Reinventing the Mammoth

The first groaner of the TEDxDeExtinction conference cropped up less than an hour into the program.  Paleontologist Michael Archer was on stage, wrapping up his talk on possibly recreating the gastric brooding frog and the thylacine – two species totally lost from Australia in recent time. Archer laid out the technological particulars of the plans, as well as where the animals might live, but at the end he took a turn for the transcendentalist in justifying the difficult endeavor to resurrect these creatures. Since our species played a prominent role in wiping out both species, Archer argued, we have an obligation to “restore the balance of nature that we have upset.” If I had brought a flask with me, I might have taken a strengthening sip of whiskey right then.

There is no such thing as “the balance of nature.” If sifting through the fossil record has taught me anything, it’s that change is the rule. Balance is only a temporary illusion created by the difficulties of envisioning life on a geological scale. That, and quite a few conversations with practically-minded ecologists and biologists, means that I’ve become a bit allergic to snuggly phrases that are often trotted out to emphasize the inherent goodness of nature – whatever “nature” means – in a way that suggests we can simply restore the complexity of life to a stable state that the ghosts of Thoreau, Emerson, and Muir would honor us for. And the irritation of that line kept with me throughout the rest of the day. Perhaps the closing appeal to the balance of nature was a trifling throwaway, yet that one line underscored the problematic nature of the major proposal the assembled speakers and guests had been called to consider – that we can, and should, resurrect lost life to take some of the tarnish off our ecological souls. The concept falls under the banner of “de-extinction.”

De-extinction, in the strict sense of trying to resurrect creatures just as they were, appeals to a simplistic sense of environmental justice. Through cloning, tweaking genes, and other procedures, synthetic biologists suggest that they can recreate long lost creatures and pop these revived lineages right back into suitable habitats, therefore restoring some semblance of ecological equilibrium. New inventions will restore some semblance of nature untrammeled and undisturbed by human presence, according to such visions, which is preferable to the compromised ecological hodgepodge that surrounds us today.

That’s how de-extinction is marketed, in any case. The fact of the matter is that revived species would be more akin to carefully-assembled replicas that fit our vision of what those lost creatures were like – living odes to our best conception of what that animal was actually like. The distinction may be minor, but is critical. Instead of truly restoring species just as they were, we would be creating the woolly mammoth, passenger pigeon, or auroch mk. II, assembled from tattered DNA remnants and a base stock of their closest living relatives. And these invented creatures would often be entering habitats that are not only different from those the lost species disappeared from, but are set to undergo drastic ecological changes thanks to human-driven climate change. Of course, synthetic biologists could intentionally try to engineer mammoths, thylacines, Steller’s sea cows, and other candidate species to better withstand the coming changes, but this would only highlight the fundamental truth that “revive and restore” projects are actually creating new species rather than truly resurrecting what was lost.

Will mammoths - or mammoth-ish elephants - eventually roam the Arctic? Raul Martin/National Geographic Stock.
Will mammoths – or mammoth-ish elephants – eventually roam the Arctic? Raul Martin/National Geographic Stock.

If we really want mammoths – or something mammoth-ish – to roam Alaska and Siberia again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with creating a hybrid animal to accomplish that goal. But if that is our intention, we should call such a creature what it truly is. Even though most everyone who spoke at TEDxDeExtinction seemed to recognize this necessity of biological engineering, this fact remains hidden under a language that emphasizes true resurrection rather than human-guided reinvention. Perhaps, as suggested by Kent Redford during his talk late in the afternoon, this is because of a cultural obsession with natural “purity” and a distaste for what is “tainted.” Persistent and unfounded fears about genetically-modified organisms – often denigrated as “frankenfoods” when they come in crop form – are a bellwether of public resistance to the kind of genetic engineering that would be required to create the closest thing to a living Carolina parakeet or Xerces blue butterfly. Maybe that’s why the TEDxDeExtinction symposium and Revive & Restore emphasize ecological reinvigoration through resurrection rather than putting engineering and synthetic biology up front, unlike the “How will synthetic biology and conservation shape the future of nature?” conference set to be held in Cambridge, England next month. Even though Redford chastised opponents of raising mammoths and thylacines for what he perceives as an obsession with purity, proponents of de-extinction trade in the same language in order to give the impression that they are going to revive pure, pristine ecosystems where the influence of humans can be erased despite the massive amount of planning, coordination, oversight, and guidance such projects require.

