“Dolly,” the first mammal cloned from adult cells, was a female sheep who lived from July 5, 1996 to February 14, 2003. “Dolly” reflects the ambiguous human agency that is characteristic of the Anthropocene: While humans, viewed as a unified agent, have altered the Earth system for thousands or even millions of years to come as scientists like Paul Crutzen and Will Steffen claim, these changes are, to a large extent, unintended consequences of human action. The Anthropocene thus emerges as an experiment that has taken on a life of its own and can no longer be controlled. “Dolly, the sheep” has come to embody this ambiguity, and the fears and hopes associated with it, on a material and a discursive level.
Like Frankenstein’s monster, “Dolly” became a potent symbol for a precarious experiment to which deeper anxieties about the natural sciences’ quest to penetrate nature and life were attached. Unlike the fictional monster, “Dolly” existed in material form and thus demanded a rethinking of our basic ideas about life. Her physical body, a genetically identical ‘copy’ of an existing organism, substantiated fears in the general public that the cloning of humans may be a realistic possibility, triggering an intense ethical debate.
Furthermore, the complex process through which “Dolly” came to life challenges some of the most basic received categories and concepts. After scientists selected a six year old female sheep to be ‘copied,’ cells were removed from this ewe’s udder and combined with an egg cell from another sheep. The resulting embryo was implanted into the womb of a third sheep who eventually gave birth to “the most famous cloned organism,” a title bestowed on “Dolly” by the Human Genome Institute. Was the lamb’s age to be counted from the day of her birth, or did her age correspond to that of the sheep whose DNA she carried? Who or what exactly was it that gave life to “Dolly?”
Just as Dolly’s existence complicated conceptualizations of origin and of age, as articles in Science repeatedly pointed out, it complicates the notion of the anthropos in Anthropocene. “Dolly” is framed as a triumph of the natural sciences and even as a national achievement, despite the short duration of her life during which she developed arthritis and lung disease. The exhibition of her taxidermied body at the Royal Museum in Edinburgh, originally part of a display to commemorate the 50 year anniversary of Watson and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA, attest to this. But is the mere fact that the scientists involved in the cloning process were human enough to take Dolly as an example of human agency? While her life was made possible through ‘human’ intervention into ‘natural’ processes, “Dolly” complicates a strict separation between these categories as a result. Living proof that “information can be extracted and freed from animal bodies as much as from machinic objects,” as a recent article about digital animals pointed out, “Dolly” also complicates any clear-cut boundaries such as those that have been posited between humans, animals, and machines.
Thinking of Dolly as an anthropocene artifact thus has the paradoxical effect of reinforcing and undermining the special place humans have claimed for themselves, particularly in relation to other animals.
The image is attributed to Mike Pennington via Wikimedia Commons.
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