Gene therapy, biological warfare and cloning, oh my! The future has the possibility to be a wild and dangerous place. Thankfully Exchange consultant and bioengineering expert, Terry Johnson, is here to help walk you through the steps. See what he has to say about the future and most importantly, How to Defeat Your Own Clone!
Can you tell us a little bit about how you and your writing partner, Kyle Kurpinski, decided to write How to Defeat Your Own Clone?
We noticed that there were several books on the market discussing science and culture with tongue firmly in cheek, but none focusing on biotech - despite a spate of movies, television shows, and video games featuring cloning and genetic engineering. For me, the book was an opportunity to communicate my enthusiasm for science to a new audience.
Did you both want a catchy title vs. a more academic or traditional title?
It went like this: Kyle told me he had an idea for a book, which I found intriguing. Then he told me that he had a great title: How to Defeat Your Own Clone. That’s when I thought, “Darn it, now I think we need to write this.”
Surveys show that the vast majority of Americans are opposed to human cloning. Are they correct in their thinking, or is human cloning something we shouldn’t be afraid of?
I think that we as a society should oppose some aspects of human cloning, but not all. Human reproductive cloning, which results in a baby, is far too experimental to perform. Human therapeutic cloning, which results in cells, is necessary to research exciting new treatments for human diseases, and ought to continue. Almost all research that involves human cloning has no interest in reproduction, and is instead focused on cellular treatments of disease.
What is the status of the movie version of the book? Do you think the movie will make people more or less fearful of cloning?
The book has been optioned, but will soon be available to interested parties again. I hope that the movie will give people a better idea of what a clone would be and what a clone wouldn’t be - in the context of an entertaining and enlightening story.
What are the biggest misperceptions about cloning?
Really, a clone is just another person who bears a closer resemblance to you than most. Fearing your clone is like fearing an identical twin who happens to be younger than you.
A lot of science fiction movies have featured clones. Which movies have done the best job of getting the science right? Which haven’t been so successful?
If a movie suggests that a clone of you would have your personality and know everything that you know - without an explanation of how that information was transported into a new body - that’s usually a good sign that the film could have used a creative consultant. Gattaca doesn’t involve human cloning per se, but does a good job portraying the mistakes that a society that overestimates the impact that your genes have on your life would necessarily make.
How did you become involved with The Exchange? What have you enjoyed most about your experience?
I heard about the exchange several years ago and signed up immediately. Each consultation is a puzzle - a writer is typically looking to explore something about the human condition or put a character through an compelling arc, and wants a plausibly scientific explanation for certain things to happen. That’s a challenge unlike most in my workday, and yet very rewarding.
You recently won Berkeley’s 2013 Distinguished Teaching Award, congratulations! Tell us about your reaction to winning that prestigious award.
I was (and am) over the moon! I believe I attempted to dance a jig.
When the award was announced, I received messages of congratulation from a number of former students now working in industry and academia, which was especially gratifying.
What’s next on your agenda? Are you working on another book?
Yes, albeit very slowly - we’ve started two new masters programs in my department since HTDYOC was published. Now that those programs are moving out of startup phase, we’re trying to decide between non-fiction and fiction for the next. Until then we’ll be doing outreach talks at venues like the California Academy of Sciences and WonderCon,
Is there anything we should have asked you, but didn’t? Anything you would like to add?
Don’t look at a SEE consultant as someone who’s going to grade the science in your book or screenplay. Our job is to help you find harmony between your inspiration and the natural world. My most fruitful consultations begin with the story and guide the consulted to a scientific explanation that deepens or justifies a world, culture, or character’s action.