In their presentations, Stanley Temple, David Ehrenfeld, and other critics brought up the fact that a supposedly revived passenger pigeon or auroch might not actually be a true representation of the animal that was lost. The engineered organisms will be close proxies, but not truly resurrected animals. I didn’t see this line of criticism as a reflexive distaste for the tainted or artificial, but as the recognition that de-extinction – in a literal sense – fails its own premise.

The words “resurrection” and “revive” have an almost magical quality to them. No surprise, then, that they can obscure the scientific nitty gritty of what deep restoration projects actually entail.

During his session, George Church confidently stated that enough of the mammoth genome is now known that biologists could sufficiently alter living elephants into mammoth hybrids capable of living in the Arctic. That’s easy enough to say offhand, but later the same day Beth Shapiro laid out how little we actually know about mammoth genetics and the hurdles involved in using DNA scraps to reinvent a mammoth.

Fernando G. Baptista/National Geographic Stock
Recreating a mammoth will be a multi-step process. (Click for larger image.) Fernando G. Baptista/National Geographic Stock
Bringing back a mammoth is a multi-step process. (Click for larger image)

Right now, Shapiro noted, paleontologists and biologists have only assembled about fifty percent of the part of the mammoth genome that codes for traits like curvy tusks and shaggy hair. We may never actually know the beast’s complete genome, especially given how rapidly DNA breaks down after death. (And even with all the money spent on human genetics we still haven’t fully explored the reaches of our own genome. Even our knowledge of ourselves is incomplete.) If we’re serious about recreating a mammoth, step one involves documenting the extinct elephant’s genome. Only then does the real work of trying to bring the megamammal back to life really start. Researchers will learn a great deal about mammoths by doing the basic work of trying to recover prehistoric genes, but, if we’re going to see anything mammoth-like at all, it’s much more likely that it will be an elephant modeled after our best guess at what a mammoth is.

But let’s say that researchers really are able to create a shaggy elephant they present to the world as a cloned woolly mammoth. Based on last Friday’s presentations, that creature is going to be a hybrid created by tweaking Asian elephant biology into mammoth form, and that undoubtedly adorable baby will not have any true mammoth role models from which to learn how to be a mammoth. And if such an animal was introduced to the wild, its habitat would most likely be a proxy of Ice Age ecology not quite like what it used to be, not to mention that such a cold, dry habitat is going to be ephemeral in the wake of climate change. (Indeed, as we considering replacing mammoths, warming temperatures are thawing out greater expanses of permafrost where tusk hunters search for newly-exposed mammoth remains.) The invented proboscideans will either have to track their shifting habitat, adapt to different conditions, or go extinction all over again. Biologists will have created something novel, even if the novelty seems slight, in an animal not quite like what was lost. Is this really de-extinction?

Though the neologism is unwieldy, and actually unnecessary, “de-extinction” is good marketing. The term is a hopeful one – a word that symbolizes a hope that we can turn the tide of extinction. So snuggly and warmth-inducing is the concept that it’s quite easy to overlook the hubris involved in effort, revealing that “de-extinction” is not a literal translation of fact but a euphemism for engineering a future nature that we find wonderful and satisfying. The case for species revival is phrased in terms of our “moral obligation” to species we had a hand in eliminating, and finding some way to bring species back – more or less – would make us feel proud in our penance.

George Church, Robert Lanza, Michael McGrew and other synthetic biologists at the conference were optimistic about creating replica passenger pigeons and other candidate species. Their presentations were progress reports of how far technology has come and the possibilities of the near future. Efforts to reverse-engineer lost species are already underway. In fact, when Alberto Fernández Arias mentioned that he and his colleagues were successfully able to clone a Pyrenean ibex, the audience applauded at what the talk billed as “The First De-Extinction”, even though that clone died within seven minutes of being born and the horned herbivore still remains extinct. Considering what such projects are really doing is not just a game of semantics, but cuts to the core problem of whether these efforts are viable conservation options and how we handle the mounting issue of conservation triage. Saying that we intend to restore the thylacine, mammoth, and passenger pigeon to their previous habitats is fundamentally different from admitting that we are creating proxy species that will likely have to carve out altered niches for themselves.

