July 13, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Top 5 reasons I oppose de-extinction of woolly mammoths

mammoth, de-extinction
Woolly Mammoth. Should it be brought back?

De-extinction is big right now and some of the extinct target creatures are big too like the woolly mammoth.

“Let’s bring back these extinct creatures”, say proponents.

Wouldn’t it be cool?

I have to admit seeing a woolly mammoth, mastodon, or saber tooth tiger would be cool, but such efforts would not be without consequences and most of them would be profoundly negative.

Cloning mammoths, for example, would be a selfish act of hubris by humans. Still a team has been working to make this a reality for a year or more.

Why would this be a bad idea?

Here are my top 5 reasons.

5. The cloned mammoths would be used and abused as products. Assuming completely successful cloning to make healthy animals, the cloned Woolly Mammoths would almost certainly lead miserable lives and would never have freedom. They’d be like cramped zoo creatures. What comes to mind actually is killer whales in tiny tanks at Sea World. The cloners would definitely keep the Mammoths confined and charge people to see them to re-coop some of the millions spent to clone them.

4. Sick mammoths. There is a strong possibility that any successfully cloned mammoths would become ill. Our current world is not their world. The weather is different and is definitely warmer. The ecosystem is different. They may be accustomed to a different microbiome. You can see how poorly elephants are doing in our current world already too. What makes anyone think that mammoths would do OK? Analysis of the remains of Mastodons, extinct creatures related to both elephants and mammoths, indicates remarkably high rates (above 50%) of Tuberculosis (TB) in these animals, potentially even to the point of contributing to extinction via a TB pandemic, suggesting they and woolly mammoths may be even more vulnerable to TB and other diseases than elephants.

3. Deformed mammoths from the cloning process. We can’t assume the cloners would be entirely successful so there’s a darn good chance they’d make dozens if not hundreds of failed attempts potentially yielding developmentally screwed up mammoths or young mammoths who suffer and die.

2. Advancing the notion that human cloning is acceptable too. Cloning the mammoths and the media feeding frenzy that would follow would make the public more accepting of cloning humans. I suspect we’d see accelerated attempts to clone Neanderthals as well, which to me seems inherently unethical.

1. A serious threat to already endangered elephants. Mammoths were relatives to elephants. Bringing back mammoths poses potential risks to elephants. It is possible that mammoths, even if sterile in the sense of perfectly clean after cloning, could be a reservoir for pathogens for elephants once the mammoths live in the outside world. They could also easily be inadvertently contaminated in the lab during cloning with  nasty lab-specific pathogens they could pass along to elephants. It is certain that the mammoth cloners would need to use many female elephants for the cloning process too and frankly the world just cannot spare healthy female elephants for this purpose.

Finally, in general we need the resources elsewhere. Human beings as a species cannot even do a good job taking care of ourselves collectively. Why spend tens of millions of dollars on de-extinction of a species, when we need to do far more to help billions of our own species who are right now suffering and there are plenty of other animals already on Earth who need our help?

The answer is that we shouldn’t.

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