David Rorvik, <i>In His Image: The Cloning of a Man</i>

David Rorvik, In His Image:
The Cloning of a Man
(Lippincott, 1978).

Tom Easton's review, from Analog, October 1978

To clone a man--

First, be a multimillionaire with holdings in an underdeveloped Oriental country.

Second, fund a hospital in that country.

Third, tap an accomplished science writer to find someone able and willing to develop the techniques necessary to successful cloning and to apply these techniques to producing a clone of you, both in total secrecy.

Fourth, set the chosen biologist, codenamed "Darwin," up in your Oriental hospital with a few competent assistants and laboratories full of the latest medical equipment--microscopes, TV cameras, centrifuges, cryogenic cooling equipment, electron microscopes, X-ray and ultrasonic equipment, microsurgical manipulators, etc., etc.--and promise all the funding he needs and a grand cash payment if he succeeds.

Fifth, leave Darwin alone to get on with the work. Skipping all experimental work with animals in the name of expediency, he will begin immediately to collect hundreds of eggs from local women in the hospital for sterilization and other sex-organ-related treatments. He will learn how best to use fertility drugs to stimulate multiple ovulations, plucking the ripened eggs from the surface of the ovary with a needlelike suction device pushed through the lower abdominal wall and guided to the ovary with a fiber-optic viewing device. He will learn how to keep the eggs alive in culture baths, controlling their post-ovulatory maturation with biochemical treatments. He will learn how to remove their nuclei both mechanically, by cutting into them with microscopic scalpels and sucking the nuclei out through thin tubes, and with drugs that can force a cell to expel its nucleus. He will learn how to fertilize the eggs with sperm cells and how to keep the resulting embryos alive as they divide and grow from the 2-cell stage through the 4, 8, and 16-cell stages to the 32-cell stage. He will learn how to implant the 32-cell embryos in women so that they successfully embed in the uterine wall and the women become pregnant.

This much and more can be accomplished fairly easily. Each step has been reported from some laboratory in the U.S. or Europe, and all these steps are essential to any attempt to clone a human. They are, however, no more than a test-tube duplication of things that happen in the normal course of human reproduction. Cloning requires more.

The first work on cloning an animal was done in the late 1960s, when J. B. Gurdon of Oxford University chose to attack the problem with the African clawed frog (Xenopus). He began by destroying the nuclei of unfertilized frog eggs with ultraviolet light. He then transplanted into these eggs the nuclei of frog intestinal cells. One would not expect this step to be the equivalent of fertilization with sperm, for although body cell nuclei do contain all the genes necessary to specify a complete organism, most of them are "repressed," or inactive--only those genes needed to specify a particular cell's functions are not repressed, or active. The genes in eggs and sperm, on the other hand, are apparently not repressed, for they are all available to help shape the cells of the growing, developing embryo. Furthermore, there appear to be substances in the egg cell's cytoplasm (that part of the cell surrounding the nucleus) that can cancel out whatever influences repress genes in other cells. When an intestinal cell nucleus replaces an egg cell nucleus, the genes are therefore derepressed and the egg cell can divide and develop into a tadpole. Since the genes in the tadpole's cells are identical to those in the adult frog from which the intestinal cell was taken, the tadpole is called a "clone" (Greek for "twig," "slip," or "cutting," as well as "throng"). The tadpole and the frog are not, however, likely to be totally identical--they developed from different egg cells, and there are "cytoplasmic inheritance" factors in the egg cytoplasm that influence the growth of the embryo (in some snails, one such factor controls the direction of the twist in the snail's shell). That is, a clone will inherit some of its features from the source of the egg it grew from even though all its genes have a very different source.

Cloning mammals such as mice, cats, or humans is more difficult than cloning frogs. For one thing, the egg cells are many times smaller--pin-prick size, compared to pea size. For another, the cells are much fussier in their environmental demands--they must be nurtured in special, warm, nutrient-laden solutions, not just dumped into a glass of water. Darwin's efforts will therefore focus for months on learning to keep alive and to manipulate human eggs and embryos. At the same time, he will be working on ways to replace an egg cell nucleus with a nucleus taken from one of the millionaire's body cells. The successful method will use a drug called cytochalasin B to force both body cells and egg cells to give up their nuclei. After exposure to an enzyme that strips off their outer layer, the egg cells will then be put in a nutrient medium containing a noninfectious virus known to induce cell fusion. When the body cell nuclei are added to this medium too, the virus will cause them to fuse with the nuclei-less egg cells. After treatment with various bio- chemical compounds, the "fertilized" eggs will begin to divide. When they reach the 32-cell stage, one of them will be implanted in an attractive, intelligent young woman chosen from the local population. This "surrogate mother," codenamed "Sparrow," did not donate the egg used to produce the clonal embryo, but she will nevertheless carry and nurture the embryo until delivery.