This is not to say that lost species could only survive in a very specific, constrained environments. In my previous post on the TEDx symposium, I was lazy enough to fall into this typological trap – that since the mammoth steppe of the Ice Age is gone, recreated mammoths would not have suitable habitat. This mistake is particularly irksome because it plays into the same “balance of nature” myth that denies both ecological flux and evolution. There is not stable point of nature where all will remain well. Ecological conditions are always changing, and organisms can follow comfortable habitats, become adapted to altered habitats, or slip into extinction. That will be true of engineered species as well as those that we have not carefully tweaked. Ultimately, should they be released into the wild, recreated species will stay in stasis, adapt, or become extinct all over again as the world continues to change. Just as we shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that there is no place left where lost species might still survive, we’d be foolish to assume that recreating extinct species will somehow halt over 4.5 billion years of change on our planet.

Whether or not we want to recreate species and give them a place for the future remains unsettled. Even as Michael Archer continues his Lazarus Project to bring back the gastric brooding frog and Ben Novak angles to engineer a passenger pigeon, the conversation about what will become of these animals in potentia has only begun. Right now, synthetic biologists and ecologists are butting heads over whether such projects should move forward, but when do regulatory agencies and the public become involved? If scientists want to introduce passenger pigeon proxies – birds that required massive flocks that reportedly blackened the sky for days as they passed – then at what point do regulatory agencies become involved to see whether such an introduction would actually benefit the environment, and when does the public get a say as to whether or not they actually want the birds back? Such questions are almost moot before there’s actually an engineered creature to discuss, but, as speakers James Tate and Hank Greely noted, these issues are looming over the ongoing scientific squabbles. Thus far, the resurrection ecology debate has hinged upon technological methods and whether such strategies have a place in modern conservation. A proxy mammoth or thylacine will emerge into a world of government regulations, public opinion, and scientific debate that will hinge upon what we value and want to protect.

I would say that I don’t want to sound cynical, but that would be a lie. I am indeed cynical of “de-extinction” projects, and I don’t believe that the TEDx conference did much to move the debate forward. The event was good media marketing, but the talks felt less like a real discussion and more of a study in scientific contrasts.

Synthetic biologists and advocates for “de-extinction” told tales of their progress and our ill-defined duty to recreate species despite our ignorance of ecological consequences, while the ecologists and critics continued to question the philosophical and practical motivations behind such efforts. One of the few speakers who attempted to bridge the gap was Kate Jones, who suggested the techniques being applied to the question of species re-creation could be applied to assisting imperiled species that are still living. If we are reshaping habitats by hand – removing invasive species, planting forests, closely monitoring the reproduction of rare species, and the like – then we have to ask whether there might be ways to use synthetic biology to aid the conservation of what still exists. But even if ecologists answer such questions in the negative, such an outcome requires a deeper dialogue between synthetic biologists who are already trying to recreate lost species and ecologists that are wary of such projects. Right now, experts are still haggling over what “de-extinction” truly means and the attendant philosophical quandaries. These arguments are worth having, especially during a time when distinctions between artificial and natural can be nearly impossible to pick out, but there may ultimately be more potential in collaboration between the field and the lab in our attempt to give ecosystems an ability to keep evolving as the world changes. If we must choose what the future of nature will look like, we must make such a decision carefully and all together.

40 thoughts on “Reinventing the Mammoth

  1. There’s a lot to juggle here (as I have found in my own writing on the topic), but I was left wondering what your view is on efforts to save currently endangered species.

    If you find the reasons for bringing back extinct species to be vapid, then is there any more compelling reason to do anything to stop the species that are on a fast track to extinction right now? Are we trying to preserve a fixed image of nature, when nature is always in flux, never in balance? Are we fooling ourselves that they will survive for long?

    Should we just let forest elephants and black-footed ferrets and California condors join the mammoth and the passenger pigeon in oblivion?

  2. My main objection to “de-extinction” in this post is the rebranding, or the marketing sleight of hand that appeals to the idea that we need to put nature back just the way it was 100, 500, 12,000, or however many years ago when we’re actually creating something new. (The same issue is what bothers me about “Pleistocene Rewilding.) I’m not inherently against the notion of recreating a mammoth or auroch or other lost species and trying to find a place for it, BUT if we’re going to do that, we should really call such efforts what they are rather than play up the idea that we’re somehow restoring nature to some balanced and pristine point.

