Delivering the Woolly Mammoth from Death: Colossal’s De-Extinction Dilemma

Extinction is an issue that evokes images of a dystopian future: barren landscapes devoid of life, save the constant whirring of industrial factories and machines. Indeed, humans have set our planet on a one-way trip to such a future. As The World Counts website estimates, 29% of the earth’s species are at risk of extinction at any given moment; when enumerated, this amounts to more than 37,000 different types of plants and animals. Given this harrowing figure, some organizations have resorted to radical means to combat the current crisis. Meet Colossal: the company that will bring back the woolly mammoth.

When thinking of solutions for restoring biodiversity, de-extinction is rarely the first idea that comes to mind. But Colossal proposes it will do just that. The company’s seminal project, the de-extinction of the woolly mammoth, outlines a 10-step process that aims to bring back the ancient ancestor of modern-day elephants. The project, which relies on gene sequencing technology to splice the DNA of mammoths and the Asian elephant, hinges on the prospect of megafauna benefitting our Earth’s ecosystem. As an article by The Conversation explains, the outcome that Colossal hopes for is that the mammoth’s (or, in this case, mammophant’s) return will curb climate change—a direct cause of extinction. Previously, mammoths were responsible for maintaining the grasslands of the Arctic tundra, which have since been overgrown with shrubbery. Grasslands, with greater reflective properties, would be adept at preventing the Siberian permafrost from melting and releasing its carbon reservoirs.

Granted, the notion of seeing mammoths walking the Earth in itself inspires awe and excitement. Yet, films like Jurassic Park and other popular media have long since wrestled with the consequences of de-extinction. And while it’s farfetched that mammoths would turn rogue on their captors and escape into human society (as the plot of the Jurassic World trilogy might have us believe), there are other, more severe ethical concerns to consider. Should Colossal succeed, their use of gene sequencing technology would open the floodgates to a new era of species revitalization, which may end up harming the delicate balance of our ecosystem in unforeseen ways. Just as Victor, the young scientist from Mary Shelley’s canonical work Frankenstein, laments imbuing life into his monstrous creature, there’s a lesson to be had about playing God. During an interview with NPR, paleontologist Joseph Frederickson expressed that Colossal’s technology could better serve at preventing the extinction of existing species. In truth, overzealousness might take our attention away from the real issue at hand: protecting what we still have left.

Given the speed at which current technology is developing, it might not be long before the restoration of extinct species becomes a common occurrence. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t regard de-extinction as a “fix-all” solution. Preserving the Earth’s current biodiversity should be our top priority, rather than reliance on a fail-safe. Perhaps someday, when mammoths do walk the Earth again, we’ll be well on our way to a brighter, more optimistic future.