Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999


Brigitte Nerlich, David D. Clarke and Robert Dingwall (1999) 'The Influence of Popular Cultural Imagery on Public Attitudes Towards Cloning'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 3, <>

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Received: 16/9/1999      Accepted: 27/9/1999      Published: 30/9/1999


This article shows how public attitudes towards cloning and geneticallymodified food and crops are influenced by dystopian science fictionliterature, films, images and metaphors. We analyse a body of textsproduced in the wake of the announcement of the successful cloning of Dollythe sheep by the Roslin Institute in February 1997, using methods fromdiscourse analysis and cognitive semantics. It is hoped that a betterunderstanding of the emergence and structure of lay imagery of issues suchas cloning will facilitate more effective communication between experts,policy makers and citizens.

Attitudes; Cloning; Cognitive Semantics; Discourse Analysis; Genetic Engineering; Genetically Modified Food; Metaphor; Popular Imagery; Public Of Science; Science Fiction

Media, images, and metaphors

In their recent article "Power without Responsibility: Media Portrayals of Dolly and Science", Wilkie and Graham voice their surprise that the cloning issue did not nearly receive as much press coverage as, for instance BSE, but was still widely discussed by the general public. They conclude that: "There was clearly a preexisting level of interest and public consciousness about cloning." (Wilkie & Graham 1998: 156).

We will show how dystopian sci-fi stories, films, and images influence public attitudes towards cloning, especially human cloning. The metaphors and comparisons used in the discourse about cloning had therefore mainly negative connotations, reflecting and stoking the general public's fears about cloning.

This fear is nowadays exacerbated by the anxieties surrounding genetic engineering, especially 'genetically modified' (GM) foods -- "Frankenstein food", including "Frankenfish" --, and, more recently, "GM children", that is, children whose intelligence is boosted by giving them a second helping of a certain gene (see Andrew Marr, The Times, "GM children -- why not?", 5/9/1999, p. 28, after reports about genetic enhancement of learning in mice).

The stories and metaphors surrounding cloning and genetic engineering make it almost impossible to envisage clones other than as brothers and sisters of Frankenstein's monster living in a 'brave new world', or to see Frankenstein foods other than as descendants of the 'triffids'. Newspaper headlines and headlines on the internet, dealing with genetically modified foods, use phrases like 'Who is afraid of Frankenfood?, 'Frankenstein goes shopping', 'Public to be force-fed Frankenstein food propaganda', 'sowing the seeds of disaster', 'cultivating concerns', and urge readers to 'avoid GM foods like the plague'. Headlines such as 'stop worrying and eat up your greens' or 'foods for the future' are much rarer.

If policy makers had appreciated just how much a long-standing tradition of fiction relating to cloning and genetic engineering had prepared the ground for the discussion of the facts of the genetic revolution, a more self-conscious rhetorical distancing of genetic science from genetic fiction might have made possible a more open public debate. We shall here concentrate on the debate surrounding cloning with some reference to genetically modified foods.

Cloning was put on the public agenda when, in the spring of 1997, the Roslin Institute in Scotland, under the leadership of Dr Ian Wilmut, announced the creation of Dolly the sheep, the first cloned adult mammal. Since then public views in Great Britain and the USA of the rapidly moving field of genetic research have been influenced by media reports and discussions on the WWW.[1] But this type of communication is not just simplified scientific discourse. It makes extensive and calculated use of imagery and metaphors, many of them borrowed not from science but from science fiction.

In the following we shall trace certain metaphors and images associated with cloning and used repeatedly in British newspapers as well as on the internet back to their sources in science fiction films and novels, as well as to four 'scientists', whose voices (the voice of reason, of fantasy, of doom, and of hubris) dominated the airwaves, the newspapers and the internet between 1997 and 1999.

This article can be seen not only as a contribution to the sociology of science, but also to an epidemiological account of culture, in the sense of Dan Sperber (Sperber 1996). To explain culture in this framework is to explain why and how some ideas (social or cultural representations) happen to be contagious, how they come to propagate effectively, how they become successful 'replicators'. In our case the question is: Why did the idea of cloning become such an infectious idea and why did it have the negative connotations it had?

