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The Second Tree: Of Clones, Chimeras, and Quests for Immortality

by Elaine Dewar

Newspapers try to track the latest developments from the seemingly fantastic world of genetic science: cloned sheep, genetically modified food, in vitro fertilization (IVF), stem cell research. It’s a brave new world. Biologists are in the vanguard, while the rest of us – citizens, cynics, environmentalists, ethicists – struggle to keep up.

Should scientists make carbon-copy animals, or is cloning just a high-tech version of selective breeding? What about GM food? Should we be more concerned about cut-and-paste corn or famine in Africa? Is IVF ethical? What if the doctor told you that the leftover eggs would be used for stem cell research? Does that zygote have rights, or is there a greater good in trying to use those cells to heal spinal-cord injuries?

Journalist Elaine Dewar crossed paths with the uneasy parade of progress while she was researching her book Bones: Discovering the First Americans. She began to collect newspaper clippings, then went on the road to interview the university geneticists and biotech company scientists hidden behind the headlines.

The result is The Second Tree: Of Clones, Chimeras, and Quests for Immortality. The cumbersome title requires some explanation. God evicted Adam and Eve from the garden not because they tasted of the tree of knowledge, but to stop them from snacking on the second tree – the tree of life. If they ate that fruit, as we read in the third book of Genesis, they would live forever.

The chimera in Greek mythology was a combination of lion, goat, and snake, much like the beast in Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming.” Scientists have borrowed the term to describe a tissue or organism composed of different genes. Imagine scientists breaking down the species barrier and transferring genes or proteins from one organism to another. It all sounds scary, like The Island of Dr. Moreau. Less scary when you think of such modern-day chimeras as transplant patients.

The Second Tree itself is a chimera – a fanciful cobbling together of interviews with scientists and Dewar’s sometimes uninformed musings about the direction molecular biology and genetics are taking us. Dewar has done an impressive amount of legwork, talking to researchers in Canada, the U.S., the U.K., and Israel. The book is larded with interviews offering a great deal of often confused detail.

Dewar’s thesis is that genetics is “revelationary biology,” a term coined by her husband to suggest that “biological science has become a kind of revelation.” This is her rather heavy-handed way of shifting the book’s focus from biotechnology to bioethology. In Dewar’s skewed vision, geneticists are swarming the tree of life like so many motes in the eye of God. She has an annoying habit of interrupting cell scientists mid-stride to ask about their religious beliefs. The problem, as Dewar admits (although she doesn’t think it’s a problem), is that she has never studied science.

When Dewar describes scientific experiments, some of them admittedly bizarre, she often overlooks the context in which those experiments were performed. She also refuses to acknowledge their potential benefits to medical science. In discussing telomerase research, which explores what turns cell division on and off, Dewar asks: “Could one perpetually rejuvenate cells by turning this gene on?” She envisions immortal cells out of a science fiction novel. But we already have immortal cells. They are called cancer, and the point of telomerase research is to understand how to turn off tumour cells.

Dewar notes that the Cold Spring Harbor lab in New York used to house the Eugenics Records Office. Eugenics, of course, is the “selective breeding” made famous by the Nazis, who tried to breed the desirable (Aryans) and prevent the breeding of the undesirable (everyone else). Eugenics is an inflammatory term that makes for a fine headline, but the issues around selective breeding are much more complicated. Our society already practices eugenics by detecting Down’s syndrome genes in fetuses and giving the parents the option of abortion. This opens up a lot of ethical questions about what genes we may try to eliminate from the gene pool in the future: red hair, low intelligence, cellulite? This is the issue that Dewar needed to address with greater depth and insight.

In Dewar’s view, scientists are all big egos chasing big money, a generalization good only for selling newspapers (and book proposals). Dewar is at her best when she interviews legislators, the people responsible for reining in research. They, too, aren’t schooled in science, and are often too lazy to read the reports that come across their desks. That is the truly scary story.


Reviewer: Steven Manners

Publisher: Random House Canada


Price: $36

Page Count: 536 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-679-31207-2

Released: Oct.

Issue Date: 2004-9

Categories: Science, Technology & Environment