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Should Scientists De-Extinct the Woolly Mammoth?

photograph of woolly mammoth sculpture

The startup Colossal Laboratories & Biosciences made headlines recently when they announced that they had received $15 million in funding for their project that is looking to “de-extinct” the woolly mammoth. The idea is to edit the DNA of an Asian elephant, resulting in the creation of an embryo that would be a hybrid of woolly mammoth and Asian elephant. While the project is in its early phases, CEO Ben Lamm has stated that the group’s eventual goal is to restore a sustainable population of mammoths to their once native tundra lands.

The project has raised more than a few eyebrows. There are, of course, many questions surrounding the science of the project, as it’s not clear what the chances of success really are. Then there have been the ethical questions. Many have drawn connections to Jurassic Park, although it seems unlikely that the woolly mammoth, should it be successfully reintroduced to the wild, would eat many theme park tourists. Instead, there have been concerns about whether the animals that could result from the project would, in fact, be able to live quality lives, whether they would have a negative impact on the environment and climate, and whether we should really be messing around with bringing animals back to life at all. The project leaders have pointed to potential benefits of the project in the form of developing gene technology that could result in new ways of helping existing animals, although this has prompted some to ask why developing this technology couldn’t be pursued without involving woolly mammoths.

Indeed, one of the biggest complaints lodged against the project is that there are plenty of endangered animals that could benefit from these kinds of efforts from the scientific community. For instance, in an interview with NPR, paleontologist and director of the Weis Earth Science Museum Joseph Frederickson notes that, “If you can create a mammoth or at least an elephant that looks like a good copy of a mammoth that could survive in Siberia, you could do quite a bit for the white rhino or the giant panda.” He also emphasized that there are endangered species with “dwindling genetic diversity” that could potentially benefit from the kind of gene technology being developed by Lamm and his team.

Here, though, is a question: why should we have greater obligations to animals that exist, but are endangered, than to animals that are extinct? Let’s say that there is value in trying to ensure the continued existence of the giant panda and white rhino. Didn’t woolly mammoths also have value? Is there more value to preserving the life of an animal species that exists, but is dwindling, as opposed to bringing an extinct species back to life?

We have, of course, seen some reasons to be concerned about resurrecting the woolly mammoth already, namely that doing so could have detrimental environmental consequences. While they happily roamed the earth thousands of years ago, a lot has changed since then, and so reintroducing them could very well go poorly for the environment and the animals themselves.

But let’s put that to the side. Say the woolly mammoth could be reintroduced successfully, the environment wouldn’t be any worse off for it, and there would be no JurassicPark-esque disastrous consequences. Would bringing back the woolly mammoth be worthwhile?

Some of those working on “de-extinction” projects think that it would be. For instance, the Revive & Restore group looks to “enhance biodiversity through the genetic rescue of endangered and extinct species,” and has interests in reviving not only the woolly mammoth, but the heath hen and passenger pigeon, as well. Some of the reasons that these animals in particular have been chosen is because of the viability of bringing them back at all (for example, they have close living ancestors), but also because they may be able to occupy certain ecological niches. One reason why we might want to bring such species back to life, then, is that doing so could repair the environmental damage done when they went extinct.

Again, it’s a matter of scientific debate as to whether such animals really are needed to fill ecological voids they may have left when they disappeared, or whether other animals have been able to fill those roles in the meantime. We might wonder, though, whether it would be a better idea to try to preserve the animals that currently exist and are in danger of becoming extinct, since we know for sure that they have a role to play in the environment.

There is perhaps an additional reason why we might want to bring certain species back from extinction: guilt. The going theory for many years was that woolly mammoths went extinct because of overhunting by humans (although that theory is also up for debate), and it is well-documented that the carrier pigeon was hunted to extinction, as was the heath hen. There is no doubt that humans are directly or indirectly responsible for the endangerment and extinction of a tremendous number of animal species, and so we might think that we have a special responsibility to those species that we had a hand in eliminating.

The issue of whether animals like the woolly mammoth should be brought back to life is certainly worth further discussion. However, given the uncertainty surrounding whether such an animal could, in fact, be successfully made un-extinct, and given that there is certainty surrounding the endangerment of animals like the giant panda and white rhino, one might suspect that more good could be done trying to preserve the animals that still exist rather than those that are long gone.

