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Re-creating mammoths and the family dog: two different cases

The idea of reproductive cloning can easily be perceived as offensive, as a practice that constitutes the dark side of cloning and should be prohibited under all circumstances, by contrast with therapeutic cloning, the benefits of which are increasingly acknowledged. However, such reactions typically assume that it is human cloning we are talking about. Regardless of how we should assess this latter practice, it seems difficult to make a plausible case for a complete ban on reproductive cloning of nonhuman animals. On the contrary, such a technique appears to open up exciting prospects. A group of Japanese scientists, as recently reported in the press (by the BBC and the Guardian, among other sources) have thus managed to produce clones from dead mice that had been frozen for 16 years. According to the aforesaid scientists, this achievement raises the possibility of re-creating extinct species such as mammoths from their frozen remains – a bit like what happens in Steven Spielberg’s movie Jurassic Park.

Before such a dream could come true, though, significant technical obstacles would have to be overcome, first and foremost because the DNA from mammoth remains that have spent thousands of years in the permafrost is typically found damaged. Suppose, however, that such obstacles could be overcome, and it became possible to re-create extinct species such as mammoths through cloning. Provided that a suitable environment could be provided for such animals to live in, it seems hard to see what would be objectionable about carrying out such a project – on the contrary, it would constitute a welcome and fascinating addition to current species diversity, and to some extent a victory over the passing of time. It might also help advance research in zoology and related sciences. More generally, reproductive animal cloning might be used, alongside more traditional means, to help preserve endangered species of animals.

That is not to say, however, that no form of reproductive cloning of animals is morally controversial. Forms that might raise some concerns, however, already belong to the realm of fact and not of mere possibility: pet cloning, for instance, is a reality today. A Korean company named RNL Bio thus made the headlines this year when it announced it had cloned a dog for an American woman who had lost a pitbull to which she was particularly attached. If the practice becomes more widely available in the future, we might expect that many pet owners might want to clone their lost “best friends”. While this might arguably make these people happier and also bring into existence animals that would live worthwhile lives, one might still have the uncomfortable feeling that the people who resort to such procedures are somehow in denial: denial of the fact that their former companion animal is now dead, or at least that it was unique and irreplaceable. They might reject this accusation, but given that what they are looking for is an animal as similar as possible to their dead pet, it is difficult not to see the charge of denial as legitimate. The moral dubiousness of such a motive for using reproductive cloning technologies becomes even clearer if we think of human parents wanting to clone a child who died prematurely.

To conclude, there might well be a morally relevant difference between re-creating a deceased individual animal via cloning and re-creating an extinct type or species: only the former practice seems open to the charge of negating the uniqueness and non-replaceability of individuals – by which I mean, not that particular cloned animals are not in fact unique, since clones are still qualitatively different from their “originals” due to different environmental influences, but that they might not be treated as unique by their owners. If so, it might not be advisable in the future to appease our children’s grief at the death of the family dog by giving them a clone of it, but it might be perfectly innocent to take them to a Jurassic or at least a Pleistocene park, if such a thing ever comes to be.

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