Human Exceptionalism

Mammoth Cloning: Paving Way for Human Cloning

Scientists are coming closer to being potentially able to resurrect extinct wholly mammoths through cloning (using mammoth DNA in elephant eggs) and–to keep animal rights activists off their backs–gestation in artificial wombs instead of female elephants. From the Popular Science story:

Using a DNA editing tool called CRISPR, the scientists spliced genes for the mammoths’ small ears, subcutaneous fat, and hair length and color into the DNA of elephant skin cells. The tissue cultures represent the first time woolly mammoth genes have been functional since the species went extinct around 4,000 years ago.

The next step will be to try and make mammoth embryos through cloning:

If those tests go well, the team hopes to turn the elephant/mammoth skin cells into hybrid embryos that can be grown in artificial wombs, devices that allow for pregnancies outside of an animal’s uterus.

Artificial wombs are pretty speculative at this point, but the alternative–implanting the hybrids into the wombs of female elephants–is unsavory to animal rights activists as well as geneticists. “It’s going to be more humane and easier if we can set up hundreds of [embryos] in an incubator and run tests,” says Church.

That is the same process that will be required to perfect human cloning. As biologist David Prentice told me in an interview for my book, Consumer’s Guide to a Brave New World:

Scientists would have to clone thousands of embryos and grow them to the blastocyst stage to ensure that part of the process leading up to transfer into a uterus could be “safe,” monitoring and analyzing each embryo, destroying each one in the process.  Next, cloned embryos would have to be transferred into the uteruses of women volunteers.

Or, more likely if the technology is ever perfected, artificial wombs.

IF a wholly mammoth is ever cloned and gestated in an artificial womb, will human fetal farming (say, for organs) be far behind? I think not.

Even if one is not queasy–as I am–about creating mass quantities of human embryos for use in cloning research, the development of the artificial womb cold lead to “fetus farming,” that is, creating and gestating cloned human fetuses for their body parts. The techniques that would permit such a ghastly prospect are already being developed. And indeed, bioethicist Jacob M. Appel has urged that specific course.

The time to outlaw creating human embryos through cloning is now. If we wait until the mostly theoretical becomes the actually doable, it will be too late.

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