Questioning the Morality of Raising Neanderthal

A human and neanderthal skull facing each other on a black background

In 2013, Harvard professor George Church raised the possibility that an “extremely adventurous female human” might one day serve as a surrogate mother to a cloned Neanderthal child. In the recent bestseller Sapiens, author and historian Yuval Noah Harari discusses the possibility of resurrecting Neanderthal, reintroducing the idea into popular discussion. Bringing Neanderthal back to life would be an instance of what many scientists call de-extinction. The idea that something like this may be possible is certainly both intriguing and entertaining. But, to paraphrase Jurassic Park, when it comes to using emerging technology in this way, are people spending so much time thinking about whether they could that they haven’t stopped to consider whether they should?

One argument in favor of using the technology is an argument for a kind of reparations paid to other species for our history of destructive, parasitic behavior. Many historians believe that homo sapiens were likely largely responsible for the extinction of Neanderthal. The answer to the question of whether we ought to resurrect our long lost cousins is a species of a larger question pertaining to human obligation. It is undeniable that homo sapiens have been among the planets most destructive animals—we are responsible for the extinction of a startling number of species. As genetic technology progresses, do humans have an obligation to revive the species they’ve wiped out? How many species ought we to resurrect? All of them? Only some of them? How should we decide? Should we only revive the species that continue to exist in collective memory? Do we have an obligation to revive long lost species?

This motivates questions about the nature of our moral obligations. Do we have such obligations to species, or only to concrete entities? If we have obligations to species, then perhaps we do have an obligation to create new members of long lost species. If we have obligations only to individual sentient beings, then we aren’t really atoning for our sins by bringing to life those new individual beings; after all, those aren’t the beings that we harmed.

Is biodiversity good in itself, regardless of what it brings about? If so, perhaps the more species we revive the better? Should we instead focus on the potential consequences of bringing a species back to life? If so, consequences for whom? If it was anthropocentrism that took the species out in the first place, and if we take ourselves to have moral obligations to bring species back into existence, we probably shouldn’t appeal to anthropocentric considerations in our arguments for which species, if any, to bring back.

Many of those interested in reviving extinct species are not motivated by ethical considerations. Instead, they want to test the limits of what is scientifically possible. This raises a distinct set of ethical questions. Many argue that knowledge is intrinsically valuable. If this is the case, perhaps we ought to maximize the things that we know. This would include knowledge of how to revive lost species and of what would happen if we did. It may well be, however, that not everything that is, in principle, knowable, is something that should be known. Perhaps we need to put some checks on what we do with emerging technologies.

Some raise ethical concerns with the cloning of Neanderthal in particular. The history of western thought is replete with examples of philosophers extolling the virtues of human reason. Neanderthals, if revived, would share many of the same reasoning capabilities as humans. Is it morally defensible to intentionally create creatures that share features in common with humans, but whom we know will be significantly less intelligent?

As it is, homo sapiens aren’t great at reasoning about species membership.  We tend to treat the suffering of animals like cats and dogs very seriously, while ignoring the suffering of others, especially those that we are accustomed to using for food. In what ways should we expect humans to treat Neanderthals? Would homo sapiens treat differences in species membership as if it justified differences in moral treatment? Neanderthals would surely be intelligent enough to include in the category of persons. Would homo sapiens be disinclined to treat them with the dignity that membership in the moral community carries?  

Objections to reviving Neanderthals tend to rest on the idea that the species is very similar to our own, but less intelligent. Interestingly, intelligence doesn’t seem to be a factor in the arguments for or against bringing other species back from extinction. When scientists consider reviving, for example, a woolly mammoth, they aren’t worried about whether the resulting creatures will be too smart or not smart enough. Is it simply that we are concerned about creating intelligent beings that resemble us too closely? Could that possibly be a morally relevant consideration?

Another objection to the whole enterprise has to do with the fact that the planet faces overpopulation and resource depletion already. Do we really want to introduce new beings into a situation like that? Would doing so make matters worse for the beings that already exist?

Other arguments have to do with the scope of the project. Arguably, it is cruel to create a member of a species without creating others with which that being can interact. We know that, like humans, Neanderthals were social animals. A crucial part of living a flourishing life for a Neanderthal would be the ability to interact feely with other Neanderthals. If our experiment doesn’t allow for that possibility, it is probably best to refrain from engaging in it at all.

Finally, were this experiment to ever take place, researchers would need to be very careful. Specific family relationships would likely matter to Neanderthals in very similar ways to the ways in which they matter to humans. These beings wouldn’t be reducible to an experiment.

Admittedly, this scenario is farfetched, but it is more than just sci-fi.  In 2003, scientists brought back the previously extinct Pyrenean ibex, only to watch it die shortly after birth.