Over the last twenty years, it has become apparent that the framing of problems and issues in society often depends on metaphors, which again generate problem settings and set the directions of problem solving (Schön 1979: 255).

In certain historical periods metaphors serve to express commonly held but imperfectly articulated feelings. People often share certain sentiments, fears, or hopes that have failed to reach expression for lack of adequate means. At such times a well-chosen metaphor may be taken up quite eagerly. Such popular metaphors serve as a medium of common understanding, giving people a sense of communality and possible direction. (Gergen 1990: 275)

The work of linguists and philosophers such as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (Lakoff and Johnson 1980) has shown that metaphor is an integral part of our ordinary thought and language. They claim that the metaphors we use in concrete utterances, such as "I shot holes through his argument" are in their turn rooted in various 'conceptual metaphors', such as ARGUMENT IS WAR. We understand 'arguments' (the so called target domain) in terms of war (the so called source domain). Metaphors allow us to understand novel or abstract things or concepts in terms of older or more concrete concepts.

Two of the most important metaphors used in the public discourse on cloning are the conceptual metaphors (Cloned)CHILDREN ARE PRODUCTS and (Cloned)) ORGANS ARE SPARE PARTS These base metaphors generate texts in which children are seen as 'instruments' or 'tools', a conceptualisation of children which has wide-ranging, practical and ethical consequences: if children are perceived as products, they can be 'taken back', 'exchanged for a better model', 'discarded', and 'controlled' (see section 4).

Human organs as crops, on the other hand, can be 'harvested', 'farmed' and so on, reducing the human being, the clone on which these organs grow, to a mere 'grow bag', stripped of all humanity. The human or cloned organ 'donor' can also be conceptualised as a machine, the organs as spare parts that can be bought and sold, and the whole extraction process as taking place in a 'human body shop', as the title of a book by Andrew Kimbrell suggests (Kimbrell and Nathanson 1993). The target domains of such metaphorising processes are adults, children, embryos, their cells and their organs. The metaphoric source domains are extracted from our knowledge of farming, manufacturing, car maintenance, and xeroxing. In the mind of many people genetic engineering is easily equated with social engineering and reduced to a process of mechanical engineering.

The general public's fears about cloning articulated via the use of such metaphors echo the concerns expressed in ethical discourse. Where the ethical experts quote (directly or indirectly) Immanuel Kant's saying that one should 'treat humanity, whether in our own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only', the general public uses metaphors to talk about human dignity and autonomy, and they reach back not to philosophy books but to sci-fi novels and films to underpin their arguments.

But discourses about cloning are not only anchored in metaphors, images and sci-fi stories, they are also grounded in prior knowledge schemas, which in turn structure expectations and interpretations. Some of these knowledge schemas are extracted from fictional stories, but others are derived from 'stories' about previous advances in genetics and reproductive medicine, particularly IVF, the story of the birth of Louise Brown in 1978, and the arguments for and against this new way of having babies and of creating life (Hodgson 1998: 14, note 14).

As will become evident in later sections of this article, the discourse on cloning is based on a network of metaphors and commonplaces. Access to this network is usually provided by vivid images linked directly to certain science fiction media. This is born out not only by our analysis of newspaper articles and e-mail, but by research with focus groups as recently undertaken by the Wellcome Trust (Wellcome Report 1998). Researchers found that the titles of books and films, such as Frankenstein, Brave New World, and Boys from Brazil, were used by subjects as references "in a metaphorical manner to which it was hoped others within the group would relate" (Wellcome Report 1998, 6.2).

In his book Frankenstein's Footsteps Turney has begun to explore the role of popular culture in helping to shape and express public attitudes (Turney 1998). He suggests that just the title of a cultural reference, such as Frankenstein can evoke an entire story or 'script', which can be used as an interpretative frame. This frame then structures the narratives through which the public communicate concerns especially about the social consequences of cloning and genetic modification (Wellcome Report 1998, 2.10). Frankenstein, for example, evokes the script of the mad scientist who invents an individual human monster, whereas Brave New World evokes the script of the state-managed production of copies of human beings on assembly lines, a script that is directly linked to that of the mad dictator who wants to create an army of followers or a master-race, a topic explored in the film Boys from Brazil.

