Sheep Futures: a review of Sarah Franklin’s ‘Dolly Mixtures: The Remaking of Genealogy’

by Thom van Dooren

© all rights reserved

As a person who primarily researches agricultural biotechnology and property, but also teaches in the area of cultural studies of biomedicine, I am often asked: what is it that connects these two seemingly disparate bodies of work? Franklin ‘s new book offers an answer – perhaps more than this, it offers a roadmap – to this question and some of the connectivities that bind together agriculture, medicine and numerous other arenas of knowing and living. In Dolly Mixtures, Franklin is interested in the way in which Dolly – the now (in)famous ‘cloned’ sheep produced (born?) at the Roslin Institute in Scotland in 1996 – is situated within a broader genealogy that simultaneously stretches out into the past (where did she come from?) and the future (what does she point toward?) (pp. 3, 127). In addition, Franklin asks how Dolly might contribute to a ‘remaking of genealogy’: a rematerialisation of what counts as genealogy and what kinds of genealogies are actually possible.

In posing these questions, Franklin takes her reader through a collection of tangled sites and stories that range from the origins of sheep ‘domestication’, through 18 th and 19 th century ‘nation building’, sheep breeding and farming (and some of their various displacements of local peoples), to contemporary biomedical research on IVF and somatic cell nuclear transfer. At all of these junctures, Franklin explores the important role that sheep play/ed in the formation of possibilities for living, dying and accumulating wealth, amongst other things, for the people who have struck up relationships with them (either voluntarily or against their will). In Chapters Three and Four, for example, Franklin takes a ‘sheep-centric view’ of the dispossession of Scottish Highlanders and Indigenous Australians from ‘their’ lands in the 18 th and 19 th centuries. She shows how, in both cases, a specific breed of sheep (the Cheviot in Scotland and the Merino in Australia) – alongside the possibility of producing wealth (for some) – played an absolutely central role in the expansion of one group of people and their version of ‘development’, while simultaneously producing new and intensified patterns of dispossession, poverty and death for another group of people.

From an Australian perspective, Dolly Mixtures is particularly interesting for the way in which it ties this country into broader patterns of trade and exchange with others (particularly Britain ), under regimes of both colonialism and globalisation. As is to be expected, Franklin ‘s focus here is on sheep-exchanges, in all of their various forms: wool, meat, live export, cell lines, reproductive technologies and ovine science – not to mention the scientists themselves. In tracing these networks, Franklin attempts to situate Dolly in the midst of this tangle of interactions. She argues that ‘Dolly’s birth was prefigured in more than a century of [this kind of] exchange . between Britain and her colonies, in particular Australia ‘ (p. 153).

Franklin’s effort to trace the complex networks of interaction that Dolly has come from, contributed to, and is helping to usher into the world – of which I have named only a scattered few – ultimately produces a highly informative and important book. Dolly Mixtures explores the frontiers of medicine, agriculture and capital as they are, and have been, imprinted on the sheep’s body. In so doing, the book exposes the novel, and at the same time deeply historical, dimensions of these entangled projects. Franklin charts these networks of interaction and situates Dolly within them. Having done this, however, one might ask: what do all of these connections mean? More importantly, how might we navigate them to produce better worlds for both sheep and people?

In her powerful and evocative final chapter – ‘Death’ – Franklin offers two important examples of how not to ‘do’ human/sheep relationships which provide some important food for thought. Focusing on the 2001 Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) outbreak in the UK and the Cormo Express episode of 2003 (in which as many as 6,000 ‘Australian sheep’ died while stranded onboard a cargo ship originally destined for Saudi Arabia), Franklin convincingly argues that ‘the viability of sheep is . inextricable from their economic utility’ (p. 161). In both cases, the mass slaughter of sheep was in very large part dictated by economic and trade concerns that were only masquerading as ‘biosecurity’ risks (161, 166). FMD in particular, Franklin argues, poses no real health threat to humans or sheep and is ‘only lethal to domestic animals because it iseconomically intolerable to humans’ (pp. 173-4). This economic intolerability is, in turn, a result of the specific dimensions of the international market system within which sheep products are transacted in our ‘global village’. Within this context, few other values really matter; sheep lives and deaths are utterly inseparable from capital and its accumulation – a situation that should not surprise us in light of the fact that sheep have always been closely tied to wealth, and may even have been the first form of ‘capital’ amongst some peoples (p. 91).

