Forget Donald Trump, who has placed democracy in a box stamped “Handle with care”, or Aung San Suu Kyi, who has turned from a global rights icon to a major villain overnight, or any Syrian freedom fighter against the Islamic State. To me, none of them qualifies as “Individual of the Year” for 2017.
The personality that’s had the most impact on the globe in the past year is miles ahead of them – and not even a person.
We are talking long term here. In the immediate future, it may be Trump who scares you most. Suu Kyi’s infamy may last a few years. The heroes in today’s fight against terror groups are little more than ripples in a vast lake.
Longlong is different. Don’t let his sad, adorable eyes fool you. The Beagle is harmless, yes, and may even die soon, but historians a century from now will very likely know his name better than Kim Jong-un’s.
The puppy’s birth in a Chinese lab last year went largely unnoticed in a world preoccupied with “big stuff”. Its significance, however, can hardly be over-emphasised. Cutting through the scientific technicalities, Longlong can be described thus: He’s the first clone of a cloned dog.
That description is not quite correct. The parent, Apple, is not fully cloned but had her genes “edited” to develop the disease atherosclerosis – a leading cause of stroke and heart disease. By cloning Longlong, the scientists gained an exact “copy” to observe as they probe further for the secrets held in DNA.
Atherosclerosis, in which fatty materials build up and clog arteries, can cause strokes or heart attacks. The condition affects millions of people, and the Chinese scientists believe their studies of Apple and Longlong can help save countless human lives. The dogs will suffer so we don’t have to, so to speak.
Debate on the ethics of the experiment has predictably ensued. Concern has focused on the cruelty it involves, which is understandable but overlooks another big issue. Thanks to Longlong, we have taken a big step towards a surreal, Hollywood-like world where copies of living things and copies of the copies bump into one another on farms and even on sidewalks.
If Longlong had been born a few years ago, he could have been a real-life prologue for blockbuster movies “Multiplicity” and “The Island”. In the former, a man clones himself to sneak away from his wife, but his clone needs a helper, so it goes ahead and gets a copy of itself, and so on. In the latter, a farm of unknowing human clones provides an emergency supply of vital organs to super-rich gene-depositors.
So, looking at everything involved – atherosclerosis, multiplicity, walking organ donors, human capabilities and shortcomings – Longlong’s birth is both full of promise and downright terrifying. The puppy is a testament to unbounded human creativity and, along with it, our tendency to mix up good and evil.
The Longlong controversy centres on a question: Is it fair to create a life that you inflict with a potentially fatal disease? The same question was asked when Apple was genetically doomed, but it was dismissed by those who insist that Apple, Longlong and all lab animals are handed cruel fates “for a greater good”.
Another argument is that using advanced genetic technology to induce atherosclerosis in dogs is actually “more human” than the alternative. An earlier method was to force feed dogs with meals high in sugar and fat until symptoms appeared. Gene editing and cloning produce less suffering, their proponents say.
Whether it’s for “a greater good” or whether it’s meant to achieve “less suffering”, Longlong’s birth carries major significance that may not be realised soon. In the meantime, Trump and Kim will continue to dominate the front pages. But Longlong’s existence also heralds a world whose volatile leaders can be cloned to create havoc. The puppy, although an innocent bystander, has opened doors that could lead us anywhere.
For making us humans ask questions it doesn’t even know or care about, for giving us the strongest hint of what we are capable of (for better or worse) and for radiating cuteness and horror all at once, Beagle pup Longlong is my “Creature of the Year”.