Griffin described a ‘law of diminishing returns’ where the pervasive benefits are not as likely to be as great or as visible, as the introduction of the Pill for example. The major risk factors associated with heart disease and strokes were as susceptible to changes in lifestyles, as the application of genetic technologies. There are ‘serious ethical issues’ that need to be addressed rather than focusing on ‘imaginary things in the dim and distant future’. Why are we spending so much money on acute medicine when it would be better directed at preventative health? Griffin answered his own question, arguing that the statistical benefit of such an approach is overlooked because tugging at the ‘heartstrings [is] far more persuasive’. Although I agree there is no place for sentimentality in medicine, his enthusiasm for the new public health was rather perverse given his credentials as an ambassador for the potentials of biotechnology.

During his talk at the festival, Griffin spoke about cloning and how it resonates with people’s fragile sense of their identity. He referred to a need to ‘examine our view of uniqueness’. I asked him to elaborate on what he meant by this. Cloning is a strong theme in science fiction literature, he said; the clone is seen as somehow ‘sub-human’. He elaborated on this with the analogy of a painting by an Old Master – the original is worth a fortune, but an exact copy is relatively worthless. We are far more than our genes. They determine predispositions rather than providing certainty or determining our fates. Despite this, the perception that cloning is a threat to our uniqueness as individuals persists. Griffin speculated that this might disappear with time. Wishful thinking, perhaps.

A member of the audience, during his talk, questioned why scientists weren’t setting the agenda rather than reacting to it. I asked Griffin whether there is a reluctance by the scientific community to defend their work in unapologetic terms. On the contrary, he asserted, scientists do defend their work. The UK’s scientific community is comfortable with their need to ‘engage’ with the public. They provide the facts, and society weighs up the pros and cons.

Griffin rightly argued that science is neutral. But scientists can’t afford to be neutral when it comes to defending their work. There is a danger in leaving the so-called ‘ethical’ debates to run their course. In the absence of a robust case for each and every breakthrough, the free-floating and ever present anxiety, will irresistibly attach itself, regardless of the merits. This can only reinforce the sense that scientists are pursuing a field of intellectual enquiry isolated from society and its interests, and end up not ‘engaging’ at all. Today’s irrational and stultifying climate must be countered by scientists themselves if it is to be overcome.

Genetics and Disability

Institute of Ideas Genes and Society Festival, Battersea Arts Centre, London

‘Does the aspiration to eliminate disability through genetic technology necessarily denigrate the disabled as people?’

Duleep Allirajah, disability policy analyst, explained to the uninitiated how, contrary to the medical model, campaigners insist that people are ‘disabled by society not their bodies’. To this end, remedies (rather than treatments or cures) are sought at the level of policy, adapting the built-environment or workplace, and lobbying for anti-discrimination measures.

Josephine Quintavalle, who’s founder of Comment on Reproductive Ethics and is sympathetic to the social model, suggested that society makes value-judgements, which send out the message that ‘we don’t like disability and we’d like to get rid of it’. Looking at how prospective parents are dealt with, Quintaville spoke of the bias in the health system, in that it fails to provide balanced information on the choices available. Her main criticism was that rather than explaining the prognosis and implications for bringing up a disabled child, the health system presumes abortion would be the likeliest option.

Quintavalle clearly believes that the pro-cure camp is eugenicist; she refused to entertain the notion that a woman’s choice to abort is qualitatively different to enforced sterilisation. Rather she stressed that women’s rights with regards to their own bodies are being eroded.

On the contrary, argued a member of the audience, doctors want to eliminate disease and most women want a healthy child; for Allirajah, the impositions of health professionals and counsellors were more likely to compromise parents’ decisions. And anyway, people are more than capable of distinguishing between the decision over whether or not to raise a child with a disability, and the dignity afforded to disabled people. He was critical of the failure of the likes of Quintavalle to do the same. Ironically, he argued, rather than ‘seeing the person behind the disability’, campaigners regard advances in biotechnology as an ‘attack on their very essence’. Surely, this amounts to identification with the disability, to the detriment of the individual. As Allirajah noted, ‘pain, fatigue [and] incontinence’ are not the kind of experiences anyone should want to celebrate.

