A Savanna Life in a Technological World

Cloning a Mammoth (or CRISPR and GMOs for Nature Part IV)

Cloning a Mammoth (or CRISPR and GMOs for Nature Part IV)

Hell yes! is the two-word answer. But the important thing is the question, which is what I will deal with most in this post.

There have been many think pieces in the past few years about whether we should take tissue from extinct animals and use genetic technology to clone a living, breathing animals out of that tissue. This process has been given the name ‘de-extinction’ by some. Whoever came up with that name is obviously not in advertising, nor have they ever tried to say the word ‘de-extinction’ out loud several times in a single sentence. I think we need a new term. This term would, of course, need to be a value-neutral technical term free of any other cultural associations. I suggest the term ‘resurrection.’

I am not a geneticist, but people say that this sort of thing is firmly in the ‘when we clone a mammoth’ and not the ‘if we clone a mammoth’ category. As an eco-philosopher who can’t even use a pipette in the chemistry lab without messing it up, I can only add to the intellectual ferment around this issue with a few words. I have been working up to the process of resurrection over the course of the previous three installments in this series. This is because cloning mammoths is interesting and important. But also because mammoth cloning is another good lens for understanding technology.

Those other think pieces about mammoth resurrection all focus on a few points

They suggest that there is the danger of moral hazard when it comes to resurrection, that if this tool were to be used, we would become casual about letting species go extinct and that we would do better to focus conservation dollars on conservation, specifically habitat conservation.

These animals would not truly be pure examples of the extinct animals. DNA would be inserted from living animals to round them out

They suggest that such actions would unleash all sorts of dire consequences, in other words, the long shadow cast by the “Jurassic Park” franchise.

They say it would be inhumane to clone a mammoth just because we want to see one so bad.

The last one at least is sort of charming. I imagine animal rights activists showing up at the unveiling of the first cloned mammoth and feeling guilty about how excited they were to see it, like Huck Finn berating himself for not finding the moral courage to turn Jim in as a runaway slave. But all the same, they are all bad reasons. Those of us who have to actually get stuff done in the world can have a tendency to casually dismiss “mere theories.” But theories are important and bad theories are dangerous. The previous think-pieces regarding the process of resurrection highlight how flawed our paradigms are around technology and how that can lead to very bad decision making.

There are only a handful of people in the world that think that technology is ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ these are the true futurists and true Luddites. However, the futurists and the Luddites still shape the debate. Most people still think about a certain technology as being good or bad or being good when applied in one way and bad when applied in another. But that’s lazy, metaphysical thinking. Why is it good or bad? How do we know what is good when it comes to technology


If we use a little more precise language than ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as applied to technology might go something like this:

Technology has a huge number of unintended consequences. Everything else in the ecosystem has spent the last few hundred million years getting used to each other. With something both new and powerful, like technology, there is just no way of knowing all the different ways that it is going to change things. Almost all of those unintended consequences are going to be bad just because there are so many ways that things can go wrong and only a few ways they can go right. This is what makes a Luddite say that technology is bad, and they would be right except for the fact that:

Technology is a good way, maybe the only way, of mitigating against the unintended consequences

So then, instead of thinking about it in terms of good and bad, it would be more precise to put it this way: If we use [X,Y, or Z technology] do we think that it is worth unintended consequences we are inevitably exposing ourselves to, in order to iron out the problems created by [A, B, and C technology].

The reference point for all of this is “Eden,” the world before there were any technologies. Does a certain technology make the world more or less like the world before technology?

So, of course, cloning a mammoth does all those things. From this perspective (my perspective) why would there be any debate about whether we should clone a mammoth? Give me a break. The Jurassic Park franchise has shaped our collective consciousness too much if we are worried about mammoths ravaging New York City. I may be underestimating the possible unintended consequences. Humans have a tendency to do that. But I would suggest that every other author who has written about this subject has grossly underestimated the problems that could be resolved by a handful of trans-genic mammoths. Afterall, mammoth extinction is the unintended consequence of previous technologies. In all likelihood, human hunters caused the extinction of wooly mammoths, as well as a number of other large mammals, somewhere in the neighborhood of 12,000 years ago. As for problems that stemmed from those extinctions, I spent the better part of a 450-page book on them, so there were some.

Such a mammoth would start to shape the environment in important ways. Because these impacts have a long history in the ecosystem many other species have come to depend on them. Meaning, mammoth cloning is habitat conservation.

No, the animal that we would create would not be “mammoth,” per se. We might have to patch some holes in the genome with Asian elephant DNA. But that’s okay. Molecular methods in Paleontology are showing that wooly mammoths were not “wooly mammoths,” per se, either. There was extensive inter-breeding with Columbian and Jefferson mammoths. The process of genetic exchange would be different, but not the product.

In addition to showing us some interesting things about nature, it demonstrates some interesting things about technology too. For instance, more complex technologies do not necessarily create more biodiversity loss. Mammoth extinctions were created by some of our most simple technologies yet a mind-boggling process that mere mortals like us have no hope of participating in, well that creates biodiversity. Again, as a whole, we will find a technology or an application of a technology ‘good’ when it makes the world more like the Pleistocene savannas that were our evolutionary home.

If that is the case, then cloning a mammoth seems like a no-brainer, it seems like my rubric for analyzing technology is made for mammoth cloning. In fact, someone could ask how useful this rubric was and whether any other technology would make conditions more like a Pleistocene savanna. How could a technology make the world more like the world before there was technology? Sounds like a koan. But that’s just the thing. Every technology has a way that it mimics some aspect of a Pleistocene savanna. We humans would not want or even recognize a technology that did not do that. Our psyches were shaped by those savannas and our desires are built around them. However, every technology has a way that it moves the world away from the landscape of our ancestors. The trick is to figure out how to get more of the former and less of the latter.

So, now for a homework assignment that is relevant to the times and the audience (all you facebook rats out there); how could facebook make our world more like the Pleistocene savannas of our ancestry? How could it make it less? Hint: Don’t think about trees and grass. Focus on our psychological environment. Remember Facebook is a spear pointed straight at our psyches.

Final question: listening to a rancher ramble on about eco-philosophy, good way or bad way to use Facebook? I don’t know, but to make up for it here are pictures of a baby (Abel) on Easter.


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