Cloning has been a hot-button social issue ever since the announcement that Dolly the sheep had been successfully cloned. Visions of Frankenstein’s monster loom in the minds of people who are suspicious of new scientific technology, and there is a strong religious argument against cloning. However, fans of science fiction have dreamed of the day when Jurassic Park might become a reality. This became an even more vivid question upon the discovery of a preserved baby mammoth, complete with tissue and intact internal organs.
National Geographic recently wrote a feature article on the discovery of this mammoth, with a supplemental piece on whether we ought to pursue mammoth cloning. The article was totally inadequate, largely because it failed to raise the relevant moral questions. Thus, our purpose here will be to do a better job than National Geographic was able to. We will pursue the tough questions associated with deciding whether we ought to clone the mammoth.
One of my philosophy professors, Dr. Bernie Rollin, is highly critical of those who oppose cloning on moral grounds. In his view, criticisms of the ethics of cloning tend to take two forms. Some oppose cloning because it is “against nature,” as though humans have not been manipulating the genetics of other organisms for centuries. To state Dr. Rollin’s reply simply, if there is something intrinsically wrong with cloning, it’s not clear what.
The other common criticism of cloning tends to be religious, that cloning is a form of “playing God” that makes it morally objectionable. Even if this criticism were legitimate, a religious concern is not necessarily a social concern unless it can be reformulated in secular terms. This cannot be done with regard to cloning. There are legitimate concerns associated with cloning, but they are based on worries about potential consequences, rather than because there is something intrinsically wrong with cloning.
What consequences might we be concerned about? The most significant ones, in my view, have to do with harm to the animals. First, if the case of Dolly is any indication, the cloning of a mammoth will result in dozens of failed precursors, many of whom have debilitating health problems, from which they suffer greatly. Further, the cloned mammoth will be the only one of its kind, and it will be subjected to a life that lacks both social companionship and an acceptable habitat. The “mammoth steppe” has not existed for a long time, and it is unlikely that an animal like the mammoth would be happy in confinement. A further worry there is that we have no idea how to properly house a mammoth, because no one has ever done so before.
Dr. Rollin takes the position that if these concerns could be adequately addressed, and we could be sure that negative consequences were kept to a minimum, there is no reason not to pursue cloning extinct animals like the mammoth. I want to propose a counterpoint. Lacking a reason against something is not a reason to do it. If the argument for mammoth cloning is simply “No bad consequences, then why not?” we don’t yet have a good argument for doing this.
In addition, there are good reasons against cloning extinct animals, even if the consequences to the animal could be minimized. First, I question whether we can ever have certainty that the animal will not suffer as a result of the process of being cloned. Second, consider who might pursue cloning a mammoth. One possibility is for food production, the other is as a kind of scientific spectacle. In both cases, the animal is being exploited for our benefit. We already do this to millions of animals. Why create another animal simply for the sake of treating it as poorly as we treat other animals? Even if the animal lives a good life, it would be created to serve as a means to our own end.
There are two lessons that we can take from considering whether we ought to pursue the cloning of the mammoth. First, we should be critical of any argument that cites a lack of reasons against something as the equivalent of a reason for it, even when this argument comes from a respected philosopher. Second, and more importantly, even when the negative consequences of certain actions have been accounted for, we must look at the reasons in favor of pursuing some action. Even if there are no bad consequences, if we fail to consider how we are treating other morally relevant beings, we risk a moral failing of the deontological kind. The absence of bad consequences does not always entail moral acceptability.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.