Why De-extinction of Woolly Mammoths is Still a Bad Idea

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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George Church De Extinction Mammoth
George Church with Mammoth bone as part of de-extinction effort. Photo by Church lab member Eriona Hysolli.

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 of 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.

By way of an update, this new Carl Zimmer piece, The Last Stand of the Woolly Mammoths, suggests that a lack of genetic diversity could cause major problems including related to points 3 and 4 above.

Looking ahead

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.

12 thoughts on “Why De-extinction of Woolly Mammoths is Still a Bad Idea”

  1. I totally agree with your comments.
    It seems .the urgency is to keep alive the actual faune and flora. The hubris of resuscitation is but a new form of will to master which is a 17em century project.

  2. I completely disagree with #2. “Slippery Slope” is a logical fallacy. Cloning mammoths might be a bad idea, but it is not going to lead to cloning Neanderthals. Mammoths are not people.

  3. Dear Dan:

    Just a few quick responses to your thoughtful comment. Animal cloning is a research tool. It’s not used for agricultural purposes because animals do it better; and it is now well appreciated that cloned animals are not as physiologically robust as animals produced by natural reproductive breeding, which the agricultural industry has perfected over centuries.

    Also the mammoth project is not just a cloning project. That first generation mammoth embryo will be assembled and grown in the laboratory with genetic-engineering “enhancement” before implantation. The same folks involved in this project are also bubbling at the frontier of human germline engineering. There is a self-imposed moratorium on such human research at the moment. The mammoth project keeps the momentum going, and as Paul indicates, absolutely every success it reports will put ever increasing pressure on the public to permit human germline engineering. These are not tea leaves. They are hot steaming coffee, with no cooling cream.

    The utilitarian justification of any and all science for increasing human knowledge and human flourishing is how we end up doing things that injure a lot of people in the meantime before the more powerful get their benefits, if in fact any benefits happen at all. Even though the rich may think and say that their money is theirs to use as they please, it still comes from all of us. Mother Earth’s resources are scarce. Using them frivolously for self-indulgent goals may be allowed, but it doesn’t have to be condoned when there is so much need in the world for our intelligence and resources to be used to reduce.

    Lastly, why try to undo what evolution already decided eons ago?


    James @ Asymmetrex

  4. Dan S Kaufman, MD, PhD

    I don’t find these broad arguments against cloning very compelling. My understanding is that it is not unusual to clone livestock (Cattle and pigs)- and you know a leading center? UC-Davis! Maybe you need to explore that work. I don’t think cloning livestock has lead to some encouragement of cloning humans. These are completely separate areas and discussions. I don’t know about the impact on scare female elephants, but maybe this type of work could lead to better understanding elephant reproductive biology (if that is your area of interest), that could help save this species.

    Also, if you are against keeping the new Mammoths in zoos or such- are you arguing to close all zoos that can actually be used to preserve and learn about rare species?

    Also, saying there are other areas to better spend these funds is very closed minded. Are you against space research and sending probes to Mars and such? Shouldn’t those funds be better spent earth? Most people think taking a broad view of science and exploration is valuable.

    Keep an open mind. If this is interesting and might get people excited about new science, then seems good to pursue if they have the funds. Indeed, this type of work can lead to more science investment. It also encourages discussion of the issues you bring up- which can be a good thing.

  5. Admin, I’m with you on this one, but you are not worrying deeply enough about this activity enabling more sinister goals in the future. It’s hard to gestate a human being in a mouse…but an elephant, or a de-extinct mammoth? The first successful “mammoth” birth will result from gestating a de-extinct mammoth embryo in the uterus of an elephant, which is likely to constitute an inter-species birth. More than you indicate in your reason #4, this effort may not only get the public used to the idea of cloning, but it could also enable human cloning without the need for gestation in surrogate human mothers. The ISSCR’s recent 2021 Guidelines declaim against the gestation of human embryos in extant animals…but they certainly don’t address doing it in de-extinct ones.

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