Research similar to Turney's, tapping into the relation between popular imagination and popular understanding of science, can be found in the sociology of science. In a recent contribution to the cloning debate Dorothy Nelkin and Susan Lindee note that: "The public response to the production of a lamb by cloning a cultured cell line reflects the futuristic fantasies and Frankenstein fears that have more broadly surrounded research in genetics and especially genetic engineering" (Nelkin & Lindee 1998: 145). In the summer of 1998 José Van Dijck published a book entitled Imagenation. Popular images of genetics,in which she explores the crucial role that images have played in the popularization of genetic knowledge, especially those used by journalists who attracted readers by using images of selfish genes and of cloned monsters. At the end of 1998 Alan Hodgson wrote his MA thesis (MA Society, Science and Technology in Europe), supervised by Van Dijck, entitled "Undressing Dolly: A clone's 12 months gestation period in the UK press". He used 'frames' and narrative analysis to discover how fears and hopes about cloning are generated by the media.

The research presented here combines advances in the sociological studies of science communication, public understanding of science, attitudes, and the social creation of 'meaning' with research into metaphor inside cognitive linguistics.

Science and Science fiction

Science fiction has long explored the implications of cloning and contributed to shaping our society's visions of its possible future. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, written in 1831, was one of the first books to explore the threats of 'modern' science, and it is still one of the most powerful sources for the creation of SF style stories relating to cloning.

The appearance of Dolly has produced a spectacular shift in our 'collective imagination', superimposing the photos of a woolly and relatively loveable sheep over the fictitious pictures of Frankenstein's monster and superimposing the picture of Dr Ian Wilmut, a rather cuddly and mild-mannered scientist, over the images of Dr Frankenstein.

But this has not stopped people from going into 'apocalyptic' mode when confronted with the possibilities of cloning - not sheep, but, by a direct and unavoidable inferential leap - humans. The image of Frankenstein's monster, which is, it should be stressed, a human monster, not an alien or mythical creature, was quickly showing through the picture of Dolly the sheep. And all the assurances by Dolly's creators that they would not like to engage in the cloning of humans did little to dispel this powerful image of a human monster lurking behind Dolly. This human monster soon turned into lots of human monsters. Images of armies of human clones (dictators and their super-warriors, in particular) proliferated. Super-weeds are the correlaries of super-humans and super-animals in the debate about genetically modified foods and crops.

Very soon Frankenstein's monster merged with the assembly lines of Brave New World, another futuristic reference point that was transformed by this confrontation with reality. The myths of modernity, the fictional representations of our biological future have merged with scientific facts and photos: fiction has become flesh. Poetic images have become personal threats, threats that actually stare out at you from screens, advertising boards, journals, newspapers, and also from the shelves of your local supermarket where genetically modified 'Frankenstein' food is sold.

This fusion of science fiction and science fact in the media has changed public attitudes to genetic sciences. But some discourses by scientists and science journalists have actively contributed to strengthening the link between science fiction and science fact. In this process Dolly the cloned sheep has played an important role, as Dolly can either be used to subvert some of the very negative images of cloning and to allay some of the fears about the genetic revolution in general (as most of the 'real' scientists, such as Wilmut, try to do), or it can be seen as an indicator that human cloning is imminent and must be stopped (as most of the public and some scientific popularisers argue) (see section 5).

The discourse about cloning thus wavers between horror and hope. Scientists and policy makers have recently tried to enhance the discourse of hope by splitting discourse about cloning up into talk about 'therapeutic cloning' (cloning for the sake of better medicine and health care, production of 'spare parts', etc.), which is portrayed as a positive development, and talk about 'reproductive cloning' (cloning of whole human beings, production of offspring), which is still viewed with some scepticism. This scepticism has recently been turned into well-founded opposition after findings that Dolly the clone inherited the age of her tissue-donor (see Sheils et al., 27 May 1999). The general public fails however to make this scientific distinction in their discourse about cloning, which is seen as 'evil' from whatever perspective.