    As for presently endangered species, I am not for simply saying “It’s hopeless!” and letting them slide into extinction. It would be a shame to lose species that still have a good chance at survival. I don’t want to live in a world entirely populated by white-tailed deer, raccoons, coyotes, and other animals that have been more flexible in adapting to our presence. That said, we already are making decisions about which species deserve assistance through conservation triage (even if it isn’t explicitly institutionalized as policy). Who do we save, and who do we restore? And how do we protect and manage places where we hope species will continue to evolve and go extinct? I am all for trying to help threatened and endangered species recover, but my main point is that we have to realize that life is going to continue to change. I think there’s a persistent and false impression that conservation is trying to work back to some point in the past where everything will be in balance, when really the future of nature is going to look different than anything that has come before.

    Even though I’m not convinced by the emotional appeal of “de-extinction”, I’m not suggesting that recreating lost organisms should be off the table because of the inevitable extinction of all species. My objections here have more to do with a kind of branding that obscures what’s actually going on and may actually harm potential dialog between synthetic biologists and conservationists. Given how much involvement our species has in both extinction and survival, I think it’s important to strip away some of the packaging and have a look at what’s really going on so that we can make informed decisions about what we want the future of wildlife to look like.

  3. There is a certain arrogance displayed when we write from a perspective that takes for granted the ever-increasing pace we as a collective force bring to a now gutted natural history. We don’t know of it in the lives we live now, don’t miss it and image a certan final end of it. Some micro-organism is only just a few genetic combinations away from visiting on humanity a clean sweeping return to days of old.

  4. I share some cynicism about resurrecting species, but I can’t quite go down the path of an “extinction happens, deal with it” attitude. I’m more concerned that ideas like de-extinction will be nothing more than hollow distractions from the real job: getting our species to grasp the reality of the mass extinction we’re driving, and to perhaps use our vaunted intelligence to forestall at least some of the worst effects. Whether or not the idea of natural balance is simplistic and trite, I’m pretty sure that creating vast diversity deserts isn’t a dynamic state of change that will benefit our societies and ultimately our species. It’s one thing for our species to act like an ecological cancer or rapacious infection, it’s another to accept that as just part of our nature.

  5. Last year, when a Japanese dock washed up on the Oregon coast, the state was quick to quarantine it, and kill off all of the invading species that hat hitched a ride across the Pacific. From a naturalist standpoint, I couldn’t figure out why they did that – critters have been getting around on driftwood and the ilk for millions of years – this was really no different. From an economic standpoint, it made perfect sense: they didn’t want any of these far-east critters getting loose in pacific northwest waters and possibly ruining an industry (even though a new industry would simply rise to take its place.)

    De-extinction projects have a always made me wonder about the economic side. Surely a mammoth (or something that closely resembles one) in a zoo would be a HUGE draw; and I’m sure it wouldn’t take long before you can shoot a sabertoothed cat in a canned hunt. But what if reintroduced species end up being more of an invasive species? What if re-wilding one previously extinct species ends up ousting the critter that took its place – and what if that critter has an industry around it? Or worse yet, is an endangered species itself?

  6. Really fantastic post, I see a dark hubris in de-extinction that you’ve put into words so much better than I could have. My view is that the loss of these species is our punishment for driving them too extinction (at least the modern ones) – if we can de-extinctify anything why should we try to prevent extinction?

  7. I hope these researchers are truly taking under account the ramifications of this de-extinction of proposal, and that it could very well result in an unintentional de-hibernation/extinction of certain diseases example being polio. Not to mention the fact that the idea of bringing back an extinct animal is absurd, and unnatural. Sure it sounds all picturesque, kind and wonderful, bringing back animals that we, and the environment have driven to extinction. We need to think about this more though. Is it really worth putting the natural balance of things, not to mention our own lives at risk? And for what what? “atone” for these “environmental sins” of ours? Play god? I do believe we are to naïve to start playing this game, and it’s not worth the possible negative outcomes no matter how small they may be.

    This is why greed is dangerous.

