Why would scientists be so intent on bringing mammoths back to life? Does it make sense to try to bring back the passenger pigeon? Will we eventually be able to save the elephants by cloning them when we couldn’t even protect the ones who were hanging on by the skin of their tusks in Africa? While scientists like to claim that it’s about “conservation, the truth may be more to do with business and profit.
There’s a growing buzz about “de-extinction”. In 2003, an extinct goat-like subspecies known as the Pyrenean ibex was “resurrected” and survived for a few minutes. Australian scientists are trying to bring back the Southern gastric brooding frog. And last week, National Geographic hosted a conference – TEDx DeExtinction – that it called “the first-ever public exploration of the subject of reviving extinct species.”
Lanza and Church make it very clear what it’s all about: just another profitable form of factory farming.
There’s even talk about bringing back a Neanderthal. And while professors in the field of ethics are generally opposed to doing this, their moral qualms don’t extend to protecting unconsenting mother animals from being forced to give birth to what would certainly be hundreds of deformed, suffering and dying babies (like the Pyrenean ibex) before even being able to produce a viable one.
Cloning extinct animals is presented to the general public with all sorts of high-minded rationales like “conservation”. But what’s really driving the industry is something else altogether. An article in MIT Technology Review spells it out:
But here’s the deal: the very same biotechnologies needed to reanimate lost species are going to have far, far greater financial and social impact when they’re applied to commercial breeding of livestock, pets, and even humans.
The article examines a new start-up, the Ark Corporation, that’s cofounded by stem-cell pioneer Robert Lanza and Harvard Medical School DNA expert George Church.
“There are just so many downstream implications,” says Lanza, who is chief scientific officer of Advanced Cell Technology, a stem cell company.
Ark, he says, hopes to help revive some extinct species, including a Spanish mountain goat. But the company’s real aim is to combine cutting-edge cell biology and genome engineering in order to breed livestock and maybe even create DNA-altered pets that live much longer than usual. “Imagine a dog that lives 20 years,” he says.
To people like Lanza and the investors who are funding Ark, it’s all a logical next step to what the farming industry already does, like selling and shipping around the world sperm that’s collected from prize animals. After all, who needs a living animal when you can clone the sperm of a blue-ribbon bull, pig or rooster?
According to the article, it makes sense for Lanza et al to start with extinct animals.
Even among commercial cattle breeders, lab-brewed sperm and eggs might be a bit controversial. Will the technology be accepted? Will iPS offspring be healthy?
That’s where extinct animals come in. Trying out some of these methods to bring back extinct species would be a way to find out if they work, not to mention a way to generate huge publicity coups involving furry, friendly faces.
Church says that while Ark is offering to help revive extinct species, it’s more of “a good will thing, to show that we are interested in helping conservation as well as agriculture.”
In fact, they’re not the slightest bit interested in conservation. They know perfectly well that cloning an elephant or a lion or a frog isn’t going to protect any of these animals. All you’d end up with is a handful of weird zoo specimens – not exactly the great herds and prides that were once the glory of Africa, passing on knowledge and experience to their young and maintaining the complex ecosystems they inherited.
No, Lanza and Church make it very clear what it’s all about: just another profitable form of factory farming.