Archive for June, 2013

This blog has had to take a backseat as work and life have become busier. I will find a balance between the three soon, and begin posting more regularly here. Thanks to any readers who have stuck around despite the lack of consistent posts.

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Defenders of Wildlife CEO Jamie Rappaport Clark recently published an interesting article examining the ethics of de-extinction. De-extinction, or the practice of using preserved DNA to bring extinct animals back to life, might sound like something out of a science fiction novel, but in reality scientists have the tools they need to make this possible, thus shifting the conversation from ‘can we’ to ‘should we’.

The most popular examination of de-extinction is, arguably, the book and movie Jurassic Park. Stephen King’s story appealed to the curious masses, popularizing the concept of bringing back prehistoric species. Although restoring  dinosaur populations is outside the realm of current scientific capabilities, there is a potential to re-introduce other prehistoric creatures. According to Clark, the woolly mammoth is one species scientists are looking at bringing back. As Clark mentions, with the new-found ability to recreate extinct species comes a new-found responsibility to examine whether doing so is ethical. She points out that the woolly mammoth was driven to extinction by several factors: hunting, climate change, and habitat loss. The habitat the woolly mammoth once occupied no longer exists in the same state. Furthermore, how will the mammoths learn behaviors like foraging skills and predator response if there are no previous mammoths to teach it? Most likely, they would have to exist in artificial habitats controlled by humans. What, then, is the purpose of de-extinction if the mammoths wouldn’t be able to occur naturally in the wild? The purpose is obvious: to satisfy human curiosity. 

The passenger pigeon is another species that is being considered for de-extinction. This bird succumbed in part to habitat loss but primarily to hunting, and herein lies another ethical challenge. Humans played a major role in the extinction of the passenger pigeon, hunting the birds en masse for their meat. Should we bring back this species that we’ve already driven to extinction once? Isn’t this treating the effect, not the cause? And does this pave the way for a global apathy towards current conservation efforts? Clark says, “There is a real threat that the excitement of de-extinction could unintentionally undermine current species conservation.” If we have the option to ‘bring back a species later,’ what motivation are we left with to preserve species and habitats now?

Bringing a species back from extinction to satisfy a human curiosity is no less selfish than the behaviors that led to that or other extinctions in the first place. The argument about the ethics behind de-extinction seem to come back to this point: de-extinction treats the effect instead of the cause. We need to prioritize the conservation of species that are facing extinction today, in current ecosystems and climate stages, instead of trying to bring back species that have already been driven to extinction. Focusing on de-extinction takes money and resources away from conservation crises that are occurring now. We need to stay present in our conservation efforts. Bringing back the woolly mammoth might quench our curiosity about this ancient species, but it won’t help preserve species that are in peril today*.

Link: De-Extinction: A Lifeline or Pandora’s Box?

*To be fair, it could be argued that, in some cases, bringing back an extinct species might help restore a struggling population of a specific endangered species, but I can’t speak to those hypotheticals.


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