Growing pains

Biotechnology alarms us: we fear Hitler clones and designer genes. Colin Tudge suggests we stop wor

For all the millions of words expended on Dolly the cloned sheep since her birth in the summer of 1996, most commentators have missed the main point. It isn't just that we can replicate prize livestock, or even human beings. As late as 1984 the great embryologist Davor Solter declared that "cloning mammals by simple nuclear transfer is biologically impossible" - and most biologists took it to be the case that he was absolutely right. Even John Gurdon of Oxford, who cloned adult frogs from tadpole cells in the 1960s, was amazed by Dolly - for she was a mammal, not a mere amphibian, and she was cloned from an adult cell (from the udder of a long-dead pregnant ewe), and not from a mere larva or an embryo. The deep point is that after Dolly, the expression "biologically impossible" no longer seems to have meaning. From now on it is most prudent to suppose that anything we might care to contemplate in the field of biotechnology is possible in principle, provided only that it does not breach what Sir Peter Medawar has called "the bedrock laws of physics", or defy the rules of logic. Just let your imagination run. Scientists who say "it can't happen" are dissembling, or have failed to keep up with the literature.

Why not - just to be obvious - designer people: human beings who have been altered genetically to a prescription? Genetic transformation - "transgenesis", "genetic engineering" - is not related directly to cloning, but in fact the creators of Dolly, Ian Wilmut and Keith Campbell at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh, were never interested simply in replicating prize livestock but always saw cloning as an aid to transgenesis. At present, animals can be transformed only by adding DNA to young embryos, but it is far easier and more efficient to produce an array of cultured cells and work on them a thousand at a time, and then clone whole new animals from the cells that have been transformed most effectively. Neither Wilmut nor Campbell seek to apply their technique to humans - both abhor the idea - but although scientists may patent their methods, they cannot control what others do with them and many, elsewhere, are keen both to clone people and to manipulate their genes. The process has begun and now there are no obvious technical barriers.

Human cloning and transgenesis may appal at first blush, but it's largely a matter of image. Cloned Hitlers - a common image in the wake of Dolly, already floated by Ira Levin in The Boys from Brazil - seem ghastly but are an obvious nonsense. Clones are born as babies, so it would take 50 years to replicate the full-blown monster of 1939 and by then the political moment would surely have passed. Besides, nuclear clones are not strict replicas. Hitler-clone-fils might as soon become a priest, something Hitler-pere once longed to be, as a tyrant. Clones, like all offspring, can be a great disappointment. Far more realistic, as Professor Lee Silver of Princeton suggests in Remaking Eden (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998), is that cloning will be seen as a natural extension of the increasingly exotic reproductive technologies that already help millions of couples - for one in eight may have fertility problems. Honest desire and a loving home are surely what count, says Silver, not the details of the reproductive process. We quickly get used to technicalities. In 1978 the world's first "test-tube baby", Louise Brown, caused as much stir as Dolly has done and provoked the same kind of arguments. But IVF now is so commonplace that if you don't know somebody with an IVF child, you probably know someone who does.

Transgenesis will creep in as serious therapy. At the Royal Society last week, Lord (Robert) Winston of Imperial College was surprisingly bullish when discussing gene therapy for Duchenne muscular dystrophy - not simply for the somatic (body) cells but for the whole young embryo, so that germline cells (gametes) will also be transformed and affect all subsequent generations. Transgenic techniques that are perfected through such life-and-death therapy will one day be used to titivate genomes that are normal but a bit too ordinary. Indeed, Lee Silver envisages a future of what he calls "genrich" people so laden with ancillary genes that they form a new species. Lord Winston has roundly criticised such visions, but Silver warns us never to underestimate the power of market forces. Those who lay out $100,000 on their offspring's education might spend as much again on genes that will help them make best use of it; and the US bursts with hungry physicians and molecular biologists, keen to offer their services.

But - and here's the big but - there's nowt so queer as folk. Technologies don't necessarily catch on just because they are there. People may even throw them out when they already seem established. High-rise flats are now biting the dust, and nuclear power could go the same way. On the reproductive front, artificial insemination has been available for 200 years (in 1790 the Scottish surgeon John Hunter used a syringe to inseminate a woman with the sperm of her husband, who had a bent penis) and could in theory transform the way we live and the genetic prospects of the entire human race. But it hasn't. Feminists have urged women to live in prides like lionesses, consorting with chaps only for social reasons and buying in the sperm of basketball players with four-figure IQs for the serious business of reproduction, yet women on the whole prefer their smelly, couch-potato husbands. The reasons are partly social - society is geared to couples - but are also, surely, biological. On the face of things it makes biological sense for a woman to link her genes to those of a super-stud, but way-of-life and infant care count for at least as much. The in-house slob may be a genetic second-rater but he is good for a laugh, brings home the wages and takes the children to the zoo, and would be less inclined to do so if those children were not his own. Our psychology is at least rough-hewn by our evolution, and evolution is not stupid: partners on hand really are better, usually, than anonymous, distant paragons.

So the new technologies will come on line, if not in the next decade then the one after, or the one after that. There is plenty of time, and they are not going to go away. But they will not take over the world, or give rise to a new human species. Our social institutions will change, but our evolved predilections, our deep-set instincts, will keep us the way we are. At least for a time. Probably.

Colin Tudge's latest book, "Neanderthals, Bandits and Farmers", is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at £4.99

This article first appeared in the 13 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Why gays become politicians

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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture