Audacious plans to resurrect the long-extinct bird could be lucrative. But the moonshot raises thorny philosophical questions.
First, Dutch colonists and their entourage of dogs, cats, and rats erased the birds from their native Mauritius in the late 17th century. Then later generations turned the fat, flightless creature into the butt of jokes for centuries to come. The chonky bird is a byword for clumsy obsolescence. Just look at it: It was practically asking to go extinct.
Except it wasn’t, of course. It was all our fault. The dodo was perfectly adapted to its environment. It was us humans who had to come along and ruin everything with our hunting, murdering, plundering ways. But now a biotech startup called Colossal Biosciences is trying to make amends for humankind’s past sins: It wants to de-extinct the dodo.
Bringing back the dodo isn’t the first audacious de-extinction project from Colossal. The startup—cofounded in 2021 by Harvard geneticist George Church and serial entrepreneur Ben Lamm—also has plans to bring back the mammoth and the thylacine. Or kind of, at least. The plan is actually to edit the genomes of living relatives of extinct creatures and so create animals that occupy similar ecological niches as their distant cousins. Not mammoths or dodos exactly, but what Colossal calls “functional” mammoths or dodos.
It’s clear that the potential for new spin-outs is part of why venture capitalists are excited about de-extinction. But the flow of money toward biotech might be subtly reshaping how we think about conservation: Is it about leaving things alone, or modifying species—like Colossal intends to do—so they can survive a world that humans have created? The flow of resources into this sector may change the sorts of conservation practices people engage in, says Ronald Sandler, professor of philosophy and director of the Ethics Institute at Northeastern University in Boston.
“There’s a new set of potential tools here, a new set of possibilities and opportunities,” Sandler says. What isn’t clear is whether these new tools actually address why we’re in the middle of a mass extinction event, or if they just dangle a technological panacea for the problem, which is that humans are consuming much more of the world’s resources than they should. “There’s a risk of losing sight of what the real problem is that really needs to be solved,” Sandler says.