Even if scientists could make woolly mammoths de-extinct, should they?

Bringing extinct animals back to life was once considered something that would only be seen in movies like Jurassic Park, but with new technology, some say it could happen within the next 20 years.

'It's idiotic from any point of view you look at it,' biologist says

An artist's rendition of woolly mammoths, which haven't roamed the earth for 4,000 years. Science is getting closer to bringing the animal back. (Mauricio Antón)

Bringing extinct animals back to life was once considered something that would only happen in movies like Jurassic Park, but with new technology, some say it could happen within the next 20 years.

Recently, social media became flooded with stories about geneticist George Church who said he may be able to create a woolly mammoth embryo in two years. However, in an email to CBC News, Church said the stories were "exaggerated" and based on comments about "a project that was not on the agenda and not yet in a peer-reviewed paper." 

Church declined to discuss his research further, but the reports have reinvigorated discussions about the de-extinction of species.

"The inevitability is it will be feasible, but don't know time frames," McMaster University professor Hendrik Poinar told CBC News. ​

From discovery to debate

Poinar has been surrounded by de-extinction since the 1980s, when his father published research about insects embedded in amber that helped inspire Jurassic Park

Poinar's own research at McMaster led to the genome sequencing of extinct animals. In 2006, McMaster became the first university in Canada to have a sequencer that made the discovery of the genomic sequence of the woolly mammoth possible, he said.

The research and discussion around de-extinction has only grown from there. 

He said it could happen within 10 years, but it's more likely to happen 20 to 50 years from now. 

As de-extinction becomes more likely to happen, the debate is less whether it can happen to whether it should.

One of the main arguments surrounding de-extinction is called a moral hazard, which is if recreating species will lead to further destruction.

Potential benefits

Poinar said the point of de-extinction isn't to bring species back and put them in a zoo, it's meant to have ecological benefits.

He would like to see the technology used on species that went extinct more recently than the woolly mammoth. For example, Australian researchers are looking into reviving the brooding frog, which has only been extinct for 30 years. 

If research funds that go towards a woolly mammoth project can also help with projects like the brooding frog, the research benefits might be greater, Poinar said. 

The dodo bird is another high profile extinct animal that has been talked about for de-extinction over the years. (Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images)

"People take one particular aspect of a large movement and latch on without considering the ramifications of the technology being perhaps devised on an iconic animal that might help generate funding for reptilian research," Poinar said. 

Need for conservation

Paul R. Ehrlich, a professor of biological sciences at Stanford University in California, has a much less diplomatic view of de-extinction. 

"De-extinction is something that scientists would describe as spherically senseless. That is, it's idiotic from any point of view you look at it," he told CBC News. 

He acknowledges it is possible to create something that resembles an extinct species, but even if the de-extinction were successful, the habitats for an extinct species likely no longer exist. 

Ehrlich said the moral hazard is one of the biggest issues, especially when less funding and attention is paid to conservation. 

"The real issue is the rate at which we are destroying life forms of the the planet," he said. 

Wider impacts

The International Union for Conservation of Nature published a report in May 2016 containing some guiding principles for creating "proxies" of extinct animals. 

The report notes that any de-extinction wouldn't be an exact replica, but a "functional equivalent" of an extinct species. It also considers the ecological impacts and the ethics, including the moral hazard of de-extinction and the natural process of evolution. 

"A proxy species, once placed in the wild, might have major undesirable and unforeseen impact at its destination on other species or on ecosystem functions," it says.

The IUCN report doesn't address whether de-extinction should be done, but notes that it could be considered as a conservation tool after further research. 


Nicole Riva is a multi-platform writer and social media presenter for CBC News based in Toronto.