Question of the Week- 02-22-2017

What do you think of the efforts to bring a mammoth-elephant hybrid to life, as mentioned in the above news item? Even assuming it can be safely done without harm or suffering to the creatures involved, what ethical, scientific, or other challenges do you think might arise?


Our favorite answer will receive a copy of Brief Candle in the Dark by Richard Dawkins.

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13 COMMENTS

  1. as mentioned in the above news item?

    I don’t uunderstand. What item?

    Anyway, why would anyone would like to to bring a mammoth-elephant hybrid to life. Well if it is for some specific use that it would be beneficial for environment and life on Earth, Yes, why not 🙂 . But if it is just to be a pet, than no. haha

  2. As a pure scientific program, I am with it; this could be a significant step in de-extinction of a lot of species.
    On the other hand, supposing it actually works and a single full grown mammoth is created (Which is questionable since the mammoth DNA has been degenerating for centuries), that would be a disaster for the mammoth in question, since they were social animals like elephants (You’d have to grow a full herd for the social interaction to take place).
    Another problem is that this mammoth will most likely not be adopted by elephants because of it’s distinctive looks; so from which matriarch will it learn to feed and behave?
    So, as a CRISPR exercise, sure, but on a social level for the animal involved, no.

  3. For this to be ethically acceptable the animal would have to be able to express its natural behaviour and live out its life in a way that does not cause it too much distress. Because elephants develop closely bonded matriarchal families it is likely that Mammoths would also need to be part of a social group. It might be possible to include it in a herd of Asian or African elephants, but the behaviour of the hybrid may differ from that of the other species and this could be problematic. There was an instance where a male bonobo (his species is female dominant) was reared with a female member of the closely related species common chimpanzee (male dominant). The relationship did not go well and they had to be separated. On the other hand dogs generally do very well as part of human families, and it is possible that the animal would be happy with human interaction, if there was enough of it. There is a good argument that we should do what we can to bring back extinct species, in whose extinction humans may have been complicit, but not if the animals produced had the quality of their lives compromised. The precautionary principle should apply here. The answer is no.

  4. I am not concerned about the proposed size as we daily handle large animals at zoos. Asian elephants are very common and the proposed hybrid will be largely elephant. I believe there is a high probability that any accredited zoo with an existing elephant herd would be able to include the hybrid. It is an interesting problem. It will certainly expand our knowledge of recombinant DNA technology whether we succeed or not.

  5. My main question would be: why?

    The vast majority of species that have ever lived are now extinct. It is the natural order of things. We might look at extinct specimens and wish that we could revive them… but for what purpose? The creation of our own version of Jurassic Park? As a specimen for a Ridley’s Believe It Or Not? For amusement, or for a specific purpose? Or just because we can? Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.

    With species that were recently eradicated by humans (directly or indirectly), an argument could be made that we should restore them as an act of (partial) redemption. How about a Dodo and pigeon hybrid? The Tasmanian Tiger with a Tasmanian Devil or numbat? Justification for such a program could be made, but we’re already struggling to stop human-related extinctions of other animals (such as the western black rhino).

    The reasons for the extinction of the wooly mammoth are unknown. It may have been due to environmental changes or it may have been hunted to extinction by humans. Or possibly both.

    Whether for human redemption or for just a bit of “fun”, we should concentrate on still-existing species and do our best to keep them alive if we can. We can lament the loss of animals such as the mammoth, but that lamentation needn’t result in an attempt to fight the natural order of extinction that faces every species – including our own.

  6. It would be awesome, because that would mean that homo sapiens is not only able to extinguish other species (including itself) but also to bring back extinct ones…and probably to extinct them again. Perfect depicture of the complexity and contradictions of humans.

  7. For the purposes of scientific discovery, I agree to take the challenge of executing this test. But as a common practice to bring back extinct species, I don’t see what is practical about it.

  8. I like the “WOW!” factor of the hybrid woolly mammoth. It’s big. It’s bold. It says “Hey! I’m science and I’m really cool!”.

    Frankly though, I’m not sure that a mammoth would be the ideal species to try this with. It’s sort of like the currently popular scheme to send people on a one-way trip to Mars, isn’t it? Sure, we can do it, and we might get some kind of useful information from doing it, but it’s going to be really expensive to do and there isn’t really a long term payoff unless the expedition succeeds beyond even the wildest expectations. This mammoth business is pretty much the same thing. There have to be more practical choices that will ultimately be of more value precisely because they aren’t astonishingly grandiose.

    I suspect there are thousands of extinct species that would be considerably better candidates. For starters, I think a 5 ton animal without 15 foot horns sticking out it’s face would be safer for all concerned. I’m reasonably certain that there must be a species we can bring back that doesn’t eat 300-600 pounds of food a day. I am 100% positive that an animal with shorter lifespans and gestation periods than an elephant would make long term studies concerning the effects of breeding second and third generation specimens far more practical.

