Saturday, February 18, 2017

Speaking of Resurrection, on Blogs and Elephants

That's right, I re-re-re-re-re-resurrected the blog. And speaking of resurrection, did you read about the woolly mammoths? Scientists are planning on bringing back the woolly mammoths by 2019. Working on the genes of the Asian elephant, biologists are close to developing a method to "secure an alternate future for this critically endangered species" - turning it into one of its ancestors. This is both amazing and awful, depending on which side you're looking at - but before I get into that, I thought I'd consider what we know about the woolly mammoth. 

Off the top of my head... physical description - giant elephant with massive long tusks, which has adorable tufts of hair on its head and shaggy fur. Possibly the first elephant(?) Looks very very cool. Manny from Ice Age, grumpy outside soft inside, stand-offish but loving, that sort of thing. 

Some fact-checking later... the mammoth became extinct because of the disappearance of its habitat due to the melting ice and also hunting by man. Last known to exist on the planet was at least 4000 years ago. It wasn't quite the first elephant ever. Its closest existing relative is the Asian elephant. It has smaller ears than modern elephants possibly because of the cold. But - it was roughly the size of the existing African elephants, only!! Relevant fun linguistic story - Thomas Jefferson was the first to use the word 'mammoth' as an adjective to describe anything that is big and he used it to describe a block of cheese he was gifted. 

So anyway, back to the main story - here are the ethical concerns of bringing this creature back:

1. If this really is being done to "protect the Asian elephant," are we saying we have actually exhausted all other means of saving the Asian elephant using the money that might be used for this 'cool' experiment? Or is it easier to get money for resurrecting a mammoth than helping an Asian elephant? (Which leads one to wonder, does accidentally conserving one species as a side-result of having some good old genetic fun really address the problem of conservation at all? - which I don't think it does, so stop using conservation as your go-to reason. Right?) 

2. Let's not forget why the woolly mammoth died in the first place (one of the reasons being human hunting for ivory - which is precisely what we are doing to our existing elephants.) Before we bring new cooler elephants into the world, do we want to take a moment to assess whether they will suffer the same treatment at the hands of ambitious poachers as those elephants that already exist? Is the world we are planning to bring these elephants into a 'good world' to introduce new species too? What are we bringing them back to? We live in a world where horns and tusks are ripped off of animals and they're left to die. Do we want to bring this creature back into a world where even what belongs here can't survive?

3. Now here comes the interesting part - scientists say that this de-extinction of woolly mammoths could help in our fight with climate change. Interesting, right? Listen to the reason - they can keep the tundra from thawing by punching the snow with their massive woolly feet and allowing cold air to come in. See? They will help save the planet! From all the discussion about this benefit of having woolly mammoths in the tundra, it seems as though having exhausted all other means of protection, bringing back to life a creature that died out thousands of years ago is our BEST BET at conquering climate change. 

4. Now the mammoth that resurrects won't be exactly what it was then, but it will have its traits - physical (narrow skull, etc) and other. Consider this - How will it affect the existing elephants? I think this is the worst consequence. What if the mammophant (they're seriously calling it that) isn't accepted by existing elephants? This won't exactly be natural selection. What if the mammophant ends up roaming the planet like a Frankenstein's monster. 

This is how these justifications seem to me: Kids sitting around with a cool new idea going, oooh let's do this - if they protest, we can say, "..." Which is not to say it isn't awesome - it is. It's incredible. The same biologists claim that this technology could help remove age effects eventually - also amazing (and opens a whole new can of worms!) But just the fact that we have the ability to do something that is awesome, doesn't mean it is the time for it. And this is something that people tend to forget. A good Devil's advocate never hurt.