The push for de-extinction of woolly mammoths is a perfect example of when one notion can be both fun and a rotten idea. You can’t let the coolness push you down a bad path.
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De-extinction of Woolly Mammoths
It was almost exactly 8 years ago that I first wrote about why the buzz surrounding the idea of de-extincting Mammoths was problematic.
In 2021 the idea is still making news.
One of my favorite science writers, Carl Zimmer, just wrote a new piece on de-extinction of Mammoths for The NY Times. The article focused on efforts by George Church, other new players, and a fresh influx of funding.
Now some aspects of this effort remind me of the space contest between Musk, Branson, and Bezos. It wouldn’t surprise me if de-extinction evolved into a bro kind of contest. Peter Thiel was an early funder of the effort.
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 negative, a few maybe in profound ways.
Still a team has been working for almost a decade to make this a reality for a or more.
Why bringing back woolly mammoths is a bad idea
I can think of five main reasons this “research” on de-extinction is misguided and even dangerous.
5. The cloned mammoths would likely be used as products. Assuming completely successful cloning to make healthy animals, the cloned woolly mammoths would almost certainly lead miserable lives and would never have true freedom. They’d be like cramped zoo creatures. The cloners would definitely keep the mammoths confined in some way and charge people to see them to re-coop some of the millions spent to clone them. Even though some have envisioned a large zoo park-like area of Siberia or elsewhere for the mammoths to roam, that doesn’t seem likely to work out very well. The animals would be so valuable there would have to be tight security, which wouldn’t work well in a large space.
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 warmer than mammoths are used to. The ecosystem is different too. They may be accustomed to a different microbiome. You can see how poorly elephants are doing in our current world already as well. 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 good chance they’d make dozens if not hundreds of failed attempts. This would potentially yield developmentally screwed up mammoths or young mammoths who suffer and die. Miscarriages would be common. This was the ugly pathway to cloning dogs.
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. Practically speaking, the biggest problem I see overall is that the mammoth cloners would need to use many female elephants for the cloning process too. The world just cannot spare healthy female elephants for this purpose. No one has isolated eggs from elephants so major research on that with some mortality or loss of fertility to female elephants would be inevitable, but unacceptable in my view.
Bringing back mammoths poses potential risks to elephants in other ways. They could easily be inadvertently contaminated in the lab during cloning with nasty lab-specific pathogens they could pass along to elephants.
Finally, in general we need the science resources elsewhere.
Human beings as a species cannot even do that good of a job taking care of ourselves collectively.
Why spend tens or hundreds 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? There are plenty of other animals already on Earth who need our help too. Why go on this wild de-extinction goose chase when we could spend the money on preventing extinction of the vast number of living animals who are endangered?
The answer is that we shouldn’t. It’s an unnecessary novelty project with big risks.