In the UK, a documentary program called “Woolly Mammoth: The Autopsy” has recently run, featuring an international team of scientists involved in a recent mammoth discovery from Maly Lyakhovsky, Siberia. The program not only follows the scientists studying this unique specimen, it also presents the ideas of scientists interested in using preserved mammoth tissue to clone the ancient beasts.
The Guardian has an opinion piece by one of the team of scientists, Toni Herridge, of the Natural History Museum in London. The headline tells the thesis: “Mammoths are a huge part of my life. But cloning them is wrong”.
Any attempt to clone a mammoth would probably require a living elephant – likely to be Asian – to act as a surrogate. To go through 22 months of pregnancy, carrying an animal of a completely different species as part of the experiment. An intelligent, social animal, at the brink of extinction, and one we know doesn’t do all that well in captivity.
And not just one elephant. In reality, many surrogates would be needed before a successful baby mammoth was born.
Does the potential benefit to humanity of cloning a mammoth outweigh the suffering an Asian elephant surrogate mother might experience? I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument that it does.
The only reason George Church and others are talking about cloning a mammoth is ego. Admittedly, the effort to clone a large extinct mammal would advance biotechnology. But that technology can be developed for other, more practical and less ethically problematic goals just as easily. At the same time, the resources spent on mammoth cloning could instead save critical habitat for many endangered species.