“I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:
I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those physicians in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.
I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures which are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.
I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug.
I will not be ashamed to say “I know not,” nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient’s recovery.
I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.
I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick.
I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.
I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.
If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help.”
The above, in case you are unfamiliar, is the Hippocratic Oath. It’s not the original, which, while it’s quite different in language, offers essentially the same sentiment, but this version offers terms more relevant to modern medicine.
As you may gather from the text, the Hippocratic Oath is a promise, made by health practitioners, to perform their duty in an ethical manner at all times. This version was written in 1964 by Louis Lasagna, the Academic Dean of the School of Medicine at Tufts University. It, along with several other versions, is used by most schools of medicine the world over, as a sort of rite of passage for medical students, including doctors, nurses, technicians and professionals in other medical related disciplines, like Chiropractors. It’s meant to punctuate graduation from student to professional, but moreover, it’s meant to affirm their intent to do no harm, as the oath is often summarised to mean.
The Hippocratic Oath is all well and good, but it certainly works on a sort of honor system, trusting that the oath taker is a trustworthy and ethical person, but in general, most medical professionals take it seriously, if nothing more than as a hallowed tradition.
Should other scientists be required to take such an oath?
Bear the above in mind as you read the following from recent news headlines.
An international group of scientists from Russia, South Korea, the UK, the US, Denmark and Moldova, working with the Research and Clinical Diagnostic Laboratory of the Medical Clinic of North-Eastern Federal University (Siberia) have announced that they are now, or will be in short order, able to resurrect an extinct species, the Woolly Mammoth.
The mammoth, or mammuthus primigenus, is a close evolutionary relative of modern elephants, both from the genus Mammut (Mastodon), and an extremely well preserved mammoth carcass was recently found in the permafrost of northern Siberia. Researchers have declared that the mammoth remains are surprisingly intact, and though it’s estimated to be 43,000 years old, it’s in better condition than a human body dead and buried for only six months.
As a result of that state of preservation, they now have ample genetic material to actually clone the creature!
Now, it wouldn’t technically be a mammoth identical to the one found, it would, out of necessity, have a modern elephant as a surrogate mother, and as such would share her genome to a degree. But the resulting animal would be very much closer to the extinct species than we’ve ever seen. Much could be learned from this.
It’s possible that such an animal could not only unlock secrets about ancient biology and physiology, but could also offer opportunities for new medicines, and the development of new genomic protocols.
But should it be done?
In the Hippocratic Oath above, there are two lines that are, even in the context of the oath itself, of primary importance, but in this situation even more so:
“…this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.”
“I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings…”
Despite the religious wording, the overall point of these two lines is to highlight the imperative that those in a position to control life, have a responsibility to understand that we, humans, have no inherent right to meddle with the natural order of things.
So, the question of whether to bring this animal back from extinction rests on a decision. A decision about whether the potential benefits outweigh any potential risk. But more than that, it requires us to consider what right we have to interfere with the natural process of extinction.
It could be argued, and maybe rightly so, that humans had a hand in causing the mammoth to go extinct, so this would only be a step in the direction of righting an old wrong. Of course, the evidence that humans directly contributed to the extinction of the mammoth is still in question, so it’s not nearly as cut and dried as that.
There are other species, more recently doomed to oblivion, whose demise was clearly and without contention the fault of human activity. Why not bring them back? The Thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger, the largest carnivorous marsupial, went extinct in 1936; is it not just as valid a candidate for cloning? Or is the mammoth worth more in novelty? How about Raphus Cucullatus, or the world famous Dodo bird? An animal that was savagely hunted to extinction for no other reason than that they were characteristically friendly and unafraid of humans.
Or, how about we reverse the tragic and very recent extinction of the African White Rhino?
Is it just because the mammoth is a story-time favourite from our childhood, the most recognised prehistoric species in our culture, that it seems to deserve this attention?
The researchers in this case seem to be acutely aware that they have a responsibility to weigh these issues carefully. Radik Khayrullin, vice president of the Russian Association of Medical Anthropologists, had this to say on the matter:
“We must have a reason to do this, as it is one thing to clone it for scientific purpose, and another to clone for the sake of curiosity.”
It’s likely though, that public opinion will dictate where they go from here. They still have much work to do before they’ll be in a position technically to begin the cloning process, and the intervening time may spark some heated debate among certain groups.
Whether you, personally, are for or against it, the issue is larger than any one of us. And when you consider recent talk about and public pressure to ban elephants in captivity for entertainment, one has to wonder how this would be any different.
 Anna Liesowska. EXCUSIVE: Siberian scientists announce they now have a ‘high chance’ to clone the woolly mammoth. Siberian Times 13 March, 2014 http://siberiantimes.com/science/casestudy/news/exclusive-siberian-scientists-announce-they-now-have-a-high-chance-to-clone-the-extinct-woolly-mammoth/