The main reason for this 'irrational' rejection of cloning is that the science of cloning and the science-fiction of cloning have evolved in parallel since the appearance of Frankenstein. Advances in science, social and political changes, mad semi-scientific schemes and fictitious scenarios have punctuated twentieth century history and laid the groundwork for the emergence of modern-day conceptual metaphors of cloning and for our discourses about genetic engineering. From Frankenstein and Brave New World onwards, making copies or replicas of human beings, what would later be called cloning, evoked feelings of horror and repulsion about the consequences this would have for the individual and society. The idea of cloning was therefore negatively charged from the start and this was also the reason why this idea could replicate more easily. And this will go on for some time, as lay people will not stop talking about human cloning as long as sci-fi films and stories surrounding this issue continue to be produced.

The fictional discourse about cloning and genetic engineering from Frankenstein onwards had a cumulative effect on social consciousness and shaped our social representations of these issues. It also prepared the ground for those who read and heard 'stories' about cloning by three scientists and semi-scientists.

Source scenarios

Despite a wealth of sci-fi films and stories about cloning produced during the 20th century, there were only a few scenarios and images which people tapped into and which recurred wherever and whenever they talked about cloning. The question is: Did people go back individually to the sci-fi stories and metaphors they wanted to use or was there a filtering-process that filtered out certain images and scenarios right after the birth of Dolly? And who did the filtering?

Surprisingly, one can give a quite accurate answer to this question. Most of these images emerged first in the 'collaboration' of various 'scientists' with the media. In the scientific and semi-scientific discourse about cloning four voices dominated the air-waves and newspapers, the internet and the television, and structured our various discourses about cloning from the very beginning.

Ian Wilmut initiates the discourse of reason

Dr Ian Wilmut is an embryologist, researcher at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh, and 'creator' of Dolly the sheep. With his mild manners and cuddly, bearded, be-spectacled appearance he does not fit the picture of Dr Frankenstein. But he cannot always escape this image (as Simon Jenkins said in the Times "give either a test tube and a spark of electricity and they will end up playing God", 9/12/98, p. 12, - and electric shocks actually play a role in 'nuclear transfer', the technique on which cloning is based). An interview in Salon Magazine, given on February 24, 1997, one day after the Observer had broken the story about Dolly, was therefore entitled: "Dr Frankenstein, I presume?":

[...] Science fiction. Cloning the dead. A technology out of control. What do you make of such reactions to your work?

I think they're over the top. [...]

And does it mean that cloning humans is possible?

We don't know. It is quite likely that it is possible, yes. But what we've said all along -- speaking for both the (Roslin) Institute and the PPL staff -- is that we would find it ethically unacceptable to think of doing that. We can't think of a reason to do it. If there was a reason to copy a human being, we would do it, but there isn't.

Is the idea of cloning the dead totally fanciful?

Yep. [...] Still [...] the genie is out of the bottle, so to speak. [...] (Feb 24, 1997;

More recently, Wilmut has reasserted his convictions that cloning is a medical advance, not a step towards an apocalyptic future in an article for the Scientific American (12/98, pp. 30-36): "Cloning for medicine":

Several commentators and scientists have suggested that it might in some cases be ethically acceptable to clone existing people. One scenario envisages generating a replacement for a dying relative. All such possibilities, however, raise the concern that the clone would be rated as less than a complete individual, because he or she would likely be subjected to limitations and expectations based on the family's knowledge of the genetic "twin". Those expectations might be false, because human personality is only partly determined by genes. The clone of an extrovert could have a quite different demeanor. Clones of athletes, movie stars, entrepreneurs or scientists[2] might well choose different careers because of chance events in early life.
Some pontificators have also put forward the notion that couples in which one member is infertile might choose to make a copy of one or the other partner. But society ought to be concerned that a couple might not treat naturally a child who is a copy of just one of them [...] None of the suggested uses of cloning for making copies of existing people is ethically acceptable to my way of thinking, because they are not in the interest of the resulting child. (p. 35)

But the discourse of reason soon merged with the discourse of fantasy, as illustrated by this extract from an Editorial by Alun Anderson published in the New Scientist (1/3/1997):

Now we know that we can clone an adult animal. And since what works in sheep is likely to be possible in humans, we are suddenly propelled right past the imagined techniques of Brave New World. [...] there are endless possibilities for futuristic speculation. The egotistical may be able to clone themselves and give themselves the upbringing that they always thought they deserved. The rich and powerful would be able to found dynasties where at death they would pass all their wealth to a genetically identical but younger version of themselves. Those anxious to put off their own demise might be able to create a body double, complete except for brain functioning, from which they took perfect transplant organs as their own wore out. And anyone facing the loss of a loved one might attempt to recreate that person from cells taken before death.
The fans of the famous might have the opportunity to bring their heroes back to life. How many seekers after Elvis might wish to see the King reborn - assuming that someone, somewhere has a bit of Elvis's tissue to create the clone from?