  8. I wrote my latest fiction novel, Chimera, on this topic … the creation of previously-extinct hunting trophies for wealthy collectors/poachers of illicit endangered species in 2011, thinking it would be an interesting but decidedly far-fetched sci-fi theme for many years to come. I found this idea comforting because I’m also the director of a federal crime lab devoted to protecting endangered and threatened species across the planet, and we’ve got plenty to do without trying to deal with genetically (re)created species. After reading your thesis, I’m no longer thinking that way. Sigh …

  9. Great post! It set the old grey cells working and asking even more questions. The biggest point here seems to be our obsession to find need to justify our actions. We have no need to reintroduce the mammoth, surely elephants could do pretty much the same job, is there was a job to be done. Cloning a mammoth is the same as going to the moon – pretty useless really, but what a goal! We are human, we have endless imagination. If ‘no animals are hurt’ in this experiment, let’s go for it! As for the rights of the clone-to-be … well, if I had been cloned and nurtured and given the best possible start, I’d say “thanks!”

  10. I think the tendancy to try to form a view of Nature as benign, manifested in terms such as “natural balance” as mentioned, derives in part from the vague notion that we could be next, or soon to come up on the list of the extinct species of earth. So the whole idea that there’s something inherently good about attempting to de-extinct certain species, and about trying to prevent other species (like the polar bear) from going extinct, is actually rooted in our fear of catching a natural selection bullet ourselves.

    But that’s probably not entirely the motivation. “Nature’s balance” also can be understood to stand in for the possibility that species (animal and plant) lost to our destructive activity might, through a chain reaction, lead to unexpected problems like environmental changes or loss of major food sources.

    Any such changes brought about by the loss of the Wooly Mammoth have probably already played out, but figuring out how to reintroduce them, as a general skill, might be a good tool in our chest for survival down the road if shark fin soup lovers end up upsetting the food chain by killing off certain species of shark for instance.

  11. In those cheesy 1950s scifi movies, there was always the scientist who ends up creating a monster and demands that it be preserved so that mankind can study it and learn from it. When that scientist is inevitably killed by his creation, the protagonists solemnly intone, “He tampered in God’s domain.” Credits roll. I always felt those movie scientists got a raw deal. From reading this article and its comments, however, I see the same mindset firmly in place. Even the need to trot out “hubris”, the presumption of man in the affairs of gods. I know no metaphysical significance was intended by use of that word, but with all this tongue-clucking all I hear is a call for man to limit his knowledge.

    [Will: Please see my previous post on this subject. I explicitly state that the “Tampering in god’s domain” sentiment is ludicrous and should be taken out of the conversation entirely.

    My point is actually the opposite of what you state. We’ve already changed nature so much, for good and ill. We’re going to continue to do so. If we’re going to keep changing ecology, we need to be clear and intentional about what we’re trying to do and what our aims are. – Brian]

  12. Alexandrex hit this on the head.
    Clone ivory, shark cartillage, tiger and bear organs; hence poachers become extict.

  13. Two salient points the author brought up are 1) are we just playing a game of semantics when we call it de-extinction? I would think “reasonable copy” might be a better description and it would take the glamour out of what is basically creating the tools to tinker with dna and genes.

    2) any animals created will be curiousities… and will remain such. Any released in a wild habitate would quickly be caught by collectors… remember the fate of the great auk the last colony was killed by museums looking for something to stuff to show their public a rapidly vng spec
    Second… Some species the passenger pigeon cannot be returned to its natural habitat… Billion bird flocks anyone?

    Yet they were large and could once enough facsimilies are bred might prove, like the buffalo, another source of table food.

  14. we shound be looking for mammoth egg and sperm cells so we coud have a proper mammoth strat away without many genarion

  15. Dear Brian
    Conversely, the beauty of intellectuals and their constant rationalization of reality is that-in the end-they do nothing!
    Good idea, I agree wholeheartedly. Thanks to NatGeo, I realized my DNA was so widespread, there was no reason for me to reproduce-that is pleasurably, consummate and then convince myself that it is necessary rather than mind-numbing ego driving me, when the world is already desperately over-populated.
    In the end, whether there is a soul (now there’s food for scientific thought) to “mother nature”, or we just created that name to give us something to think about as we went about trying to manipulate it, all the research in the world has told us exactly what will happen-because it has…over and over, and over again…Our ability to change the climate, melt the bergs, destroy the forests will be meaningless. Perhaps you might wanna say “God” (?) but whomever will just start over again. Mankind is a blight, like termites in a nearly wiped out forest…our time for value has long ago come and gone. What have we learned? Well, we have some folks giving their lives to try and find truths (while nearly starving to death) as cheats and tyrants and social misfits make a meal of their peers? In 2000+ years, we can attest to the fact that carving in stone is still the best way to preserve records? Heck, with over 80% of people living within 10 miles of major water sources, we haven’t even learned to head for higher ground.
    So I can rest sadly back in my computer chair as I realize the reality of bringing back anything at this point. Gosh, there isn’t even a land mass left unclaimed by mankind. We really might be able to re-build creatures via their dna, but their habit is long gone and probably owned by some land-grubbing cattle farmer by now…who’ll tell you without him, you starve…and on and on such arguments go. I suspect we will all be arguing our fate right up to that final moment-whatever it might be…oooops, that’s stereotyping…some will be underground, waiting to become permanent relics when our end comes (lol) RL

