Should scientists resurrect long-extinct species? Is it ethical to clone thousands of animals who will not live, but have their organs harvested for human patients?
Those are some of the questions people are asking as the cloning industry — once relegated to producing one-off copies and genetically identical versions of deceased pets for wealthy clients — is expanding with new capabilities.
This story by the BBC’s David Cox provides an informative, brief history of cloning before pivoting to the current state of the industry and how it could continue to evolve.
Two of the most fascinating prospects have to do with conservation. One company, Colossal, is working on bringing back the extinct woolly mammoth, while other scientists are turning to cloning as a way to prevent the extinctions of species like the white rhino, which is functionally extinct without any breeding pairs left living.
As with anything in science, innovations in cloning unlock new applicative branches, and scientists have partnered with the medical field to address human health concerns. Some, like the practice of editing genes to prevent diseases in newborns, tend to fly under the radar. But others, like the push to adapt organs from animals like pigs so they can be replacements for human organs, are much more controversial and have met opposition from animal welfare groups.
Then there’s the elephant in the room, no pun intended. What about cloning humans?
Right now no one’s gone down that route, at least not publicly, because of the inevitable backlash. What’s happening deep in the bowels of clandestine medical facilities in nations with murky ethics laws is another question entirely.
I am opposed to human cloning, but I don’t believe it will remain the immutable taboo some people think it is. Someone will break the dam, and while that pioneer will likely get raked over the coals, the bell cannot be unrung. Things change so fast these days that what’s shocking one day merits a shrug the next, and it’s possible the world will be introduced to a man or woman one day before it’s revealed the person is, in fact, a clone. (Not unlike the way the world was introduced to Imma, a Japanese influencer and model who exists only digitally.)
They’ll be the Dolly the Sheep of the human race, and ethicists won’t get a say in whether they should exist because it’s already been done.
“See how normal they are?” people keen on cloning will say. “They’re just regular people. Are you going to tell them they shouldn’t live?”
But before that, it looks like the movie Gattaca will become reality, and people will order up a great baseball player or a child with intuitive musical genius just like they might commission a piece of art or a custom car job. Gene editing with CRISPR is surprisingly trivial.
Of course, it won’t be lost on people that we’re cloning humans when there are millions of unwanted, uncared-for street kids in the third world, not to mention people who live without the consideration of their fellow human beings in every nation. Just like it hasn’t escaped the notice of activists that South Korea and China are leaders in cloning pets, yet dogs and cats are also food in those countries.
What separates the dogs and cats bound for restaurant kitchens from the dogs and cats having their cells preserved for cloning?
Nothing except for their individual value to humans, just like pure luck separates a cat who finds a loving home from a cat who ends up euthanized with a needle. We are a fickle species.
Yet both the beloved pet and the unwanted shelter cat are sentient, experience intense emotions and have their own thoughts. That’s not conjecture, it’s fact as confirmed many times over experimentally, but it shocks a lot of people. Our education system has not done right by the billions of non-human minds we share our planet with.
I’ve thought about what might have happened if Buddy had been adopted by someone else, and what his fate may have been. I love the little guy, but it’s possible that someone else may have viewed him as an annoyance, a loud and incessantly chatty cat who needs an inordinate amount of attention and affection, sometimes lashes out, and needs to be surrendered.
Likewise, unwanted cats have languished in shelters for months before viral posts spark interest in them, and suddenly offers to adopt come in by the hundreds from across the globe. Nothing about those cats changed, but humans formed an emotional attachment to them after learning their stories.
Of course, the ethics of how we treat and consider animals can change depending on where you’re sitting. If you’re young, healthy and energetic, your view may be radically different than the person sitting on an organ donation waiting list, knowing their time may be up before a new liver or kidney becomes available. Suddenly a seemingly simple moral calculus becomes murky and complex.
There’s strong evidence that people who take the first steps toward cloning their beloved cats and dogs spend time wrestling with the ethics of the decision as well. Texas-based ViaGen, the western leader in commercial cloning, told the BBC that 90 percent of its clients are not people who have gone through with cloning, but have only taken the initial step of preserving their pets’ cells for $1,600.
And what of the mammoths? Bringing them back from extinction isn’t as simple as filling in the gaps in their genome, implanting gene-edited eggs in female elephants and hoping gestation takes care of the rest. Mammoths are social animals. Will an elephant mother raise a mammoth baby? Where does that mammoth baby belong? Without a herd of its own kind, can it be happy?
We can’t ask the mammoths, and even if we could, it might not be up to them anyway. As one paleogeneticist put it to NPR last year: What if the technology isn’t used to resurrect the mammoth, but to save the elephant? Does the end justify the means in the latter situation, but not the former?
Mammoth, Dolly the Sheep and rhesus macaque images credit Wikimedia Commons