A month later Harry Griffin wrote on Roslin Institute Online ("Dollymania"):

The immediate assumption was that cloning of humans was just around the corner and that seemed to trigger an explosion (at least in the media) of fears about the future. Fears that most of the general public knew were unlikely to be realised and could, as a consequence, enjoy in safety. Just like 'the X files'.
Much of the speculation was based on science fiction rather than good sense, with the Times and a Dr Patrick Dixon taking our award for the most outrageous list of 'reasons' for cloning humans.

Dr Alan Coleman, Research Director of PPL Therapeutics, which partly funded the research into Dolly, wrote on similar lines in The Times (15/6/98, p. 17):

The scientific community's reaction was, on the whole, friendly. The public's reaction, by contrast, was extremely negative, primed to some extent by a media weaned on a diet of cloning scare stories and pulp fiction.
It was the fact that the technique could be applied to humans that provoked the frenzied debate. The first old chestnut to appear was the cloning of dictators, followed by celebrity cloning, self-cloning, the pre-selection of citizens by the State, with its echoes of Brave New World, the reincarnation of dead loved ones, treatment for infertile couples, a way to avoid parental genetic diseases being passed on to children and a way to cure terminal illness.

These 'old chestnuts' had been thrown onto the fire of public discussion by Dixon in an article for the Times to which we shall come shortly, after having listened to the second most important voice in the cloning debate after Wilmut.

Lee M. Silver fuels the discourse of fantasy

Lee Silver is professor of molecular biology at Princeton University. As The Independent reported at the beginning of 1998 (22/1/98), Dr Silver "is a scientist who is not afraid of being a science fantasist. He says this is because he has tenure and can say what he likes", and say what he likes he does.

He was told about the birth of Dolly by Gina Kolata of the New York Times (Kolata 1997). "It's unbelievable!" he said. "It basically means that all of science fiction is true." She got her quote, and he appeared on 23 talk shows in the next 14 days (Andrew Brown, review of Silver and Kolata, Salon magazine) - and he has been appearing on TV and radio programmes about cloning ever since. Silver is also the author of Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World (Silver 1997). As Andrew Brown observes in his review of this book:

By the end of "Remaking Eden", he has gone into complete raving mad-scientist mode. He foresees a long-term future in which humans will have fitted themselves with genetic accessories from all over the animal kingdom: We will have magnetic direction-finding systems like birds, built-in batteries like electric eels and, should we want them, luminous bottoms like fireflies. [...] And if we can do all that, we can probably fit pigs with wings, no trouble. (

The topic Silver became most famous for, and which has now become part of the popular folklore about cloning, is his anxiety about the possibility that genetic engineering will lead to the evolution of two races, one master-race consisting in descendants of designer babies, off-spring of selfish and rich people set upon perpetuating their selfish genes, the other consisting in those who can't afford the genetic enhancement of their children. This type of discourse is linked to the fears about 'manufacturing babies' through cloning, which will be explored later.

But the discourse of fantasy was not only fuelled by Professor Silver's interventions. The general public quickly constructed links between cloning and various distant and more recent literary and cinematic references, which came up again and again in the focus groups studied by the Wellcome Trust in 1998:

Discussions were peppered throughout with negative references to films and books including The Boys from Brazil, Jurassic Park, Blade Runner, Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, Frankenstein, Brave New World, Stepford Wives, Star Trek and Alien Resurrection. These references were often used to punctuate discussion, but it was not always clear which aspects of the film were being alluded to. Classic stories such as Frankenstein, Brave New World and, to a lesser extent, The Boys from Brazil, were not referred to in detail, but were often simply cited as examples. Just the reference to a film or book appeared to be sufficient to describe participant's concerns, and there was an assumption that others in the group would be able to understand these instantly. Several participants mentioned having seen the film GATTACA, which was on general release over the research period, but in cases where there was less familiarity they took more time to explain the general plot to others in the group. (Wellcome Report 1998)

These references chimed in well with the discourse of doom initiated by Dixon.

