The black sheep of science

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 March, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 March, 1997, 12:00am

Every English-speaking child's notion of ovinity is influenced by one black sheep and a flock of white ones. There's the one with the fleece as white as snow, still immature and as likely to turn up at school as in the meadow at the back of Mary's house. There are the sheep Bo Peep lost. And there's the one that provides three bags of black wool if you sing to him.

There is no evidence that Baa Baa Black Sheep was a ram, by the way, although all those polled by this column assumed it was. When you stop to think about sheep demographics, there must be a 20:1 probability that the beast in question was a ewe. Yet some kind of cultural conditioning ensures that even little girls think of a black sheep as male. Feminists would probably say it has to do with the way traditional English society looks down on women.

But this is a rhyme where the sheep answers the singer with the deferential 'Sir'. To us, this is a situation where the animal is looked down upon not as a female but as being in trade.

However, we are tempted to wonder if the word 'Sir' would have made an appearance if the speaker, or bleater, had been white. After all, it is not to be expected that a person of elevated social status would have asked a passing tradessheep for wool. This would have been done by a housekeeper or tailor.

To read too much into this forelock-touching would be a misreading of the situation, since the domestic staff of a wealthy household would have commanded a certain social superiority among traders in a way that ordinary folk might not. However, a white sheep might have been less deferential to a person of no particular rank or title.

There has always been a stigma attached to being a black sheep. No doubt some learned reader will write in to point out that the nursery rhyme was in fact originally composed as a political allegory for the dubious, possibly corrupt, commercial activities of some unsavoury, but well-born drop-out. But that is the point. Being a black sheep was simply not acceptable in polite society.

We bring this up now, not because of the current debate about whether the cloning of sheep could lead to the cloning of humans, but because of an equally sinister development in genetic engineering: the likely elimination of black sheep.

It could not happen in America, where black sheep would nowadays be eligible for affirmative action programmes. But in Australia, where fish-and-chip-shop owners lead the debate on colour, researchers at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation are reportedly trying to eliminate the DNA fingerprint of rams (not ewes, you will note) which pass on genes for black wool.

The reasons are economic. One lamb in 50 is black or piebald. But it only takes one black fibre in a million to reduce the price of wool.

This seems short-sighted, even from the commercial point of view. After all, as the nursery rhyme clearly demonstrates, black wool was once fashionable and much in demand. It could be again.

But there are wider ethical and social considerations.

How, for instance, will Western society dare criticise China's one-child policy or its law on 'eugenics and health protection' (designed to avoid the birth of handicapped or sickly children), when it sanctions domestically the elimination of those who happen to be different.

True, you could argue that humanity has always bred its domestic animals and crops for particular characteristics. You could also point out that we are talking sheep here, not people. But it is the thin end of the wedge, just the same.

And what of the social effects on children in the Outback, to say nothing of rural Britain, who will soon be as baffled by the old rhyme as their urban counterparts already are? Can we do this to future generations of toddlers? Will this be one more traditional nursery favourite confined to the dustbin of nonsense rhymes? The governments of Australia and all civilised nations should legislate to stop this attack on our heritage now, before it is too late.