Cloning Makes a Comeback

mammothvertangThe cover story for this month’s National Geographic had to do with the discovery of Lyuba — a woolly mammoth cub that apparently fell into a bog, clogged her trunk and lungs with silt and suffocated some 40,000 years ago in what is now Siberia. The carcass was discovered on a frozen river bank in 2007 by a reindeer herder who had to fight his own cousin and other local villagers to get the baby mammoth safely in the hands of researchers. In return, the scientists named the carcass Lyuba after the herder’s wife; The magazine said the name was a show of gratitude. Apparently prehistoric biologists suffer from a lack of etiquette.

After a series of CT scans and a detailed autopsy, scientists realized Lyuba was barely one month old at the time of her death. Micro-organisms living in the bog she trapped herself in literally “pickled” her flesh while centuries of permafrost totally dehydrated her body, leaving her entire carcass preserved for study. No other mammoth carcass has been found as wholly intact as Lyuba.

While the story on Lyuba was interesting enough, what really got my mind reeling was a short feature, written by the same author (Tom Mueller), that followed it. While the first set of scientist Mr. Mueller interviewed were primarily interested in studying the remains of Lyuba to learn of her life and death, the development of mammoth infants and the prehistoric pachyderms’ digestive habits, another set of scientists are aiming to create their own mammoth for study — by cloning. At least 70 percent of the basic mammoth genome has been pieced together from fragments collected over the years. While there are a few more hurdles to overcome, the idea of recreating an extinct species isn’t nearly as far fetched as it was just 16 years ago. In fact, it’s already been done—kind of. A mouse embryo infused with Tasmanian tiger DNA developed the bone structure of the extinct mammal, according to the magazine.

“It’s simply a question of time and money, not of technology anymore,” Stephan Schuster, one of the scientists responsible for sequencing the mammoth DNA, told National Geographic

Just because we can resurrect extinct species — both the prehistoric kind, like mammoths and dinos, and the more recently extinct, like the tiger mentioned above — does not mean that we have a duty to help these species “survive.” Neither does it entitle us to bring them back to satisfy our own curiosity.

This is going to happen. It’s just a matter of working out the details.

–Hendrik Poinar on cloning mammoths, to National Geographic

Animal and plant species have been disappearing and reemerging without human assistance since the beginning of time. For us to interfere now would be looking nature straight in the face and hurling the biggest imbalance humanity has yet to dish up. There is simply no way to justify the expense or ethics that would be necessary to support such an effort. It is fascinating to study ancient life and work out how the world used to be, but what would really be the benefit of bringing back an extinct mammoth? It would be a lonely, ill-adapted truncated version of the great animal that used to thrive in a totally different environment than the one we have created.

Similarly, I can see no justification for the use of cloning to “save” recently extinct species. Certainly working to save unique ecosystems and preserve the animals that live in them is a noble endeavor, but, if in the course of time, the species dies out despite our efforts, that is what the forces that be have dictated. Whether or not the impact of humans on the planet directly or indirectly had anything to do with the extinction really is irrelevant, at least in that particular case. (We should always strive to fully understand our actions and the consequences there of to help make sound decisions in the future). Humans are a “natural” force just as much any other animal is.

These species died for a natural reason — either they weren’t suited for the changing environment, they directly interfered with the progress of another, stronger, species or their absence at a particular point in time is simply the Lord’s will — and to ignore that fact would be an ultimate act of arrogance.

What’s more, the financial resources and brilliant minds toiling away in the resurrection lab could be striving to more fully understand existing species, particularly the endangered kind, and working to find ways to preserve and celebrate life. If, after much effort and expense, these species die out as well, that’s simply the natural course of things. We must make the most of what we have and deal with the problems we can solve.

Photo by Ashley Smith

Photo by Ashley Smith

In a way, this misguided use of energy troubles me in the same way that commercials soliciting compassion and, more accurately, cash, for abused dogs and cats, retired race horses or sweating polar bears do. It is absolutely wrong to intentionally mistreat animals or take on pets, or pet-projects, that one cannot shoulder responsibility for and we should take steps to rectify these situations. But with billions of our fellow men living in poverty; millions of children walking the streets of the world hungry and alone; and a generation of young people having grown up in the “civilized” world, yet lacking any real understanding of the world around them, how can we possibly afford to give our money to buy new beds for dogs and cats or install an arctic air-conditioner for the convenience of polar bears?

Just so I’m not splitting hairs here, I would argue that polar bears are the most magnificent animals on Earth. But they’re still of minuscule importance compared with this starving child from the slums of Indonesia.
Just a thought.



About David Anderson, Jr.

I'm a wandering pilgrim anchored in the Baptist tradition, tossed about by the anabaptist current. I am a minister at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church and a recent graduate of Campbell Divinity School. I am the husband of a beautiful woman, and the father of a blond-haired boy. I am a work in progress, struggling to work out my own salvation with fear and trembling. View all posts by David Anderson, Jr.

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