The Ethics of De-Extinction

Posted: December 3, 2021

Five thousand years ago, the earth shook with the heavy footsteps of the animal we now know as the wooly mammoth. It peacefully roamed the land, foraging for brushlike food, which allowed such a creature to grow to such a massive size. The creature was no match for the human and was quickly eliminated. 

Today we don’t see wooly mammoths roaming the earth, but with recent developments in technologies, such a dream might be brought to reality. Researchers are very close to achieving the impossible: reviving an extinct species, but doing so is expensive and could be destructive to other wildlife. Harvard scientist George Church announced in 2021 that his team has received sufficient funds to proceed with the operation: nearly 20 million dollars. But is it worth the money? 

To understand the ethical dilemma, we must first understand the process. “It would include taking DNA fragments of the genome,” Minnehaha  Academy science teacher Carmella Whaley said. “Then using some biotechnology in order to provide a place for that genome to develop into an organism.” 

This is a very similar process to cloning an organism. Such a process has been done with other animals, but in order to do this, scientists would need preserved tissue samples. In fossils, preserved samples are usually only found in minuscule quantities, so gathering enough to completely reconstruct the DNA would be difficult. 

Though it might be fun to say we achieved the impossible and brought back the mammoth, such a feat might not be worth the trouble. To merely re-create the animal, the equipment would cost tens of millions of dollars to create, and even more to operate.

Adryan Barlia, a professor at New York University, published in a 2017 study report, “To ensure that de-extinct species are properly cared for in a safe environment, scientists would need to spend tens of millions of dollars until they can be fully integrated into the food chain.” 

Spending so much money on the preservation of a long-gone, unimportant species could also be seen as the neglect of our important endangered species. 

Take, for example, bees. Not only do they produce honey, but bees are responsible for over a third of all global pollination. Without them, produce, such as squash, almonds, and more would be lost. Instead of reviving a useless species, spending millions of dollars to help bees thrive is certain to bring a buzz back to the beehive. 

On the other hand, knowing the process needed to revive an extinct species could just be the necessary step to preventing anything like it from happening again. If bees did end up going extinct, scientists could use their previous knowledge from reviving something like the wooly mammoth to revive the bees. 

But some species could be helpful for the environment. 

“It’s not unlike the idea of reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone,” Whaley said. “After many years of reintroducing wolves, we’ve been seeing positive changes in the environment.” 

The same ideology applies to other species. If perhaps, we introduced something that eliminated invasive species or controlled the population of some animals, we could see a positive change to the environment.

Director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford University, Hank Greely, said at a TEDx talk, “De-extinction is an interesting idea and may well be a useful and worthwhile thing to do, but It’s not the answer [to problems like climate change].” 

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