In addition to highlighting this economic reductionism, Franklin ‘s discussion in the final chapter problematises the simple idea of ‘biological control’ that has been put forward, post-Dolly, by Ian Wilmut and others. For Wilmut, Dolly’s ‘creator’, biological control refers to a situation in which the biological world has become increasingly malleable, and as such no longer poses significant limitations on human action. The ‘biologically impossible’ has ‘lost all meaning’, and we must now introduce our own (ethical, political, social, and other) limitations on the re-engineering and control of biological organisms (32-3). For Franklin, however, the FMD outbreak of 2001 reveals the ‘two sides of biological control’ (p. 190). While Dolly may embody hi-tech biomedicine and molecular control, the ‘scorched-earth policy’ with which the British Government responded to the outbreak of FMD – a three kilometre kill-zone around any infected animal and the incineration of their bodies – reveals a very different situation, an archaic and bloody situation in which humanity lacks any real (‘controlled’) ability to intervene in the lives of sheep and direct their course.

While Dolly remained quarantined in her Scottish paddock, embodying the most sophisticated technologies ever used to create a sheep, all around her an ancient disease was fought with ancient methods, confirming that the acquisition of biological control has no necessary relation to the reduction of its opposite (p. 190).

In these and numerous other ways, this chapter (and Dolly Mixtures more generally) offers an important contribution to our understanding of the ethical issues that arise at the complex intersection that Dolly and her ovine kin are (un)fortunate enough to inhabit at the beginning of the 21 st century.

While this understanding of economic reductionism, and the cruelty that it can be coupled with in various expressions of human ‘control’ of other biological organisms, might ground a more expansive ethico-political excursion into modern sheep-worlds, Franklin ultimately does not take up this task. As such, this book does not really answer Franklin’s questions about the possible futures that Dolly ‘points’ us toward (p. 127), nor does it provide us with tools for directing them. One of the two quotes that the introduction to Dolly Mixtures opens with is from Karen Rader’s Making Mice. In this short quote, Rader notes that ‘the laboratory mouse’s very existence engages us in a complicated process of technical, cultural and political formation’. She argues, however, that ‘at the same time its historical situatedness provides a tool kit for intervening in this process’ (p. 1). While Franklin expertly charts this historical situatedness for Dolly and (British) sheep more generally, it is precisely this ‘tool kit’ that is missing in Dolly Mixtures. For all the complexity that this book adds to understandings of Dolly’s creation, life and death – and the tangle of histories and practices that Dolly emerges from and contributes to – it does not really explain what this complexity means, what we might do with it, and how it might contribute to building better genealogies, better human/sheep relationships, and ultimately better worlds.

In the final chapter of the book Franklin hints at these avenues of thought. She introduces some popular post-FMD discourses in the UK that drew attention to the fact that sheep and other non-humans have no real ‘rights’, while also pointing to the role that more intensive agricultural systems might have played in the spread of the disease and more general conditions of inhumane animal treatment (pp. 184-6). These are criticisms that might easily be expanded to Australia ‘s live export industry, and the numerous other agricultural and scientific environments in which the vast majority of the world’s sheep – and their people – live and die. Additionally, these discourses, and world- and life-making practices are a vitally important part of the networks within which Dolly must be situated if we are to genuinely understand her impact on both people and sheep.At times, despite its epistemological commitment to sheep, Dolly Mixtures underemphasises their ontological realities. The final sentence of the book offers a particularly unfortunate example of this: ‘This is, of course, the reason why the remaking of Dolly’s genealogy matters – because it remakes our own’ (p. 207). More than this, though, Dolly and her genealogy remake sheep-possibilities and far broader more-than-human worlds. Franklin, of course, knows this, but in parts of this book that knowledge cannot be felt and is not explored.

To my reading, the Dolly Mixtures that Franklin investigates and the connectivities that she charts, are most important for the way in which they might contribute to a better understanding and navigation of these difficult terrains – for the ways in which they might expose the possibilities for wealth and dispossession, life and death, that are intimately bound up with specific ways of ‘doing’ human/sheep relationships today and in the future. While much of this work remains to be done, Dolly Mixtures lays an important foundation for engagement with Dolly – and other lab made/modified organism – as well as with more general contemporary practices of biomedicine, agriculture and capital accumulation (and their intersections). More than this, it is a wonderfully informative and enjoyable read – for sheep lovers and the non-ovine-informed alike.


Thom van Dooren
Fenner School of Environment and Society
Australian National University

Sarah Franklin’s Dolly Mixtures: The Remaking of Genealogy was published in Durham and London by Duke University Press in 2007 (253 pp, ISBN 9780822339205, $54.95)



Rader, Karen A. Making Mice: Standardizing Animals for American Biomedical Research, 1900-1955 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004)

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email [email protected]