It seems like only yesterday that Alfred Vellucci, the crusty mayor of Cambridge, Mass. during the 1970s and self-styled one-man poison pill to the burgeoning biotech industry, hauled the cloners of Harvard and MIT before the city council and gave them a lesson in English 101. “Most of
us in this room, including myself, are lay people,” he solemnly intoned during an infamous June 1976 meeting, during which the burghers debated a moratorium on experiments using recombinant DNA. “We don’t understand your alphabet. So you will spell it out for us so we’ll know exactly what you’re talking about…”
A scientist stripped of jargon, it must be said, offers a particularly forlorn form of public nakedness. Although I never found Vellucci’s scientific arguments against recombinant DNA very convincing, I have always had a grudging admiration for the populist economy with which he revised the terms of the debate. He displayed an artful ability to see that a common vocabulary was essential to resolving (or, in this case, roiling) public debate about a new technology.
“Can you make an absolute, 100 percent guarantee that there is no possible risk which might arise from this experimentation?” Vellucci asked at one point. No one could, of course. By keeping things simple-in many cases, too simple -certain words and terms assumed an aura of dread.
I thought of Vellucci and the power of simple words to shape public perceptions because of a recent news report out of Tokyo. At least 66 head of “cloned” cattle, and perhaps many more, had inadvertently been sold to Japanese consumers, unleashing fears about the the safety of bioengineered beef. Steak TATA, anyone?
There are several reasons to suspect those fears were exaggerated, starting with the fact that it is a common practice among livestock breeders to split embryos during in vitro fertilization-that is, create identical twins, or “clones”-in order to get two or more prized animals for the price of one fertilization. Moreover, the Japanese cattle apparently did not have any genes added, deleted or manipulated.
The real interest, to my mind, is the way the word “clone” continues to set society’s hair on end. Biologists have for decades been notoriously promiscuous in their use of the technical word “clone”; it can mean anything from a replicated piece of DNA to Dolly, from an identical brood of frogs to a Frankensteinian (and, to date, still hypothetical) human experiment. Outside the scientific community, the word has acquired a meaning altogether different-something eerie and unnatural-that may forever pose significant problems for the biotech industry.
Mere words, taken out of their customary context, become shorthand for social anxieties. Consider the legacy of “nuclear magnetic resonance.” As long as researchers applied the technique to a lowly clam, as in the earliest experiments, no one had a problem with what is, after all, a perfectly descriptive technical phrase. Start sending humans into machines for diagnosis, however, and suddenly “nuclear magnetic resonance” starts to sound like the kind of medicine they practice at the Three Mile Island HMO. Hence,”magnetic resonance imaging.”
In this age of linguistic deflation, where innocent bombing victims become “collateral damage” and sex is not legally “sex,” perhaps the most underappreciated sector of the economy is the booming business devoted to the manufacture of catchy metaphors and euphemisms. Biotech and its discontents have battled for decades over clones and “suicide” genes and, more recently, “Frankenfood.”
There are two ways to look at these debates. One is that the uproar over cloned Japanese beef is merely the latest in a long line of examples
in which the human frailty in risk assessment is richly and abundantly on display. Of all the possibilities to fear when buying a piece of meat-contamination with a toxic strain of E. coli, dietary cholesterol, hormone residues, even the car ride home from the store-the fact that the beef was “cloned” seems trivial in comparison.
But there is another, less dismissive way to view the Japanese controversy. It may well be that the vague but widespread public unease about the genetic future of our food supply (see “Biotech Goes Wild”) gathers itself around a suggestive word or phrase. The specific fear of “cloned” beef may be silly, but the general discomfort level about bioengineered food is legitimate and, I suspect, not transient.Whether the phrase appears on a textbook or a food label, “genetically engineered” continues to have a sinister connotation, which is why agribusiness has worked so mightily to keep those words off packaging.
Most scientists consider Alfred Vellucci’s objections to cloning unscientific and misinformed. But another Cambridge city official, David Clem, put his finger on a problem that will never go away when societies grapple with new technologies. “I tried to understand the science, but I decided I couldn’t make a legitimate assessment of the risk,” said the former city councilman. “When I realized I couldn’t decide…on scientific grounds, I shifted to the political.”And in politics, the definition of every word is up for grabs.