  16. I agree the term de-extinction is a marketing effort to pass a controversial endeavour of genetic engineering. There is no ethical reason for bringing back some extinct animals to life. They will do it because they can, and doing it with some spectacular species as the mammoth, certainly attracts more funds than other less “movie like” scientific approaches. Certainly the genetic engineering techniques need to keep evolving and improving and I think this is a viable way to do it.
    Restoring the world as it was (whatever we think it was) before we were able to change it in a big scale is a useless idea.

  17. A few million dollars would go a long way in protecting our remaining “endangered” elephants. Poaching of them is out of control and trade of Ivory should be stopped completely. Or send $$ to the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Orphanage to help raise many orphaned babies left to die.

  18. I understand the argument, “just because we can, does it mean we should”? That not-withstanding, cloning extinct species presents an interesting opportunity from a marketing perspective. Think what we could do with the money generated through a mammoth viewing or photo op to save species currently endangered to the point of extinction? Does it matter if a cloned mammoth is a genetically weak second cousin to the original, when the revenue generated could make the critical difference in saving a species such as the rhino? A mammoth in a controlled (zoo-like) setting would be a powerful visual of what we stand to lose if we can’t get our collective act together to preserve what we still have. Make a mammoth,save the rhino. I’m in. Forget the foolishness about re-creating some ideological balance of nature which never did exist, and focus our energy on preserving what still does exist. Ah if it were only that simple!

  19. I 100% support and look forward to the possibility of restoreing the mammoth species. not only do I love all forms of paleontology, but I see scientists from other countries comeing together for amazeing discovery!..not building weapons or a better I-phone but actuall biological discovery that brings people together in the name of science.not to mention the incredible amount of information we can is my deepest hope and I pray for its success~Aloha from kauaii

  20. I remeber arguments form some years ago that we shouldn’t reintroduce beavers to Scotland because they had been gone for a few hundred years and you can’t turn the clock back. Well that had a conceit of its very own. Yes if animals aren’t quite original genome that’s an issue, but IF they are then absolutely no problem bringing them back – many vital components of eco systems are missing. Getting poetic about invalidity of bringing back what WE exterminated is a form of arrogance and hubris itself. The Bering sea would be better if the Steller’s sea cow could be brought back, and how dare anyone deny future generations from seeing a Great Auk if proper specimens can be ‘brought back’.

  21. resurecting the mammoth and othe animals is a yes in my mid. if we do we will be bringing back gods creation and note only the… a mussing peice of our earth. if we bring back extincted animals we will be bringing them back home… they were here first so why should the have to not come back. if we bring them back they can reproduce and go generation to generation. bringing them back will make up for human beings killing them making them extincted in the first place.

  22. Overall I found this article to be extremely interesting, and more than a little exciting. But something I thought was rather strange was the idea of bringing the mammoth back from extinction; after all, how can we expect the mammoth to survive in today’s world? If we can’t keep the world’s living elephants from becoming extinct, shouldn’t we be focusing our efforts on fixing that instead of attempting to resurrect a creature that has been dead for thousands of years? I found it a bit odd to suggest a plan to reintroduce mammoths when there is already so much to be done for their descendants.

  23. My greatest concern is not in whether we should recreate extinct species, nor in why we should, as I see validity in both. My concern is that said recreations would lack the behavioral characteristics of their “progenitors” (and I use that term very loosely, for obvious reasons). Quite frankly, we’ll never have a “de-extinct” prehistoric creature because we will never have that organism’s complete genome. I think the biggest motivation among relevant scientists isn’t some ethical or moral obligation, nor is it research to find a cure for some sort of malady, but rather the stoking of one’s ego, and I find that disgusting. After all—these animals will not be legitimate clones, and even if they were, there is no clone for behavior, and anyone worth the letters following his or her name knows this.