Patrick Dixon initiates the discourse of doom

Dr Patrick Dixon is an international lecturer on gene technology, Cambridge University. He has his own company: Global Changeand his own web-site. Like Silver, he appeared on almost every radio and TV programme about cloning in the US and the UK. He is the author of The Genetic Revolution (Dixon 1993).

The day after the Observer broke the story about Dolly, Dixon provided the basic source scenarios for the public discourse about cloning, and with them the hooks on which to attach various metaphorical extensions:

He began in The Times (24/2/97) by relating that he had been contacted by a woman only the previous week wanting to know how she could clone her dead father, carrying the clone to term herself. Dr Dixon then offers a list of people who may consider cloning. Contained within this small list of scenarios are some of the motifs that came to dominate the press speculation on human cloning applications in this early period. The images of potential human clones then became the 'dictator' (Saddam Hussein and Hitler being most frequently cited), the 'wealthy megalomaniac', 'replacements for lost loved ones' and the creation of a clone for 'spare parts'. (Hodgson 1998: 35)

Richard Seed, the reincarnation of Frankenstein, initiates the discourse of hubris

Whereas the 'creator' of Dolly is opposed to human cloning and therefore rejects the Frankensteinisation of his research, Richard Seed, an American physicist with no experience in genetics or IVF, openly embraces both. In January 1998 he proposed to open the first cloning clinic in the United States. In a Channel 5 programme, entitled "The Clone Rangers" (12/2/1998), Seed was therefore introduced as a "modern day Frankenstein", as the "ultimate clone ranger".

He is reported to say that he wants to become one with God. He seems to argue that God made man in his own image and that because God gave us the ability to do this now ourselves we can become God. By offering the possibility of cloning to infertile couples, he promises eternal genetic life. By accepting money from the Raelian cult, who believe that life on earth was started by aliens who cloned themselves, he projects his 'treatment' of infertility into the realm of religious and futuristic madness.

Metaphors, images, and their imagined social consequences

The science of cloning and the negative portrayal of cloning in science fiction have constantly intermeshed during the 20th century, to such an extent that when cloning became a scientific reality this reality was instantly seen as a nightmare. These links between cloning, science fiction and doomsday scenarios had been reinforced by some scientists writing for the popular press, as shown in the preceding section.

As The Times (26/2/97) wrote immediately after the birth of Dolly, cloning is a "topic deeply distorted in the popular understanding by the lurid nightmares of science fiction." And The Independent (8/11/98) still wrote over a year later: "Human embryology raises huge ethical concerns in its own right [...], but when it also involves cloning, the anxiety is even greater. The fears have been well exercised in works of fiction, from Aldous Huxley's vision of a 'cloned' race of sub-intelligent workers to the nightmare scenario of the 1970s film Boys from Brazil, where clones of Hitler are raised secretly in the South American jungle."

These fears were echoed by the general public when they spoke about cloning at the end of 1998. A woman who lost a child said: "You see it on films, armies of marching robots. Why do we need cloning?;" a grandparent wrote in a diary: "I dread to think what could happen if it was to end up like something of a sci-fi film;" a man said: "Cloning ... I mean it's Frankenstein-type medicine;" a woman in her 30s/40s said: "It's a Star Trek thing - androids with a brain that could think like a human;" and another man summarised the feeling of many when he said: "I have a Brave New World vision where we have half a dozen or so different kinds of human being classified according to their ability ... I think Mr Huxley was quite perceptive" (Wellcome Report 1998). The Times report about the Wellcome inquire quotes a woman as saying "she could visualise a spare parts cloning plant. 'I can just imagine this factory with all these little hearts pumping away in jars'." (4/12/98, p. 12)

These images were linked to various metaphors about cloning. Metaphor has been defined as understanding one thing in terms of another, as transferring attributes from a source domain onto a target domain, the source domain being something we already understand, the target domain something we still need to understand. In the case of cloning the target domain is cloning itself, the source domains used to understanding cloning are taken from our use of machines, our ways of manufacturing things, our ways of repairing machines and supplying, fitting and exchanging spare-parts, our ways of farming and harvesting plants, crops, and animals. But the most pervasive source domain for understanding cloning is our more recent way of copying things in everyday life.