This is the tale David Rorvik tells as if it were true in his latest book, In His Image: The Cloning of a Man (Lippincott, 1978). The millionaire is "Max." The science writer is Rorvik. The science is legitimate and well told, although there are certain blank spots. The events of the book and the characters are supposedly thoroughly disguised in order to protect the anonymity of Max, the other participants, and Max's clone, a son, born in California two weeks before Christmas, 1976. Just how extensive this protection is can be best shown by quoting from the "Publisher's Note" that opens the book:

"In 1977 David Rorvik visited the J. B. Lippincott New York Trade Division offices and described the extraordinary events recounted in this book. He explained, however, that he had pledged not to reveal to anyone the identities of the other participants, which made it impossible for us to authenticate his story. We deliberated as to whether we should publish it under these circumstances....

"The account that follows is an astonishing one. The author assures us it is true. We do not know. We believe simply that he has written a book which will stimulate interest and debate on issues of the utmost significance for our immediate future." (p. 5)

Only Rorvik knows the truth. But is he really letting us in on it? There could all too well be a "conspiracy of hype" between author and publisher, and this is what I suspect. Rorvik is known as a crusading but meticulous writer. As such, he has produced numerous articles and books on human biology and medicine and shown a particular concern with various themes of genetic engineering. It does not seem inconceivable to me that he chose to dramatize an account of the science that will surely someday make cloning possible by dressing it up as a true account for the sake of making the Literary Guild (In His Image will be an alternate selection) and selling paperback rights for a quarter of a million dollars. I may be wrong--Rorvik does say he expects the participants in the cloning project to reveal themselves eventually--but I don't think so. The science Rorvik cites in his description of how Max was cloned is entirely from the published scientific literature and is entirely science that will surely be essential to any eventual successful cloning. The holes in the science--vagueness in the specifications for nutrient solutions and for other steps in the process--cover information as vital as anything Rorvik chose to reveal. They must have been left because the scientific literature does not permit Rorvik to guess closely enough not to be proved wrong later. And the book itself, its plot, is a didactic ideal, exactly what would seem appropriate at this time in human history, when biology and medicine are daily offering up new tools for tinkering with the substance of life, for controlling fate. We have abortion and amniocentesis, we are about to get recombinant DNA (true genetic engineering) and cloning, test tube insemination and embryo transplants. And each offers its own ethical and moral problems, all of which deserve careful consideration.

In His Image is the tale of an aging bachelor, Max, who wishes both to provide himself with an heir as much as possible of his own blood and to give himself a chance to correct the results of a flawed childhood. He is vain and egotistical, powerful, a little corrupt, a perfect embodiment of the sorts of motivations that are likely to impel actual cloning. In this context, the previously published applications of cloning seem downright childish. Do we really need to perpetuate talent and genius beyond their normal span? Reproduce only the healthy? Provide large sets of genetically identical humans so scientific studies can unravel the effects of nature and nurture? Provide children of their own to infertile couples? Pander to the wish for children that are carbon copies of celebrities or dead loved ones? Provide sources for organ transplants?

The book's situation--journalist invited to organize a sub rosa and controversial project--permits Rorvik to explore the ethics of his supposed position, of cloning, and of human experimentation in general. That he spends almost half the book on such concerns may indicate the true nature of the book: Claim that a clone is born, and people will line up to buy the book. A writer's dream, and a guaranteed way to expose the average Jane and Joe to ethical questions so serious that they promise to affect everyone, not just the scientists whose work Congress threatens to stop or regulate. Researchers already have to obey rules that spell out how to treat animals humanely, to obtain the informed consent of human subjects, to minimize the danger of recombinant DNA "Andromeda strains." The ethical concerns that affect cloning research include the humane treatment of animals and informed consent, but they go further too:

--The research uses hundreds of human embryos, resulting from both natural (with sperm) and artificial (with body cell nuclei) fertilization, but only one or a few will ever be transferred to a woman's womb and allowed to mature; the rest, called "bench embryos," are flushed down the drain. Is this murder? Abortion? Or is it no more than cleaning out the test tubes? When is an embryo human? At fertilization? Implantation? Quickening? Birth? Or even later?

