Genetics and conservation

| 22nd December 2000
The promise that cloning will be a boon to conservation is, says Malcolm Tait, a complete cop-out

Maybe it’s a symptom of twothousanditis, the condition brought on by excessive attention paid to a particular number with no significance whatsoever other than tidiness, but this year has seen an extraordinary rash of stories relating to ‘the science of the future’: genetics.

Wherever you look, there’s a new challenge to medical and human ethics – children’s gender genetically manipulated in Spain to bypass inherited disease; genetic information required by insurance companies; a baby genetically chosen with cells that might save his dying sister; the human genome under the microscope; even a UFO-cult with the funds, alleged ability and necessary loopholes to try cloning the first human. It’s as if someone at the beginning of the year opened the Pandora’s box marked ‘Frankenstein’, and the doctor’s influence came pouring out.

Mankind has always enjoyed testing its own limits, of course, and there’s nothing it likes better than a good ethical argument – talk radio and TV chat shows wouldn’t survive without it – but we’ve entered a moral maze this year that has heads spinning.

As ever, the arguments boil down to one key confrontation: the needs of the planet versus the rights of the individual. The topic – genetics – may be comparatively new, but it’s the same old argument. The world has more people than it can cater for: yes, but if science can help my childless marriage, why shouldn’t I have the right to take advantage of it? Excessive vehicle use causes global warming and ultimately destruction: yes, but I need my car to get my children to school. The long-term prospects would appear to be disastrous: yes, but I need a short-term solution.

However, there’s one of this year’s genetic developments that has nothing to do with human rights, nothing to do, despite appearances to the contrary, with animal rights, and everything to do with scientific experimentation dressed up as benefit. Last month, a cow named Bessie from Iowa was due to give birth to a gaur, an endangered ox-like animal from Asia. The process was achieved by injecting gaur cells, complete with their DNA, into hollowed-out cow eggs, then electrically fusing the eggs and DNA together. Of the 81 successfully developed eggs that were implanted into cattle, eight resulted in pregnancy, three managed not to miscarry, and two turned into embryos which were removed for monitoring. Only Bessie soldiered on. At the time The Ecologist went to press, Bessie was still approaching labour, but whether or not this first experiment was successful, it won’t be the last.

Already there are plans afoot for more work along similar lines. The bucardo, a Pyrenean mountain goat, became extinct in January, when the last of its kind was put out of its lonely misery by a falling tree. Cells were taken from the corpse, and the Massachusetts-based company Advanced Cell Technology is planning to clone the creature back to life. The panda is next on the list for rejuvenation, and there’s talk of trying to bring back the Tasmanian tiger, a wolf-like animal that lost its last grip on survival in the 1930s. Even the mammoth, for crying out loud, is being looked at for a possible comeback. The makers of next year’s second sequel to Jurassic Park will be able to keep their marketing funds firmly in their back pockets.

Now, the mammoth may be a bit pie-in-the-sky – the DNA that we’ve got from an ancient frozen carcass is patchy to say the least – but there’s no doubt that the thought of bringing back the bucardo, an extinct species, certainly stimulates the imagination. It’s a fascinating scientific gimmick, a perfect example of doing something because we can. We should leave it at that.

But we won’t. Already there is talk of this process being a marvellous aid to conservation, a boon to the world’s endangered species, a solution to the perennial problem of man’s cohabitation with beast. This is tripe, for the cloning of endangered species is as far removed from the spirit and psychology of conservation as we’ve ever been since man first noticed he was killing off the birds and beasts.

Conservation is a precarious affair, because its failure is finite. It has, quite literally, a deadline. Sometimes that deadline is easy to see, other times it’s not. In the 1980s, it was realised that whales were struggling in their relationship with man, and new laws and consumption restrictions were put into place. By the early 1990s, the plight of the elephant came to life, and reasonably successfully dealt with. We’ve recently discovered that the troubled tiger is in even more danger than we’d previously thought. Wheels are beginning to turn. Yet for every headline species that captures the heart, there are many many more that don’t make it. Most of the world first heard of Miss Waldron’s Red Colobus monkey this year, for example, when it was announced that it had become extinct. A sense of simultaneous gain and loss.

