March 2008

Barbara J. King

features

Sarah Franklinís Unpredictable Sheep Story

Last month, fans of the American TV show Lost heard Sawyer -- the embittered enmacho’d character who rivals with hero Doctor Jack for the affections of one very complex woman named Kate -- utter this bromide: “That’s the nice thing about sheep -- they’re predictable.” Not a memorable statement for most viewers, I’d wager, given the number of mysteries on the fictional island that command attention. Me, I can’t even retrieve the context for Sawyer’s statement. But those eight words of his caught my ear, because I have been reading Sarah Franklin’s Dolly Mixtures: The Remaking of Genealogy.

The book, dotted with sheep photos, decorated with sheep drawings, dogged by sheep wordplay, challenges the too-easy embrace of a symbol: sheep stand for predictability, placidity, stoicism, conformism, and a less than spectacular intelligence? Not so fast. Franklin, a Professor of Social Studies of Biomedicine at the London School of Economics and Political Science, shepherds her readers smartly towards a deeper understanding not only of the nature of sheep but also, and more critically, of the interplay among science, technology, and society.

Dolly, the most famous sheep ever, is the book’s star. Yes, this is Dolly the cloned sheep we all remember from the news headlines, except Dolly wasn’t cloned. And Franklin’s theme isn’t cloning.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Dolly was born in 1996. Scientists at Scotland’s Roslin Institute used a technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer or SCNT to create an embryo that subsequently became Dolly. The fascinating thing is that Dolly’s life was engineered from mammary cells: “The mammary cells used to make Dolly were derived from a cell line made from the udder of an elderly (six years old) and pregnant Finn Dorset ewe… By inducing the cultured cells into a particular stage in the cell cycle [scientists] were able to ‘convince’ twenty-nine of these cells to fuse with donor egg cells from Scottish Blackface sheep to make embryos, one of which became Dolly.” The Scottish Blackface recipient egg cells had their nuclei removed, so the Finn Dorset mammary cells “supplied 100 percent of the nuclear DNA for the resulting offspring.”

Clones are replicated from a single parent. Because Dolly had two parents, she was not strictly speaking a clone, but a unique mixture (hence the book’s title). She defied what most scientists thought they knew: “Dolly was supposed to be a biological impossibility because before her birth it was assumed that all cells ‘commit’ as they develop, becoming particular kinds of cells, such as hair cells, skin cells, liver cells, bone cells, or heart cells.” Unpredictably -- take that, Sawyer! -- this sheep, by her very birth and survival, informed the world that specialized adult cells (mammary cells, in this case) are extremely flexible in their action in the body. Cellular context rather than rigid DNA programming is the key factor.

Franklin brilliantly explains the significance of Dolly’s genesis from mammary cells: “Reversing the usual determinism attributed to DNA as the blueprint or master plan for cellular development, the Dolly technique contributed to a new emphasis on situated biological communication, in which the powerful egg cytoplasm replaces DNA as the origin of developmental ‘instructions’.” Let me say it plainly: genes can be reprogrammed by the body. This means genes are “situational and contextual,” as Franklin puts it. What a powerful message for a 21st-century society like ours, all too gene-enthralled.

Franklin uses these facts about Dolly as a jumping-off point for a broad analysis of her meaning to our lives. “This project uses Dolly,” Franklin writes, “as a focal point to ask how thinking through her body can help identify and characterize changes in definitions of the human, technology, and the future, which are the broad questions at stake in the effort to think carefully about the increasing prominence of the highly technologized forms of assisted reproduction that are reshaping lives, worlds, knowledges, economies, and imaginaries so publicly, explicitly, and visibly at the beginning of the twenty-first century.”

Franklin pays homage to fellow science-studies analyst Donna Haraway in several ways. Embrace of jargon is among them, and at times it is too much, too much, too much jargon: “In the mix of hand-made and high-tech lab equipment used to make Dolly is also suggested a blend of the manual, the microscopic, and the molecular that is epitomized by the primal scene of microinjection, recapitulating the viewpoint of the micromanipulator, and providing a panoptics of regeneration via the digital screen image.”