--Some philosophers think every individual has an inalienable right to be unique, to have an unduplicated genotype; identical twins (and triplets, etc.) are the only natural exception. Is cloning therefore immoral for this reason?

--Is human experimentation ever justified, even after experiments on animals have given the researcher reason to believe his or her human subjects will not be harmed?

--Joshua Lederberg once described cloning as "a major evolutionary perturbation" (practiced on a large enough scale, it would freeze human evolution). Others have declared it an essential tool if humans are ever to control their own evolution. But do humans have the right to control their evolution?

--Might the availability of cloning lead to new and terrible forms of tyranny, based on armies of identical ideal soldiers or on masses of identical ideally passive citizens?

--And more. Rorvik discusses them all at length with a poignancy that can come only from a real or assumed personal involvement. He agonizes over each of them as he tries to balance responsibility and curiosity and worries what will happen to his reputation if things go wrong. The arguments sink thoroughly home, and in the process they produce a distinctly negative attitude toward the whole idea of cloning particularly as it is put into practice in this book. Rorvik may have intended this effect, for he does seem to believe that cloning is a development that must be accepted cautiously and critically, if at all. It must not be rushed, as was nuclear power, so quickly that its more unfortunate side-effects emerge unforeseen. And he just may set people to thinking about bioethics enough to justify his, book, fraud though it may seem.

Is In His Image a fraud, presented as it is? It is, if no Max exists and no cloning was actually done. But it is a useful fraud, a piece of "docu-drama" aimed at raising the public consciousness. And there are pointers in the text that suggest that this is how the book was intended:

--"The cloning of a man, because its impact would be so immediately dramatic, could make this new adventure [on the newly opening frontier of biological inner space] accessible to millions who might otherwise understand little of what was transpiring in the molecular world.

It was conceivable, then, that the cloning of a man might not inhibit but actually speed up the important research that was poised, like a rocket on a launching pad, ready to go forward." (p. 28)

--"Was I now going to try to laugh off what I had written, as if the world of books and articles were all make-believe?" (p. 30)

--"'Interpretative' journalism, it was believed by many--and their arguments were often persuasive--was needed to give the 'truth' three dimensions." (p. 74)

--"I entertain absolutely no expectation that anyone, scientist or layman, will accept this book as proof of the events described herein. I am fully cognizant of and fully respectful of the methods by which scientific data must be conveyed. I hope, however, that many readers will be persuaded of the possibility, even the probability, of what I have described and will benefit by this preview of an astonishing development whose time, at least in terms of some of the emotional and ethical issues it raises, has apparently not quite yet come." (pp. 207-208)

Rorvik is already well on his way to succeeding in his apparent aim. Every newspaper in the country has carried pieces on his book. I have even found a sports story, written by Dave Kindred and copyrighted by The Washington Post, about a race horse named Piece of Heaven and bred by the Florida Agriculture Experiment Station; Kindred writes "If a millionaire named Max can clone a descendant, why couldn't Secretariat?" and goes on, tongue in cheek, to give the details. And Barbara J. Culliton has written a piece for Science, the weekly journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, that recounts the controversy swirling about Rorvik's book even before its publication. The consensus of those scientists involved in work related to cloning, as she reports it, is that cloning will be possible before too many more years have passed, but it has certainly not yet been done. Not only could such a secret not be kept, but the state of the art is not yet fully enough developed to permit it. But not everyone is so sure Rorvik is lying. One group of scientists, together with the People's Business Commission (a public-interest lobby), has filed a Freedom of Information Act suit seeking information on all cloning-related work financed by NIH, NSF, CIA, and the Departments of Agriculture and Defense, with an eye on beginning public debate on the topic. In addition, the House health subcommittee is thinking of holding hearings on the topic.

Rorvik has been called a liar, a fraud, and a jackass in print, and his book has been called a hoax. But even though I do not believe his claims, I will not be that unkind. I suspect Rorvik of a devious, and perhaps mercenary, turn of mind, and I think he has devised a clever, attention-getting ploy that will have an entirely salutary effect. Bioethics is important at this time in our history, but like most ethical and philosophical areas, it requires too distasteful and laborious an amount of thought to get much shrift from the average Jane and Joe. Rorvik has put it into a frame as carefully and dramatically plotted as a novel. He has made it accessible, and he deserves far more praise than blame. In His Image is well worth reading, even if it should be taken with a grain of salt--or, better, two.