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Book Review: Human Cloning in the Media

23 May 2011
Appeared in BioNews 608

Human Cloning in the Media: From Science Fiction to Science Practice

By Dr Joan Haran, Professor Jenny Kitzinger, Professor Maureen McNeil and Dr Kate O'Riordan

Published by Routledge

ISBN-10: 0415422361, ISBN-13: 978-0415422369

Buy this book from Amazon UK

'Human Cloning in the Media: From Science Fiction to Science Practice' by Dr Joan Haran, Professor Jenny Kitzinger, Professor Maureen McNeil and Dr Kate O'Riordan

Science's journey from fiction into reality is an adventurous ride. So I began to read 'Human Cloning in the Media', a book about how cloning is making this trip, with high expectations.

The book examines 'the making of technoscience, the making (and policing) of an international scientific community and the making of publics who can appropriately engage with this technoscience'. This grandiose prose can be summarised as the study of how cloning was made possible, who was involved, and the way the media influenced the public perception and progression of this science.

The book begins by laying the foundations for the story - the cloning of a sheep in 1997 and the completion of the human genome sequence in 2000. These breakthroughs created a burst of media interest in genomics and cloning, making them the ideal focus for a discussion about the relationship between the media and science.

This introduction is followed by a historical overview of the scientific, social and technological factors that made cloning Dolly the sheep possible. The authors surmise IVF played a major role in this breakthrough, saying, 'IVF gave rise to the technological, cultural and legislative framework which enabled cloning to take place'.

This is an interesting angle and one I had not thought about; I had a more science-centric view of new discoveries. However, the book makes it clear that the public acceptance of one technology has the potential to speed up and enable the advancement of another.

Through the critical assessment of books, films, documentaries, news coverage and scientific reports, the authors guide the reader through the mutual influence of science and the media. They always base the debate on the genomic sciences and cloning.

This exploration threw up several interesting points of view, again ones I had not previously thought about.

I was interested in the idea that, to be a credible scientist, it can help to publicly discredit scientific discoveries. To get acceptance for therapeutic cloning, the book authors argue scientists discredited reproductive cloning. Both scientists and the media distinguish between 'good' therapeutic cloning and 'bad' reproductive cloning. For example, in science fiction films, cloning is almost always used as a reproductive tool.

In a similar vein, scientists should be aware they directly influence the media; their results can be a 'media-mobilising discursive strategy'. This is important because, rightly or wrongly, science holds a unique place in the media as a 'source of unmediated truth'. Once a scientific finding is highlighted, it has an indisputable place in the public arena.

The book ends with a detailed timeline, and a long table referencing relevant films and television programs.

I felt the references to films were awkwardly shoehorned into the text, identified by title, but with little plot synopsis. If you had not seen the film, the one-line plot summaries were insufficient to advance the authors' arguments.

'Human Cloning in the Media' is written by four feminist researchers, none of whom are research scientists. This is not in itself a criticism, but I think it shows in the writing, which is far from the succinct style I have come to expect from life science texts.

There is an annoying lack of consistency and cohesion. For example, citations and abbreviations are restated sentences after they were explained. This is perhaps a drawback of having multiple authors and inadequate editing.

While I think the ideas behind the book are powerful and provocative, it was not an enjoyable read. The writing style lacks elegance and readability; each sentence is crammed with unnecessarily long words. I felt I was continually missing the point and had to reread each sentence to extract meaning from the avalanche of words.

This is a shame as the topic holds such potential and, if you can bear to trudge through, then there is definitely food for thought. But it takes so much perseverance and effort by the reader that 'Human Cloning in the Media' is almost unreadable by all but the most die-hard enthusiast.

Buy Human Cloning in the Media: From Science Fiction to Science Practice from Amazon UK.

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In February 1997, sheep 6LL3 made global front page news. Better known as 'Dolly', she was the first mammal successfully cloned from an adult cell...
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