Here is a small sample of voices using various metaphors for cloning, collected from newspapers and the web:

The Guardian (1/3/97) reported that a Mr Pizer wanted to clone himself: "I want either myself or an exact duplicate copy - and I mean exact duplicate - of myself to exist." The Guardian (24/2/97) reported that cloning "could also be used to 'photocopy' animals."

The Wellcome Trust reported that:

Many participants claimed to have a vivid image in their mind of what a clone would be. When prompted, responses commonly described 'photocopied' individuals and automated production lines or artificial incubators producing multiple adult clones. This concept of human cloning was linked to its adoption by malevolent outside influences such as the military, megalomaniac leaders and rogue scientists. Examples frequently cited were genetic experiments conducted by Nazis. (Wellcome Report, 1998)

In an Editorial in the Observer, Greek Orthodox Church, we can read:

Hello Dolly, Dolly, Dolly, Dolly, Dolly, Dolly, Dolly At last! We now have the ability to Xerox ourselves. Can collating be far behind? (

The most frequently asked questions on the web-site maintained by the New Scientist were: Could clones be "farmed" to provide spare body parts for their "parent" clone without problems of tissue rejection? Could people be cloned without conscious brains (so their body parts could be harvested with fewer moral qualms)? Could vital organs be grown using cloning without the rest of a body?

In The Times (15/6/98, p. 17) Dr Alan Coleman (Research Director of PPL Therapeutics) wrote in his article "Why cloning would be inhuman": "So human cloning is, and will, I hope, continue, to be unethical. A child so 'manufactured' - and that I believe is the appropriate term, could be a 21st-century circus act." This view was echoed by Lord Alton on Panorama.

Gina Kolata quotes Gilbert Meilaender, a Lutheran theologian, as saying "cloning entails the production, rather than the creation, of a child. It is 'far less a surrender to the mystery of the genetic lottery', and 'far more an understanding of the child as a product of human will'." (Kolata 1997: 8). This commodification of children is well illustrated on this quote from a web-site set up by a company specialising in reproductive cloning:

witching the sex of an embryo is easily done - at DreamTech we offer this service for a surcharge of only USD 200. If you make use of our special offer and get a backup for free, you can have different-sex twins from the same original. (

One metaphor stands out of the rest and needs to be looked at more closely, and that is the metaphor: CLONES ARE PRODUCTS.

This implies that clones/cloned children/cloned body parts

A similar image underlies some of the discourse about genetically modified food which is often referred to as 'designer food'. Just like clones, GM foods are therefore regarded as un-natural, as un-balancing the balance of nature, and so on. The picture of Frankenstein therefore encompasses both our fears about cloning and about genetically modified food - especially when we see, for example, caricatures of Tony Blair (genetically) modified in such a way that he resembles Boris Karloff, the most famous screen Frankenstein.

In 1980 Robert Nozick had already considered in his book Anarchy, State and Utopia the possibility of a "genetic supermarket", where prospective parents could freely select traits for their future designer children, a topic which was taken up by the 1998 dystopian film GATTACA which was influenced by advances in cloning technology and which in turn strongly influenced the public discourse about cloning. People therefore argued that treating clones as products would lead to:

Up to now we have mainly looked at the negative portrayal of cloning and GM foods. However, there are also those who hold more positive views on cloning and genetically modified food and want to dispel the fears and fantasies evoked by science-fiction scenarios. They rejoice in the fact that a fantasy has come true or that an expert's dream has come true and compare this to taking the first steps on the moon or to finding the holy grail of science. They have no qualms with scientists playing God because cloning promises eternal (genetic) life -- immortality. Genetically modified food too is portrayed as a new way of feeding an ever expanding hungry world.

More realistically, in the case of cloning, recent advances in genetic engineering might allow doctors and scientists to turn "skin cells into neurones, or hair cells into muscle tissue." This is regarded as "the biological equivalent to the philosopher's stone." (The Observer, 9/5/99, p. 23). Realism also pervades the discourse of those who argue that clones are just delayed twins, just loveable babies. As The Independent (1/3/97) pointed out, "the words carbon copy or Xerox are never applied to twins, not because they are insulting but because they are plain wrong". Identical twins became the new metaphor for clones - the publicly acceptable face of cloning (Hodgson 1998: 45).