As if to reinforce this impression, Quintavalle expressed concern that, despite the poor success rate of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), sooner or later the technique would be refined. This was not only discriminatory (part of a ‘search and kill’ mindset), but encouraged the notion of the child as commodity. Quintavalle questioned how it is possible on the one hand to be accepting of surplus embryos, and yet on the other, say ‘if I want it, it’s very precious’. This, as a contributor from the floor noted, demonstrated the ‘pro-life’ strand to Quintavalle’s argument.

One audience member pointed out that the debate was only of significance to a small minority of the disabled population anyway. Allirajah agreed, adding that disability is predominantly associated with the ageing process. Ironically, argued another, the young disabled are often more independent than their able-bodied ‘stay at home’ counterparts. The fact that they are no longer incarcerated in long-stay hospitals, as Allirajah put it, and that they have a much greater prominence in public life now, was evidence enough of their much improved position in society.

The attempt by some campaigners to define people with disabilities as a distinct cultural group is mistaken. The arguments presented by Quintavalle are not only demeaning for the disabled, but for society as a whole, reducing what it means to be human, and closing off the potential to overcome the kinds of debilitating conditions they endure.

The future of mobility

Three debates organised by the Transport Research Group at the Bloomberg Auditorium, London

In this series of three debates we were asked to consider – are more cars a problem, do we need more infrastructure, and does mobility matter anyway? As Austin Williams, director of the Transport Research Group, noted in his address, transport policy has become a popular concern, and lost its former ‘anorak’ association. A variety of speakers were involved over the three debates, and the introduction of congestion charging as the first event kicked off ensured a lively discussion.

Jonathan Meades, writer and broadcaster, applauded what he called ‘the five quid revolution’. He was scathing of the ‘tailback people …[who were] due a traffic laxative’ for assuming an ‘inalienable right to roam in metal boxes’. Christian Wolmar, journalist and author of Down the Tubes and Broken Rails, thought congestion charging ‘the most exciting moment in transport policy in the last 20 years’. (Although, I’d add that restricting the mobility of pigeons in Trafalgar Square must come a close second.) According to Francis Terry of the Centre for Transport Studies, Imperial College, Ken Livingstone ‘has more guts than the entire cabinet put together’ in introducing the charge in London.

Apparently we had it coming and the Mayor of London has done us a favour by introducing a tax on mobility. I have reservations about the ‘revolutionary’ character of the charge, but Terry was right to note the loss of nerve in government. Thankfully, others were less willing to go along with Ken’s plans for them. A contributor from the floor was outraged that the Mayor of London should ‘tax someone’s audacity to want to get from A to B in the way they so choose’.

Tony Gilland, Science and Society Director at the Institute of Ideas, echoed this sentiment. He asked, ‘What is city life about anyway?’ Surely a thriving city implies a degree of congestion. Gilland felt we were being distracted by ‘a rather moralistic trick’, taking the blame, when the problem is an absence of political vision. He argued that the discussion about congestion revealed a new moral orthodoxy in keeping with a diminished view of the city.

The ‘congestion question’ brought out speakers’ desire to engineer people’s lives rather than the transport infrastructure. Meades referred to the foot-and-mouth debacle almost approvingly as evidence that it’s possible to engineer immobility. A contributor from the floor noted how people were being presented as obstacles to, rather than the beneficiaries of, a better transport system. If only it were true, as Wolmar worried, that politicians are ‘obsessed with the big big infrastructure projects’. Post-Millennium Dome, it is as if ministers have felt exposed by their evident lack of vision. They are more likely to run from such projects, or get bogged down in risk assessments, for fear of the consequences.

James Woudhuysen, Professor of Forecasting and Innovation at De Montfort University, seemed a lone voice in favour of thinking big. He argued for a ‘resolute defence of forecasting, technology push and infrastructure development’. Woudhuysen was dismissive of the vogue for ‘serving the user’ especially when opposed to the now much derided model of ‘predict and provide’.

