Bringing woolly mammoths back from extinction might not be such a bad idea — ethicists explain

Synopsis: There’s a strong case for trying out novel methods to restore lost species and damaged ecosystems. A look at the related issues.


The United States startup Colossal Biosciences has announced plans to bring woolly mammoths, or animals like them, back from extinction and into the frosty landscape of the Siberian tundra.

Colossal proposes to use CRISPR gene editing technology to modify Asian elephant embryos (the mammoth’s closest living relative) so their genomes resemble those of woolly mammoths. These embryos could then theoretically develop into elephant-mammoth hybrids (mammophants), with the appearance and behaviour of extinct mammoths.

What is the objective?

The ultimate aim is to release herds of these mammophants into the Arctic, where they will fill the ecological niche mammoths once occupied.

Restoration of ecosystem: When mammoths disappeared from the Arctic some 4,000 years ago, shrubs overtook what was previously grassland. Mammoth-like creatures could help restore this ecosystem by trampling shrubs, knocking over trees, and fertilising grasses with their faeces.

Impact on climate change: Theoretically, this restoration could help reduce climate change. If the current Siberian permafrost melts, it will release potent greenhouse gases. Compared to tundra, grassland might reflect more light and keep the ground cooler, which Colossal hopes will prevent the permafrost from melting.

The proposed project is exciting, with laudable ambitions — but whether it is a practical strategy for conservation remains unclear.

Global example

A well-known example is the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s, which started a cascade of positive changes for local flora and fauna.

What are the associated issues and ethical concerns?

Two major concerns associated with De-extinction are:

Firstly, de-extinction could distract from more cost-effective efforts to protect biodiversity or mitigate climate change: Some critics of de-extinction projects hold that while de-extinction may be an admirable goal, in practice it constitutes a waste of resources. Even if newly engineered mammophants contain mammoth DNA, there is no guarantee these hybrids will adopt the behaviours of ancient mammoths.

Also, important are the behaviours animals learn from observing other members of their species. The first mammophants will have no such counterparts to learn from.

And even if de-extinction programs are successful, they will likely cost more than saving existing species from extinction. The programs might be a poor use of resources, especially if they attract funding that could have otherwise gone to more promising projects.

Secondly, the possible moral hazards that may arise if people start believing extinction is not forever: Some environmentalists argue once de-extinction becomes possible, the need to protect species from extinction will seem less urgent.

What is the way forward?

We shouldn’t rule out de-extinction technologies altogether. The costs will eventually come down. In the meantime, some highly expensive projects might be worth considering.

De-extinction is not the only conservation strategy that seeks to undo otherwise irreversible losses. For example, “rewilding” involves reintroducing locally-extinct species into an ecosystem it once inhabited. If we welcome these efforts then we should also welcome novel strategies to restore lost species and damaged ecosystems.

Furthermore, climate change is one of the great moral challenges of our time. The melting of the Siberian permafrost is expected to accelerate climate change and exacerbate ecological disaster. This is such a serious problem that even ambitious projects with a low probability of success can be ethically justified.

Source: This post is based on the article “Bringing woolly mammoths back from extinction might not be such a bad idea — ethicists explain” published in Down to Earth on 17th Sep 2021.

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