Infertile couples interviewed on various TV shows repeatedly argued that clones are just babies to love. And whereas those who fear cloning argue that clones become organ banks, organ factories, or body doubles, complete except for brain functioning, for those who see the positive side of cloning clones are a 'means for regeneration' (Prof. Christine Gosden, HFEA, Panorama: "The first clone", 8/2/99). And whereas for some the fear is that the embryo becomes a tissue bank, a bioreactor, or a repair kit, for others the embryo is 'a life saving tissue generator' (Professor Gosden), 'just a small bundle of cells', 'not a person, just a little ball of cells' (Ian Wilmut Horizon: "Dawn of the clone age" and Sunday Telegraph, 22/2/98). For people who advocate human cloning, cloning is nothing but a different way of making babies.

And for those who advocate the genetic engineering of foods and crops this is nothing but a different way of feeding the world. But to get this positive message across is much more difficult, as it is much easier to find a negatively charged image, scenario or metaphor, than a positively charged one.


This paper has shown how much metaphors and images structure the public debate on cloning. Linked to science fiction novels, horror movies and films about alien worlds they shape popular culture. This culture is the basis for the public understanding of science and therefore needs to be taken seriously when policy makers want to understand the public understanding of new developments in the genetic sciences, be it cloning or genetic modification of food.

At present, part of the media, the tabloids in particular, are not so much waging war against cloning than against genetically modified food, so called Frankenstein Food, stoking the general public's fear about its impact on the world and themselves. Finding arguments against genetically engineered foods and crops was certainly made much easier after the birth of Dolly, when campaigners could directly point to a living proof of what genetic engineering could do now and in the future, as this little extract shows:

Fruit containing the genes of dangerous viruses could be produced, which will work like a vaccination every time we at a banana. Animals low in fat will be developed; chickens with no feathers and sheep that shed their fleeces automatically. More alarmingly, cloned sheep could mean we will soon have cloned humans. (Jules Pretty: "Stand by your ban on GM crops", The Times Higher Education Supplement, 23/10/98, p. 16)

The human clone in the guise of Frankenstein is the end-point to which any argument about cloning or genetic engineering inevitably leads. The counterpart to Frankenstein's monster (the proof of 'man's' hubris) is God who is also evoked in both the discourse about cloning and the discourse about GM foods. In both cases we are warned that it is dangerous to 'play God' and to create humans, animals and plants in unnatural ways.

Having been brought up with stories of alien plants, animals, and monsters, we will always imagine the clone as some alien creature, who, what is more, having eaten GM food, may well develop three heads, a fish's tail, an ear on his or her hand, or whatever else we can imagine or have seen with our own eyes on the TV or cinema screen. Using the metaphorical background developed during the last two years in our discourse about cloning, we will inevitably see the clone and his or her body parts as not quite human and we will see genetically modified food as not fit for human consumption.

The images and metaphors used in the discourse about cloning have certainly tinged the discourse about genetically modified food and crops. There are obvious overlaps: Frankenstein's monster, playing God, turning crops into 'drug factories', creating 'alien' genes, and so on. However, the images, metaphors, and fictional sources used in the discussion of genetically modified food are also quite different from those used in debates about cloning, as genetically modified crops might not only affect those who eat them, but also the whole eco-system. One environmental nightmare scenario is, for example, evoked with reference to Rachel Carson's classic book about the pesticide DDT, Silent Spring : "It is the year 2020 and the most silent of silent springs, apart from the rustle of genetically engineered oilseed rape, wheat, maize and other 'designer' crops nodding in the breeze....." (Nick Nuttall, The Times, 13/7/98, p. 15).

A comparative and contrastive study of the domains from which both discourses, that about cloning and that about GM foods, draw their metaphoric 'fuel' and to which uses they put their metaphors would therefore be desirable in the future.


1Most articles on cloning can be found on one of these web-sites:


2The Human Cloning Foundation has proposed to clone Stephen Hawking.


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