Dr Rana Roy, Consulting Economist to the European Conference of Ministers of Transport, wanted ‘more, better, bigger, faster infrastructure’. However, Woudhuysen warned that talk of infrastructure in the current climate could be misleading. In IT, for example, ‘grid computing’ (that is, connecting computers to maximise processing power) was about ‘making old things work a bit better’. The analogy with London Underground, the world’s oldest tube, was irresistible.

He needn’t have worried. Speakers such as Professor John Adams, author of OECD report The Social Implications of Hypermobility, were against the idea of better mobility anyway. Adams presented us with a dystopian parody of our fearful age – populated by fattening, stranger-averse kids cocooned from the ever present ‘metal in motion’. He urged us to ‘cherish the local’ and invited us to worry about the ‘positively frightening’ numbers of people moving around, and our inability to accommodate them. Malthus lives on, it seems.

Terence Bendixson, President of Living Streets/Pedestrians’ Association, gave a rather romantic account of the ‘older modes’ of mobility. He insisted that walking and cycling aren’t incompatible with travelling long distances – they just take longer! He also revealed that the invention of the bicycle in the 19th century helped reduce in-breeding. Fascinating, but the contemporary relevance escaped me. Bendixson went on to argue against ‘power and acceleration’, expressed a preference for the ‘boxy’ over the streamlined car, and called for the abolition of bull-bars! His was a case against the masculine in favour of the feminine, for a car that works ‘with’ rather than ‘against’ the city.

What one contributor from the floor described as the ‘dominant social pessimism’ seemed to infect much of the discussion. If these debates are anything to go by the future for mobility is indeed gloomy. Peter Smith, Customer Relations Manager at STA Travel, asked why we are seeking to contain people’s aspirations when ‘we’re only scratching the surface’.

Perhaps more worrying is the future of freedom. Many speakers made clear their hostility to the individual and his or her right to enjoy the benefits of a modern society. The anti-car sentiment is little more than an expression of this. The potential for greater mobility, and the political ambition to build the necessary infrastructure, require a truly ‘revolutionary’ shift in outlook. And I don’t mean more congestion charging!

The House of Bernarda Alba

The Orange Tree Theatre, London

The play opens with the funeral of Bernarda’s husband, and centres around her efforts to contain her daughters brooding sexual desires. Lynn Farleigh’s convincing matriarch, however, towers over the all too meek and still daughters. Her barbed exchanges with Poncia, the ageing maid (Rowena Cooper) become something of a double act by default.

Federico Garcia Lorca’s portrayal of the ‘battle to break free [of a] suffocating society [where] behavioural censorship is the norm’ has considerable relevance today. However, instead of a critique of the encroaching familial state of the here and now, we were confusingly treated to a period piece on ‘domestic fascism’ that nevertheless allegedly has ‘enormous resonance for women today’.

But the Spain of the 1930s couldn’t be more different from our feminised times, which are characterised by subservience to the work-life balance rather than a rural patriarchy.

Lorca completed this, his final play, just three months before his murder by anti-Republican forces. The circumstances in which he was writing are reduced here to a case of ‘Repression breeds repression in an unending cycle’, with Bernarda just another victim in the continuum of abuse. The characters’ tragic fates are in this way wedded to a contemporary prejudice, that they must be forever subject to the psychic scars inflicted on them in their youth.

When Bernarda insists ‘In this house there are no mysteries’, I’m inclined to agree with her. I understand the director, Auriol Smith, was drawn to the play’s ‘claustrophobic intensity’. His and artistic director, Sam Walters’, visit to Lorca’s home of Granada, however, was apparently in vain. The characters’ talk of the ‘breaking storm’ and ‘oppressive heat’ never materialise.

At the close, Bernarda’s desperate plea for ‘silence’ is chilling – yes, because it anticipates the Franco regime – but more so because it speaks of today’s censorious climate. Fascism may have had its day, but the defence of the imagination, and of freedom of expression, are as important as ever.

The House of Bernarda Alba is about frustrated desire. This was trivialised by a too literal and overly ‘social’ interpretation. Faithful to everything but the text, the production fell flat, failing to capture either the ‘authenticity’ of Lorca’s Andalusian tale, or to engage with the universal themes that could make it contemporary.

Till 19 April