    In 2009 there was a failed attempt to clone a Pyrenean Ibex using 9 year old tissue samples. As I recall the specimen only lived a very short time. As awesome as I think it would be to genetically engineer a woolly mammoth, I think I would rather see the process perfected on an animal like the Pyrenean Ibex first. The Pyrenean Ibex went extinct due to the lethal combination of over-hunting and poor conservation less than 20 years ago. There is a very real value to mankind in perfecting this process on an animal that is useful. There is a very real benefit for science to attempt to resurrect an animal whose traits, needs, and habits are fairly well documented. There are no living experts on the care an feeding of woolly mammoths, and no real benefit to bringing them back.

    “WOW!” factor aside, I’m pretty sure that resurrecting goats will ultimately be of more benefit than elephants.

  9. For me, as for an ordinary inhabitant of the Earth, it will be very interesting to see though the hybrid, but still the being living so many years ago. And as a scientist, who tells the story of this event, has this surname (Prof. George Church), it becomes clear that no confessions will interfere to this unusual experiment. 😉
    Regarding the problems that can occur, it is possible that it will be a turning point that will deny the law of evolution, which is so feared by some scientists. I can not say exactly how, but I assume that the physiology or behavior of the animal can be unpredictable and different from the expected, so there is a chance of losing a right and a great (and in fact, the only adequate) explanation of the origin and evolution of species. And from this point of view, I would certainly not sought to see this moment, because it will be a great occasion for all pseudoscientific and especially for theologians go in tough attack and seize power and minds completely. But I’m still open-minded, and even if the mammophant will negate evolution, though I am upset, but I’ll be waiting and looking forward to the opening of the scientists some other explanation, that is not worse than the last, and perhaps even better (though what can be better).
    Thank you for the opportunity to express my opinion and wish you all the best!

  10. Viktor Pellia #10
    Feb 26, 2017 at 2:47 am

    Regarding the problems that can occur, it is possible that it will be a turning point that will deny the law of evolution, which is so feared by some scientists.

    Genetic experiments apply the laws of evolution and demonstrate that they work! There is no way that genetic manipulation can “deny evolution”.

    I can not say exactly how, but I assume that the physiology or behavior of the animal can be unpredictable and different from the expected, so there is a chance of losing a right and a great (and in fact, the only adequate) explanation of the origin and evolution of species.

    Evolution and natural selection are about selecting from a range of unpredictable outcomes.

    The fact that some related “species” are still able to produce hybrid offspring, shows that their evolutionary branches have not separated by enough generations of variation, to make cross breeding impossible.

    And from this point of view, I would certainly not sought to see this moment, because it will be a great occasion for all pseudoscientific and especially for theologians go in tough attack and seize power and minds completely.

    Not really! They have no more opportunity from this experiment than they have from horses and donkeys cross breeding to produce mules!

    But I’m still open-minded, and even if the mammophant will negate evolution, though I am upset, but I’ll be waiting and looking forward to the opening of the scientists some other explanation, that is not worse than the last, and perhaps even better (though what can be better).

    While it is good to be open to new evidence, the tens of thousands of documented examples of evolution at the core of biological studies, leave little room for doubt about anything except the finer details of the evolutionary processes in individual genera and species.

  11. I believe that the main problems arising with this decision would be first of all ecological, since bringing back to life an extinct organism whose life habits and biology are known only by means of the fossil record would imply risks for the management of the ecological niche in which it would live. It may be dangerous since new diseases could spread employing the organism as a host for parasites and the flora and fauna might suffer from a disrupted environmental niche.
    Scientifically this decision might provide new insights on the extinction of these animals, and a deep knowledge of its biology and behaviour may be helpful in a better understanding of how to preserve its descendants from demise, and the accurate analyses could eventually be used to verify how much extant analogues can be studied to provide clues about ancient animals.
    Finally, it is ethically questionable to what extent we are allowed to interfer with the past, since our technologies may not be ready to face these challenges.

  12. I think this would be an excellent way of advancing our scientific understanding both of the mammoth and the technology for cloning extinct species, so I’m for it.

    The more interesting question is one of ethics. I suppose most people would be against cloning an extinct individual (Einstein, an Egyptian Pharos, Genghis Khan, etc.) because they are “human” rather than an “animal.” As Richard points out in many of his books, drawing the line between animal and human is difficult.

    Would it be okay to clone Homo habilis or Neanderthals? Too close to human? How about Australopithecus? Who draws the line? We certainly could learn at least as much from cloning these “animals” as from Mammoths.

    Personally, I have no problem with cloning any extinct animal, include humans, but there are bound to be unintended consequences. Even if we try and stop such research, I have a feeling someone will carry it out regardless, so it might as well be done openly rather than in secret by some rogue scientist in the future.

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