John Timpane: Mammoth decision

Japanese and American scientists say they may soon clone a woolly mammoth — the huge, hairy cousin of the elephant that went extinct about 10,000 years ago. They say they may be as few as five years away.

About a decade ago, I wrote a few editorials against the idea. I hereby reverse myself. I’m still uneasy and fretful and skeptical, but my argument now is pragmatic:

OK, we are going to do this. It will come. As our methods improve, we may well revivify many extinct species. Since it won’t stop, let’s think about how we go about this.

Let’s call the first reconstituted mammoth some unisex name. Manny. (Could be Manfred or Manuela.)

Use the same ethics and safeguards you’d use with any other animal. Manny’s not going to know the backstory, the debate, the tsoris. From the moment those long-lashed eyes open, Manny’s going to be Manny — an intelligent, planning, feeling being. Treat him or her as such.
Problems are likely. Cloning a higher animal is complicated. Right now, cloning cattle has about a 30 percent success rate — and that’s good. The only extinct mammal so far cloned — a Pyrenean ibex born in 2009 — died from lung defects soon after birth.

There could well be gaps or errors in the reconstituted DNA. Some won’t mean anything — and some could be catastrophic. Ted Daeschler, associate curator of vertebrate zoology at the Academy of Natural Sciences, says, “The problem with ancient DNA is that, no matter how good a shape it’s in, there’s degradation, and you have to piece it together, assemble the puzzle and do it exactly right.”

So, at the first sign of monstrosity, agony, or needless indignity, end the experiment.
Manny won’t know our world — and neither will the Manny immune system. It may stand up to antigens that weren’t around 10,000 years ago, and it may not. Manny will have illnesses — it’s part of life in the wild. But if lethal immunity issues arise, and Manny starts fading, do your best to ease passage.

(Here’s an enigma: If Manny gets sick, do you give him/her modern medicine? Or let nature take — or retake — its course? To what extent do you help Manny without falsifying the experiment?)

Have a home for Manny. Do these scientists have somewhere to put him/her should they succeed? Not in a zoo. You need a place so Manny can be Manny — roam and eat and see what’s up. Where’s that going to be? Someplace north, I figure — that long hair’s not for the Caribbean.

Rigidly regulate public access, at least at first. It’ll allow Manny to have a life. You’ll probably learn more. Plus Manny won’t have to fight for rights to his/her autobiography, royalty points, etc.

Seriously, the world will want to see photos and videos. And the world should see them. But surely the experiment is to see how an un-extinct mammal lives, not how it reacts to paparazzi.

Make more Mannies. Revitalizing one member of a higher species pretty much commits you to more, until the species gets going on its own. Mammoths were gregarious, intelligent, social animals. Like their cousins the elephants, they sought and needed their own, for sustenance, companionship, conjugality, protection, play, and comfort. It would be cruel to make only one, to condemn a soul like that to endless solitude.

Go for genetic diversity. Not only are you obligated to make more — but also you should use samples from as large a number of frozen mammoths as possible, for as wide a genetic diversity as you can get. You don’t want to create a “genetic bottleneck,” such as happened to the cheetah. Diversity and variety make for strong species.

Variety shouldn’t be hard to get, once we get better at this: Estimates for the number of frozen mammoths on Earth run as high as 10 million to 50 million.

Create an international regulatory agency to head off abuse. The European Union and the United States have good ones, working pretty well, all cards in. But we need one for the world — to keep nut jobs from cloning a Neanderthal, the breed too far.

That goes for commercial abuse, too. Listen, there’s going to be re-zoos, all sorts of re-zoos. They’ll make money, too. I’d pay good cash to see a sabertooth cat, Irish elk, dire wolf, Tasmanian tiger, or dodo. (Daeschler says, “It’s almost certain” that once we master this fearsomely complex science, somebody’ll try to bring back the flightless, hapless fowl.) But beware the Jurassic Park effect — where something utterly beautiful turns into trash because it’s poorly planned or heartless. Have laws and rules identifying better and best practices.

Too often, we as a species have used our greatest gifts to foul our own nests. Revivifying extinct species, as an act, is morally neutral and esthetically and intellectually enthralling — but someone will probably do something bad with it someday.

But beware the “mad scientist” stereotype. These are baby steps right now. Abuse is far, far down the road. With Manny? Not if we exercise our greatest gifts: foresight, compassion, and the knowledge that wherever life goes, we go, too.

John Timpane is the Inquirer’s media editor/writerContact John Timpane at 215-854-4406, or