US startup Colossal Biosciences has announced plans to bring woolly mammoths, or animals like them, from extinction and back into the frosty landscape of the Siberian tundra.
Among other works, Colossal has received US$15 million in initial funding to support research conducted by Harvard geneticist George Church. The proposed project with laudable ambitions is exciting – but whether it is a practical strategy for conservation remains unclear.
Colossal proposes to use CRISPR gene editing technology to modify Asian elephant embryos (mammoths’ closest living relatives) so that their genomes resemble those of woolly mammoths.
Read more: What is CRISPR, the gene editing technology that won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry?
These embryos could then theoretically develop into elephant-mammoth hybrids with the appearance and behavior of the extinct mammoth. According to Colossal, the ultimate objective is to release swarms of these mammophants into the Arctic, where they will fill the ecological niche mammoths once occupied.
When mammoths disappeared from the Arctic about 4,000 years ago, shrubs overtook the first grasslands. Creatures such as mammoths can help restore this ecosystem by trampling bushes, knocking over trees, and composting the grass with their feces.
Theoretically, it could help mitigate climate change. If the current Siberian permafrost melts, it will release potent greenhouse gases. Compared to tundra, grassland can reflect more light and keep the ground cooler, which Colossal hopes will prevent permafrost from melting.
While the possibility of reviving extinct species has long been discussed by groups such as Revive and Restore, advances in genome editing have now brought such dreams closer to reality. But just because we have the tools to resurrect giant creatures, does that mean we should?
reasons to consider
De-extinction is a controversial area. Critics refer to such practices as “playing God” and have accused scientists of favoring the extinction of pride.
A common concern is that bringing back extinct species, whose ecological traces may no longer exist, would disturb existing ecosystems. But when it comes to mammofant, there’s no shortage of critiques.
Colossal says the aim is to recreate the steppe ecosystem (a large, flat grassland) that flourished in Siberia about 12,000 years ago. It is estimated that the total mass of plants and animals in the tundra of Siberia is now 100 times less than in a steppe.
Simply put, this ecosystem is already compromised, and it’s hard to see how re-introducing Mammofant will do more harm.
Reproduction of species can change ecosystems for the better. A well-known example is the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s, which began a cascade of positive changes to the local flora and fauna. Mammofant can do the same.
Furthermore, climate change is one of the great ethical challenges of our time. The melting of Siberian permafrost is expected to accelerate climate change and intensify ecological disaster.
It is such a serious problem that even ambitious projects with little chance of success can be morally justified. Our moral intuition is often clouded when considering new technologies and interventions.
But technologies that originally seemed scary and unnatural may gradually become accepted and valued. One tool sometimes used to overcome these tendencies is called the reversal test, which was originally developed by Oxford philosophers Nick Bostrom and Toby Ord as a way of dealing with status quo bias.
This test involves assuming that the new thing already exists, and the novel proposal is to take it away. Imagine there is an endangered population of mammals currently living in Siberia, where it plays a vital role in maintaining the ecosystem and protecting the permafrost.
Some would argue that efforts to save these giant creatures are “unethical”. So if we welcome efforts to save them in this fictional scenario, we should also welcome efforts to present them in real life.
So according to the reversal test, the major ethical objections to Colossal’s project should not be related to its objectives, but to its means.
main ethical concerns
Let’s look at two ethical concerns related to extinction. The first is that extinctions may distract from more cost-effective efforts to protect biodiversity or mitigate climate change. The second concerns the potential moral hazards that could arise if people began to believe that extinction is not forever.
1. Opportunity Cost
Some critics of extinction projects believe that extinction may be a laudable target, but in practice it constitutes a waste of resources. Even though newly engineered mammoths may contain mammoth DNA, there is no guarantee that these hybrids will adopt the behavior of ancient mammoths.
For example, we inherit more than just DNA sequences from our parents. We inherit epigenetic changes, in which the environment around us can affect how those genes are controlled. We also inherit our parents’ microbiomes (colonies of gut bacteria), which play an important role in our behavior.
It is also important that animals learn by observing other members of their species. The first Mammofants would have no such counterparts to learn from.
And even if extinction programs are successful, they will cost more than just saving existing species from extinction. Programs can be a poor use of resources, especially if they attract funding that could otherwise go to more promising projects.
The opportunity cost of extinction should be carefully examined. As exciting as it can be to see a swarm of wild mammophants, we shouldn’t let this sight deter us from more cost-effective projects.
That said, we also shouldn’t dismiss extinction technologies outright. The cost will eventually come down. In the meantime, some overly expensive projects may be worth considering.
2. Broad Implications for Conservation
The second concern is more subtle. Some environmentalists argue that once extinction is possible, the need to protect species from extinction will seem less urgent. Would we still be concerned about preventing extinctions if we could reverse them at a later date?
Personally, however, we are not convinced by these concerns. Extinction is currently irreversible, yet humans continue to drive an era of mass extinctions that shows no signs of slowing down. In other words, moving towards increasing extinction is the status quo, and it is not worth maintaining the status quo.
Furthermore, extinction is not the only conservation strategy that seeks to undo otherwise irreversible damage. For example, “rewilding” involves reintroducing locally extinct species into an ecosystem that was once inhabited. If we welcome these efforts – and we should – we should also welcome new strategies to restore lost species and damaged ecosystems.
Read more: WHO guidelines on human genome editing: why countries need to follow them