Omission: The Fossil Record (1991) © by Alexis Rockman.
The news was recently full of the discovery of the best-ever preserved woolly mammoth, which raised cloning hopes. CNN:
Researchers from the Northeast Federal University in Yakutsk found the 10,000-year-old female mammoth buried in ice on the Lyakhovsky Islands off the coast of northeast Russia.
Scientists say they poked the frozen creature with a pick and dark liquid blood flowed out.
"The fragments of muscle tissues, which we've found out of the body, have a natural red color of fresh meat. The reason for such preservation is that the lower part of the body was underlying in pure ice," said Semyon Grigoriev, the head of the expedition and of the university's Mammoth Museum, in a statement on the university's website. ...
Grigoriev told The Siberian Times newspaper it was the first time mammoth blood had been discovered and called it "the best preserved mammoth in the history of paleontology."
"We suppose that the mammoth fell into water or got bogged down in a swamp, could not free herself and died. Due to this fact the lower part of the body, including the lower jaw, and tongue tissue, was preserved very well," he said.
Grigoriev called the liquid blood "priceless material" for the university's joint project with South Korean scientists who are hoping to clone a woolly mammoth, which has been extinct for thousands of years.
The controversial Sooam Biotech Research Foundation is headed up by Hwang Woo-suk -- the disgraced former Seoul National University scientist who claimed in 2004 that he had successfully cloned human embryonic stem cells before admitting he had faked his findings.
Typically, researchers contemplating revival of an extinct species do not think about the species but about human motivations. We are 'atoning for past sins,' or 'proving what we can do' if the money is right.
Is seems less challenging, morally speaking, to resurrect relatively recently extinct species, such as the aurochs, the baiji dolphin, the Japanese sea lion, the Caribbean monk seal, the thylacine, the passenger pigeon, or the dodo bird. In 2000, the last Pyrenean ibex died. In 2009, a clone brought the species back from extinction for the seven minutes that it remained alive.
The project to clone a mammoth poses a concern that was addressed in Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park: how far back in time will cloning technology reach if it becomes sophisticated enough to revive species after species from extinction? The Russians have built Pleistocene Park, a wildlife reserve in Siberia, which attempts to reproduce Ice Age conditions and will be populated by clones if possible. Wiki:
The effort is being led by Russian researcher Sergey Zimov, with hopes to back the hypothesis that hunting, and not climate change, destroyed the wildlife. The aim of Pleistocene Park is to recreate the ancient taiga/tundra grasslands that were widespread in the region during the last ice age. The key concept is that animals, more than temperature, maintained that ecosystem. This argument is the justification for rewilding Pleistocene Park's landscape with megafauna that was previously abundant in the area, as evidenced by the fossil record.
Ethically, however, there may be problems with cloning and reintroducing Pleistocene animals to modern times. From the perspective of natural selection, it could be said that natural forces selected against Pleistocene mammals, since they could not adapt to changing ecological and climatic conditions. Bringing these animals back from extinction essentially contravenes the intent of nature and raises a number of complex philosophical questions. Do long-extinct species gain anything from being brought back from the dead? Is it cruel to place these animals in ecosystems different from the ones they evolved in? Will some Pleistocene species outcompete and force some modern species into extinction? If this is so, and modern plants and animals take precedence, will we be forced to slaughter the very creatures we resurrected? What about our own Pleistocene antecedents? If we bring back the Neanderthals (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis), is it ethical to place them in zoos and preserves and charge the public admission to see them?
It has also been noted that a resurrected species, while being genetically the same as previously living specimens, will not have the same behaviour as its predecessors, since the first animal to be brought back will be raised by parents of a different species (the foetus's host), not the one that died out. It will therefore not be able to learn the "culture" of its species.What if Sergey Zimov is right, and animals make the environment, rather than the other way around? What happens to our environment when creatures which exist outside of their time are reintroduced? What if evolution is really a big biological and environmental clock, and different species belong to different times? Is it right to twist the hands of the biological clock, and force them backwards?