Still, Franklin is Franklin is Franklin, and the whole package she offers is compelling. How to resist an author who reveals that “there are few topics that will not lead back to sheep more quickly than I realized prior to researching and writing this book”? Indeed, the biggest payoff for readers comes in her chapters that prove this point.

With Franklin we journey far beyond the high-tech laboratory and back into Britain’s sheep-herding past and through Australia’s colonial history. Sheep are thought to be the first domesticated livestock. British sheep are uniquely diverse; Franklin tells us why, and explains that sheep breeding really took off during Roman times: “Britain was colonized by the Roman army and its sheep, and the early economy of Britannia was centered on wool. This pattern has persisted to such an extent that the Chancellor of the Exchequer continues today to sit on the so-called woolsack in the British Parliament.”

Sheep were inextricably part of Britain’s own colonizing. Useful in Australia for their milk, wool, meat, lanolin, hide, fleece, and tallow, they were “cheap subsistence on the hoof.” More than this, sheep transformed the ecology and indeed the human landscape in Australia, affecting indigenous fauna and the lives of the indigenous humans in perhaps equal measure.

How does this history link up with Dolly? In bringing her chapter on Australia to a close, Franklin notes: “Dolly is both conceptually and constitutionally the viable offspring of more than two centuries of continuous trade between Britain and Australia based on sheep experimentation, sheep breeding, sheep products, and exchanges of actual sheep.” In bringing together seemingly separate threads of history, Franklin excels, as she does in explaining why Dolly should be understood as local and global both. It is no accident, she says, that Dolly should have been Scottish: “She embodies the combination of medical, agricultural, and industrial values that gave rise to many other noteworthy Scottish inventions, including penicillin, the steam engine, the cotton reel, nude mice, interferon, and the syringe.”

Dolly’s life includes her reproduction: she birthed six offspring, and, in a global sense related to SCNT and stem cell research, “Dolly’s genealogy now leads everywhere.” Euthanized in 2003 because of a common infectious lung disease, Dolly, or more precisely her taxidermied self, can be viewed in the Scottish Royal Museum. Though her death was typical enough for sheep, her health while she lived was compromised by an atypical arthritis that probably was caused by her unique genesis. Franklin stays true, though, to her stated wish to avoid debating the ethics of cloning and cloning-like procedures. The real death-story here is not Dolly’s but the thousands upon thousands of sheep (and other livestock) that died during Britain’s foot and mouth disease epidemic of 2001. Franklin traces the course of this calamity in fresh terms, as when she deconstructs the British press’s insistence on showing suffering lambs at Easter and links the whole story back to Dolly-themes.

The more I learned about sheep, the more fascinating they became. As someone who studies animal behavior, I appreciated news of sheep intelligence: these creatures display sharply focused facial-recognition and -memory capabilities and exceed some primates in their tendency to reassure close associates. Still, there’s some truth to sheeply stereotypes; brain-powered as they may be, sheep are still flock animals. Franklin met a Chinese anthropologist who turned the tables on “the Western tendency to equate individualism with intelligence, originality, and leadership… In China, he went on to explain, where conformity is a competitive social skill and the point is precisely not to stand out, the sheep is considered a highly intelligent animal.”

As I read Franklin’s highly intelligent book, I found myself having fun. I groaned pleasurably at her sheep puns (candidate for most egregious: her term “ewe-niqueness”!). Staring at sheep faces in the book’s photographs, I came to see nobility in the Cheviot breed and jauntiness in the Border Leicester. Greedily, I coveted a “rare breeds tea towel” identical to the one Franklin reproduces in the book. If I ever find one, I’ll affix it to the wall near the TV. It would remind me that the lives we animals live in the natural/unnatural world contain far greater unpredictabilities than any tele-fantasy.

-- Barbara J. King celebrates her third year of writing for Bookslut.