December 3, 2021

A mammoth resurrection

The thought of seeing woolly mammoths lumbering across the Siberian tundra is incredibly exciting. And Harvard geneticist George Church hopes to make it a reality. Cashed up with US$15 million from an AI entrepreneur, he plans to recreate enough elephant-mammoth hybrids to  protect the changing Siberian ecosystem.

The difficulties are gigantic – which fits the name of his company, Colossal. The website states:

In the minds of many, this creature is gone forever. But not in the minds of our scientists, nor the labs of our company. We’re already in the process of the de-extinction of the Woolly Mammoth. Our teams have collected viable DNA samples, and are editing the genes that will allow this wonderful megafauna to once again thunder through the Arctic.

It won’t happen tomorrow. Before creating a single mammoth, Church and his team have to create breakthrough technologies to enable a calf’s gestation. At best, a mammoth hybrid is six years away; a self-sustaining herd decades.

Two prominent bioethicists are on Church’s scientific advisory board: R. Alta Charo of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and S. Matthew Liao of New York University..

“It’s not just about having them exist, but making sure that once they do exist that they can thrive and live a flourishing life,” says Liao, a New York University. “Otherwise, you’re being cruel to these animals.”

However, another bioethicist has delivered a broadside at the project in a commentary in Nature. Victoria Herridge, an evolutionary biologist at the Natural History Museum in London, says that she was invited to join the board but refused on ethical grounds.

She believes that the project lacks openness and public participation. She points out that “Both geoengineering and synthetic biology have a poor track record when it comes to people taking matters into their own hands.”

The ethical road to de-extinction has to include informed citizen voices, alongside experts and activists. This might mean that the process takes longer than five years, but private enterprises working for the common good shouldn’t shy away from the views of those they seek to serve. Let the people decide the future world they want to build.

One thought on “A mammoth resurrection

  1. Huh. How do ‘we’ know that bringing back wooly mammoths is the ethical thing to do? They went extinct for a very good, natural reason, as have uncounted tens of thousands of other varied species. It’s right to do it, just because we can? Because we dream it? Because we all grew up with artistic renderings of extinct dinosaurs, mammoths, etc.?

    This is nothing but academic hubris masquerading as “save the planet” nonsense.

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