Extinction, of course, is part of evolution, and had man’s footprint not covered the lands and seas, the world would still have continued its course of saying farewell to species whose day had gone. The fact is, however, that man has not just accelerated that process, but is continuing to do so at a rate that doesn’t allow the surviving species to adjust to their new ecosystems. Conservation isn’t just about saving a particular species, it’s about reducing our destructive impact on natural processes that are in increasing danger of being unable to sustain themselves, and ultimately, therefore, of sustaining us.

There’s too much at stake, for nature and for ourselves, to take conservation lightly. But conservation takes time and money. It requires careful management and planning, and involves apparent sacrifices. It demands that the long-term view takes precedence over, or is at least built into, the short term. If conservation is going to work, mankind has to want it so much that it hurts.

Slippery slope
Which brings us back to Bessie. Suddenly, for the first time ever, we’ve got an alternative to conservation. It’s only a tiny crack at present, but science will want to widen it. What’s the point in putting all that effort into looking after ecosystems if we’ve got the ability to clone everything back into existence? Just think of what we can achieve – we can carry on crashing through the planet, doing what we want, and whenever some species starts to totter as a result, we’ve got the technology to see it through the hard times. Of course, no biotech company would put it like that at present – it would appear as scientific coldheartedness and therefore be commercial suicide – but the option will be there. Cloning endangered species is a classic case of science no longer being used for prevention, but for apparent cure. It is lazy science. However much its supporters may protest that cloning will only ever be used to complement conservation, to step in when conservation has failed, the day will come when the financial benefits of, say, clearing a forest will outweigh the costs of cloning the endangered species within. Someone will be prepared to pay for it, and the rot will have begun.

But what will we then do with these phoenix-like creatures? If their habitat is no more, where will we put them? Perhaps we will create reservations for them – but to save space, we’ll need to make sure we only hang on to the species which benefit ourselves. We’ll need to recreate habitats that suit them, and if our new cloned versions require special diets, or develop viruses or illnesses that their originals never encountered, then we can genetically modify their surroundings to suit. Any imperfections that are built in, we can decode and correct. In short, who needs Nature’s ecosystems, when we can create our own?

This may seem a far-fetched future, but it is in fact perfectly in line with the way mankind has always been – except that he’s now taking a bigger step than ever before. From his earliest days, he has used whatever tools are available to him to conquer nature, and reshape it into his own likeness. He has recorded his kills by scratching them into a rock; when he realised hunting was too difficult he herded instead; he has carved his image into every known material; he has put creatures into cages to look at, or taken them on as pets; he has hunted them for fun. Why would anyone think he wouldn’t instinctively want to go that one further step – albeit a mightier one than ever – and restructure nature to suit his precise needs?

Passing the buck
None of this is to say that genetic scientists and those who fund them are necessarily power-mad, corrupt seekers of world domination. Science is the discipline of discovery, of finding out, of increasing knowledge. Thus it is that, generally, each new step forward is taken with the honest and sincere desire to benefit man. Yet it’s curious how often genetic scientists, nudging the process onward, tend to see their own work in isolation and distinct from the overall movement.

‘The prospect of human cloning causes us grave misgivings,’ writes Ian Wilmut, co-cloner with Keith Campbell in 1996 of Dolly the sheep, in his book The Second Creation. ‘It is physically too risky, it could have untoward effects on the psychology of the cloned child, and in the end we see no medical justification for it. For us, the technology that produced Dolly has far wider significance.’

Wilmut is fully convinced of the benefits of his own work, knows that he has paved the way for future cloning, yet is distancing himself from any responsibility for it. It’s rather like the work in the 1930s on splitting the atom and harnessing its energy – everyone involved could see possible positive benefits in their own specific research, but relied on everyone else not to see the potential for harm.

Which is why, ultimately, we should none of us be fooled. The cloning of endangered or extinct animals is an extraordinary feat, and one which, if continued, will inevitably lead to yet more and more extraordinary feats.

It is the latest stage in man’s attempts to control his world, and like Frankenstein’s monster, it may one day lead to its creator’s own destruction.

So let’s drop the pretence right now. Let’s honestly admit to ourselves what we’re getting into. Cloning is a brand new chapter in the history of mankind, but it has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with conservation.

Malcolm Tait is managing editor of The Ecologist


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