Should Cloning be Used to Bring Back Extinct Species?

Zion Lights
Tuesday, 16th April 2013

Researchers have the ability to bring extinct species back from the dead. Can cloning be used for the greater good or will it cause more harm to the fragile ecosystem of our planet.

To clone or not to clone? This is the question on the lips of scientists and conservationists around the world, as researchers now have the ability to bring extinct species back from the dead.

They are calling it de-extinction.

The other question is - should they do it?

De-extinction is a topic that generates complex debate fraught with ethical, philosophical, and even legal complications. Just as geoengineering aims to remedy the climate from manmade impact, cloning for de-extinction is based on a similar theory - that humans can use it to return many of the species we have wiped out with our actions. Advocates of cloning extinct species argue that de-extinction will bring the biodiversity back to our planet, and some conservationists argue that since we have the technology to do this we actually have a duty to restore the extinct entities to the natural world.

That's if the world can be called natural to these long-gone species. Human impacts of habitat loss, introduction of exotic species, and global warming are also to blame for the biodiversity crisis, and cloning species back to their natural numbers does not deal with the root of the problem - human behaviour.

Consider the Arabian Oryx. Conservation efforts beginning in 1962 painstakingly worked to restore this animal to its natural habitat, but by the year 2011 the species had once again been hunted to the point of extinction. There is a strong argument therefore that conservation efforts should focus on protecting the current growing list of endangered species rather than on cloning extinct species, which can only be a short-term tonic for a long-term disease.

Current rates of extinction are so high that species are dying out at an estimated speed of between 1,000 and 10,000 times the natural rate, and cloning for de-extinction may mean that scientists can bring back polar bears if we fail in our efforts to save them from being wiped out, but bringing them back won't be much good to anyone since the destruction of their natural habitat is leading to their extinction in the first place. It may be that humans have to change their relationship with animals before we can act upon bringing them back from the dead, lest we kill them all over again.

The potential unknown risks involved with cloning for de-extinction make it a tricky subject to debate, as much of what might go wrong is based on speculation. One proposed implication is that animals returning from extinction may harbour diseases that will impact other living species, and it's impossible to second guess the effects of these scenarios, beyond the fact that other species could then be wiped out by the returned specimens. Equally, the reintroduced animals may not be able to cope with the new diseases on our planet since their demise, or the changed habitats, and so on. What these speculations tell us is that there is strong potential for de-extinction to cause damage to the very thing humans are hoping to remedy with this technology - it could cause untold destruction to the ecosystem.

A less explored issue in the cloning debate is the fact that many cloned species are born to living animals, using 'reproductive cloning', where a living animal has to endure forced gestation to bring extinct species back into the world. Dolly the sheep was created this way.

The way it works 

Animal cloning is a matter of trial and error and the exact procedure varies per species, but during the experimental process it's normal to see high rates of deformity, disability, death and suffering amongst clones. The way it works is this - a living animal, for example an elephant, is required to carry and give birth to a mammoth, and the process of pregnancy and birth may be repeated hundreds or thousands of times, with high levels of complications such as abortions, deformed results, and death on delivery amongst the cloned species. I'll spare you the more gory details, but ask you this - is it at all bizarre that we purport to use animals in this way in order to save other animals from death and suffering? This attitude may be key to the debate as it highlights a human belief that animals are meant to serve us as our tools; perhaps until this arrogance changes, animals will continue to go extinct, and no amount of cloning technology will even be able to remedy that.

Although cloning mammoths is not yet a possibility, it is worth considering the irony that the melting permafrost on our planet is revealing the newly-exposed carcasses that are leading to current scientific knowledge of this extinct species. Don't expect a mammoth in your lifetime, though. Some animals take a lot longer to clone than others, and the DNA samples needed to clone mammoths are incomplete.

Some scientists have admitted to wanting to proceed with de-extinction simply because they can, so that we can see extinct species again in our lifetimes. I'm not saying it wouldn't be exciting to see a real mammoth or sabre-toothed cat in the flesh, but perhaps in its own way this wish to clone extinct animals for selfish purposes is a form of hunting; giving or taking a life for our own personal gain. This is where philosophy and ethics must meet the science head on, so that we can truly decide whether cloning can be used for the greater good, or risks causing more harm than good to the fragile ecosystem of our planet. 

More resources

As part of Zion Lights 'demystified series': The Truth About Fracking - 8 fracking myths debunked

Alternatives to cloning: biodiversity. Agroforestry in the Amazon: restoring health and nutrition

A permaculture research farm in Belize with an agroforestry system more biodiverse than the neighbouring nature reserve. Agro-ecology in the Mayan Rainforest in Permaculture magazine issue 75

Zion Lights is an environmental journalist based in Devon. She is a columnist for One Green Planet and The Huffington Post. You can find her other articles via or on twitter @ziontree.