Cloning, part three: Eve

The same winter that saw controversy over the BBC documentary on Crispian Hollis’s sect, another claim was foisted on the world by another sect, who likewise urged others to believe their claims without evidence. On 26 December 2002, the day after a birthday celebrated for Hollis’ allegedly asexually born boy, along came an asexually born girl. Or so said a priest in a newer, far less popular sect. Flush with a potent mix of giddiness and apparent relief, chemist-cum-cleric-cum-CEO Brigitte Boisselier crowed to journalists that she had overseen the birth of a healthy girl who, if true to billing, was the first primate cloned from a somatic (i.e., non-germline) cell.

Pending so-called ‘independent’ confirmation (which never came), Boisselier declared that day that the world had only a week to plausibly call her a fraud. And so began an intense, if brief, inquisition (perhaps enough to do the BBC proud, but Torquemada might have been unimpressed). Pressed for proof of her cloning claim, Boisselier retorted that any such evidence she might offer would be dismissed out of hand, presumably due to her priestly subjectivity and/or direct financial stake in the matter.

The rest of Boisselier’s sect put up a stiff front of secrecy regarding their claims, too, and a safe consensus emerged among pundits: Boisselier’s announcement had been a lie, serving as a commercial publicity stunt for her and her colleagues. And, indeed, in the several years since the birth announcement, the only major nugget of followup detail that the sect has offered publicly is that the asexually born child and her mother have, like their forerunners in Hollis’s sect, allegedly found refuge somewhere near Jerusalem.

So what sort of evidence could Boisselier release to made her claim credible? Decisive evidence would comprise DNA sequences, from across the human nuclear genome, amplified in parallel from somatic (i.e., non-egg) cells of the alleged mother and daughter. Only if their genotypes matched each other perfectly in an overwhelming majority of cases (allowing for a few mismatches, for reasons we’ll get to below), and the derivation of sequences were proper and clear (there’s the rub, for Boisselier and any anonymity-minded sample donor), could one soundly infer that the donors derived from the same fertilized egg, and were, given their age disparity, most likely clone and clonee.

Absent such evidence, pundits understandably scoffed from the start. Belittling the chance that anyone — a non-MD to boot — might have pulled off such a rash stunt, talking heads shook scornfully, and took pains to mull the implications of human reproductive cloning in hypothetical terms only. Other empirically groundless claims of Boisselier’s sect — that humans have non-earthling forebears, for example — became fodder for doubting her truthfulness a priori. Suddenly, outspoken empirical rigor was in refreshing vogue!

And, perhaps miraculously, Crispian Hollis’s own priesthood called shotgun on the skeptics’ bandwagon. Vatican spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls burdened himself to speak for empiricists everywhere, declaring that ‘[Boisselier’s] announcement without any element of proof has already raised the skepticism and the moral condemnation of the greater part of the international scientific community.’ Such newfound skepticism made sense, too; after all, Navarro-Valls’s and Hollis’s own asexually bred darling hadn’t been born yesterday.

Duly steeled against falsehood, the world still awaited real tests of at several human cloning claims; no verdict came, and at least one alleged clonee cited lawsuits as deterring her from further disclosure, fueling talk of a charlatan hoax. But whether or not Boisselier, or anyone else, has yet cloned a woman using a skin cell nucleus, a sense of inevitability looms around that endeavor. Skepticism of human cloning claims, however fiercely it persists, may eventually look less like sincere evidentiary concern than like craven denial. Perhaps then, at this pregnant hour in the advent of human reproductive cloning, a broader survey of surrounding myths — not just those which are two millenia old — could help us decipher all the frightening scrawl on the wall.