Should we use cloning to bring back extinct species?

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READER John Warren contacted me recently and asked whether I believed it was morally acceptable to clone DNA from the remains of extinct animals in an effort to re-introduce them into our world.

I don’t usually get asked about ethical dilemmas by readers, but the question is an interesting one nonetheless.

Let’s look at the arguments for making such attempts first.

No one likes to see animal species go into extinction. Every year hundreds of species do, although no one is really sure of how many. I’ve seen estimates as low as 250 and as high as 4,000. I find it tragic that even one unique, sentient creature should finally bow out of our world, never to return.

The truth is that many extinctions occur not because of natural processes, but because of human folly.

Humankind is steadily and systematically destroying the environment, and if it were allowed to continue then eventually we’d reach a tipping point beyond which there is no return. Some say that we actually reached that point back in the 1970s, and no matter what we do now we’ll never be able to put things right.

Those in favour of cloning extinct species argue that we at least need to try, and that if we can restore a species that we were responsible for eradicating then in some way we’d be redressing the balance, or rectifying a wrong, so to speak.

Another argument in favour of cloning is that by restoring extinct species and studying them we may be able to make scientific advances in both the prevention and treatment of disease.

But then we need to look at the arguments against cloning. Opponents of the idea point out that many species die out not because of human intervention, but due to natural changes in the environment. It’s estimated that 95 per cent of all animal species which have ever existed are now extinct. “It’s just the way of things”, say some. “This is what evolution does; it removes the weak to secure the survival of the strong. It’s just survival of the fittest.”

Those who don’t accept the theory of evolution often object to cloning too, but for different reasons: “If God had wanted those species to survive, then they would have. They didn’t survive, so it’s obvious that it wasn’t part of God’s plan.”

Another philosophical argument put forward against cloning is that its “messing around with nature”, or “playing God”. I can agree with this, but only in part. Once we allow scientists to “mess around” with life itself and experiment with the creation of grotesque hybrid species – some say that human-animal hybridisation has already taken place – then we’ll be on a very rocky road indeed. (www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBDG3-bXcxQ)

Despite these misgivings, it has to be acknowledged that “messing around with nature” is something that we all do every day. Did you eat a cooked meal for lunch? Really?

Then you were messing around with nature. You changed the chemical state of a substance artificially.

Do you heat your home when it gets a bit chilly? That’s messing around with nature, too. We all “mess around with nature”; the only question is where we draw the line between what is acceptable and what isn’t.

To those who say that it must have been the will of God that a species went extinct, one could argue just as forcefully that it must have been the will of God that a species was reintroduced by cloning were it ever to happen in reality.

I guess I’d have to err on the side of caution and follow that old maxim, “If in doubt, then don’t.” It’s not the idea of cloning an extinct species that bothers me so much, but the scientific fall-out that might occur along the way. If we do manage to resurrect an extinct species, then what would be next? I look forward to your comments.

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