    1. even if it just brings us all together in scientific discover and wonder=isnt that good enough reason to move forward~?

  24. And whose to say they’ll stop at a mammoth? I’d love to see the recreation of extinct species, but we place it in whose hands? And what of it if they would want to recreate more carnivorous dinosaurs…

  25. A fascinating discussion is worth comment. I believe that you need to publish more about this subject matter, it may not be a taboo subject but usually people do not talk about such topics. To the next! Kind regards!!

  26. Well-written, but why so much froth, Brian? Such a one-sided perspective just cannot do justice to this complex topic. “Slip into exctinction” does read a bit funny in the context of species like the mammoth, which smiled at a dozen ice ages passing by to be wiped out by frantic hunting. i also miss an acknowledgement of the spectacular role that elephants play in shaping their ecosystems. Jeez. When i see the homogeneity of many boreal ecosystems today i find the thought of mammoths retaking their old role as ecosystem engineers just entirely thrilling, even if those mammoths were only 50% genuine to begin with.

  27. why go spend thousands of dollars bringing back animals that died off years ago. rather spend that money on saving the animals that are on the verge of extinction. stop poaching!

  28. In a way, I sort of want to see an actual mammoth in person; a mammoth is just one of the many different species of elephant ancestors. Never mind the saber-toothed cat, though!

  29. I tend toward wanting to direct my attention toward saving the animals that are currently on this earth, including us. I take issue with the phrase persistent and unfounded fears of GMO’s. I subscribe to persistent and founded fears of GMO’s.

  30. Vis–à–vis unintentional consequences, the conspiratorial tone of unbounded speculation is particularly unhelpful.

    Human greed, on the other hand, is a categorical certainty. Parties with a folk- or financial interest in unsustainable practices are certain to welcome this technology as one which eliminates fear of extinction as a constraint upon irresponsible wildlife management.

    While scientific developments have global impact, local agencies are responsible for the administration of wildlife policy. This developing technology is certain to corrupt management paradigms in the jurisdictions most vulnerable to commercial exploitation.

  31. I am not stridently against this research–I do not advocate returning the genie to its bottle. A zoo exhibit placing a mastodon, a mammoth, and an elephant side-by-side could be of incredible educational value. It would be enormously interesting–and just plain cool–to study sabre-toothed cats in a research enclosure.

    It is one thing to create a living museum piece, but repopulation simply is not a legitimate consideration unless we are willing to re-create the social- and environmental conditions that defined the species’ existence. If Smilodon cannot be returned to its natural habitat, then it should not be re-introduced. If we are unwilling to set passenger pigeons loose in their millions, then we should not set them loose.

    Moreover, limiting the number of re-animated subjects to research populations makes it obvious that our policy must be one of “perfection or nothing”–of what value is an 80% mammoth observation? If it cannot be cloned from a viable frozen 100% mammoth cell, it shouldn’t exist.

    Partial cloning might prove its merit in other ways. The possibility of collapsing the market for shark fin and tiger penis with lab-raised items is an encouraging one.

  32. I support a wide range of animal de-extinction projects, a wonderful possibility and yes there is room.

  33. Sequencing an extinct genome is no longer a pipe dream, says evolutionary biologist and ancient DNA specialist Hendrik Poinar. The discovery helped scientists conclude that the large “lumps” on a mammoth’s back were extra stores of fat to help it survive winters. The mammoth was nicknamed “Zhenya.”

  34. Personally, I feel as if the road to de-extinction would provide its own merits. While on the way to recreating or cloning a mammoth, we’d have to take a large amount of steps just to get to that level. On the way, we’d likely find a better way to increase genetic diversity within populations, or increase the species we are currently considering as endangered. Take into account the work currently being done in South Korea with endangered African wild dogs. In order to get to the point where they can clone these animals, they first had to become experts in cloning the average dog. So before we can get to mammoths, we’d first have to hit upon other similar animals like elephants, boosting their numbers in the process. Like with any scientific leap, there are bound to be breakthroughs made in the process.

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