By Christopher P. Andersen
April 17, 1978 12:00 PM

Clones these days have replaced UFOs as the leading topic of cocktail party speculation. Fueling the talk—and a genuine scientific controversy—is David Rorvick’s sensational book, In His Image: The Cloning of a Man. Rorvick claims a 67-year-old American millionaire had himself cloned; the nucleus from a human egg was supposedly replaced with the nucleus from one of his own cells to produce a genetic duplicate. That clone embryo was then placed in the womb of a young Oriental, according to Rorvick, and nine months later she gave birth to a healthy baby boy. The Rorvick book touched off tongue-in-cheek reports of cloning King Tut and Elvis Presley. Coincidentally, the film version of The Boys from Brazil, Ira Levin’s best-selling novel about the cloning of Adolf Hitler, is due out before the end of this year. Meantime, cartoonist Joseph Farris is at work on a book devoted to cloning (see illustrations). Providing a more sober view of the subject is molecular biologist James Watson, who, with Francis Crick, won the Nobel Prize in 1962 for discovering the so-called double helix, or structure of deoxyribonucleic acid—DNA—the fundamental molecule of heredity. Watson wrote a best-seller in 1968 about their achievement. Now 50, Watson resigned from Harvard last year to devote full time to running the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island—one of the world’s leading cancer research centers. Watson gave his peppery views on the cloning controversy to Christopher P. Andersen of PEOPLE.

A clone is defined as “the asexual progeny of an individual.” Can you explain that?

Simply put, a clone is an exact replica of something else. All the copies of a magazine or newspaper, for instance, are clones of the original. Identical twins are, for all practical purposes, clones of each other.

What would be involved in “cloning” a human being?

The nucleus of every normal human body cell contains 46 chromosomes which contain the complete genetic code. Sex cells have only 23 chromosomes, so that when the human sperm and egg unite we have a total of 46—half the mother’s and half the father’s. In the case of cloning, the female nucleus of the egg would be removed and a body cell containing all 46 chromosomes implanted in that egg. If the egg were in some way imbedded in a womb and it grew to maturity, you would have a human being with the same genetic makeup as the person who donated the cell—an exact copy.

Have you done any cloning?

Not exactly. Here at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory we have genetically rearranged various viruses and bacteria as part of our medical research. In fact, we have been able to create entirely new types of DNA molecules by splicing together the genetic information from different organisms—recombinant DNA. This will lead, among other things, to the manufacture of human insulin, a major medical breakthrough.

In your opinion, has a human being been cloned?

Absolutely not. This is pure science fiction silliness.

When might we see the cloning of a man?

Certainly not in any of our lifetimes. I wouldn’t be able to predict when we might see the cloning of a mouse, much less a man.

Is David Rorvick a fraud?

Let’s just say that he proposed a pornographic book on cloning to a New York publisher back in 1970. There are elements of that novel in his supposedly nonfiction book, In His Image.

Could the experiments on human cloning described in Rorvick’s book take place without the knowledge of the scientific community?

There are just too many problems, too many major obstacles to be overcome before we clone a man. Each time there was such an advance, it would be big news. Science moves ahead by rather discrete steps, but even when small progress is made, we generally hear about it.

How far along has the technology of cloning progressed?

Well, we’ve been successfully cloning frogs for about 25 years. The unfertilized frog egg is removed, then the nucleus is destroyed by ultraviolet radiation. A cell is taken from a tadpole and surgically inserted into the nucleus, using a pipette. The cell begins dividing to form a blastula—a hollow sphere made out of a single layer of cells—which eventually becomes a frog genetically identical to the original.

Has any life form higher than a frog been successfully cloned?

Not to my knowledge. Cloning mammals is a long, long way off. It must be remembered that a human egg is one-twentieth the size of a frog egg. And then there is the rather substantial matter of implanting the cloned human embryo back into the womb, where it would be carried to term.

What are the major obstacles to cloning man?

First we would have to succeed at creating what is popularly known as the “test-tube baby.” A few years ago, British scientist Douglas Bevis claimed he fertilized a human egg with human sperm in the laboratory, and then implanted the embryo in the womb. I don’t think it ever happened.

Why?

There would be absolutely no reason to keep it quiet. One-third of all female infertility is the result of blocked fallopian tubes. If fertilization could be done in the lab and then the fertilized egg implanted in the womb, it would get around that problem. Millions of women who cannot have children would suddenly be able to. Whoever developed this process would stand to make one hell of a lot of money.

What else makes you suspicious of the claims in Rorvick’s book?

Supposedly, the man who was cloned was a 67-year-old millionaire. Even under the best of conditions, the odds against cloning a frog using the cells from a young tadpole are 99 to 1. Using older tadpoles, the odds are 1,000 to 1. So cloning—particularly of something so complex as a mammal—cannot be done with an adult cell, not to mention a cell taken from an eccentric 67-year-old.

Then it would be impossible to take a cell from the corpse of Einstein or Hitler and clone it?

Utter nonsense. But even if using dead cells were technically possible, there are just too many social and environmental variables for us to assume a clone of Einstein or Hitler would really be anything extraordinary. A clone of Hitler might be a very nice guy, a terrific neighbor. A clone of Einstein wouldn’t be stupid, but he wouldn’t necessarily be any genius either.

Wouldn’t there be severe emotional repercussions?

Undoubtedly. Can you imagine what it would be like to be the clone of Arthur Rubinstein? You might be a wonderful pianist, but you’d be stuck having to spend all your time trying to live up to the original.

Are we on the road to eugenics—trying to improve man’s heredity by tampering with his genes?

It would be very nice to fix things so we might never need eyeglasses, but that is still far out of our reach.

Do you oppose the legislation before Congress that would either stop or severely restrict DNA research?

Ever since we achieved a break-through in the area of recombinant DNA in 1973, left-wing nuts and environmental kooks have been screaming that we will create some kind of Frankenstein bug or Andromeda Strain that will destroy us all. Now we are threatened with a truly imbecilic law that could set back research for years.

Then why did your fellow scientists call for stringent guidelines on DNA research when they met at Asilomar, Calif. three years ago?

Asilomar was an exercise in the theater of the absurd—an international gathering of scientific bigwigs who ended up behaving like absentminded professors. There is no real need to restrict work on yeast DNA or fruit fly DNA or mouse DNA. But they went right ahead and did. The resolution is a monument to intellectual sloppiness. Why should we be afraid of something that goes on in nature all the time?

What do you mean?

We’ve learned that often, when you are bitten by a mosquito for example, a little bit of mosquito DNA gets into your cells. Recombinant DNA!

Then you do not favor restrictions against cloning?

No, because we might be able to breed better livestock or horses or pigs, although this is not going to become routine in our lifetime. Still, it is sad that people are trying to protect themselves from evolution.

If you could, would you clone a person?

No, I can’t imagine why anyone would. What’s to be gained? A carbon copy of yourself? Oh, if the Shah of Iran wanted to spend his oil millions on cloning himself, that’s fine with me. But if either of my young sons wanted to become a scientist, I would suggest he stay away from research in cloning humans. There’s no future in it.

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