To Be or Not to Be: The ‘De-Extinction’ Debate

I’ll confess that, before this class, I wasn’t uniquely concerned about the illegal wildlife trade or the plight of endangered animals. As I researched the issue, however, the sheer gravity of the issue finally occurred to me. Particularly distressing for me was the prospect of species extinction—that my children may inherit a world wherein tigers, elephants, rhinos, etc. no longer exist.

The World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report 2014 observed that the earth has lost more than half (52%) of its wildlife in the past 40 years. Poaching and consumption have decimated the aforementioned species, and climate change threatens many more. An estimated one in six species risks extinction over the next century due to climate change. Some scientists have consequently dubbed this phenomenon the “Sixth Great Extinction” .

There are of course compelling scientific reasons to be concerned about this loss of biodiversity, but I think there is an aesthetic case to be made too. Imagine revisiting the Disney’s “The Lion King” decades from now; some of those animals might seem as fantastical and fictional to our posterity as Pokémon because they no longer exist in the real world.

Perhaps that’s too abstract a thought experiment. Consider instead a species that is already extinct: the Tasmanian Tiger. The Tasmanian Tiger—unlike, say, the Dodo—was a relatively recent victim of extinction. It lived into the 20th century, and the last known specimen died in 1936. Here is a short video clip of that specimen, nicknamed “Benjamin”, at the Hogart Zoo in Tasmania:

What a beautiful creature! And what a tragedy it is that we can now only be acquainted with it through a grainy, black-and-white video.  It may be trite, but it’s nonetheless true: You never know what you have until it’s gone. And it’s in this respect that the affected species aren’t the only losers with extinction; we lose something profound as well.

You might not have had a similarly sentimental reaction to the video, and that’s fine. But concerns over further species loss have galvanized not only conservation efforts, but also a more ambitious (and some say naïve) campaign to ‘resurrect’ currently extinct animals—dubbed the de-extinction movement.

De-extinction first piqued the public’s curiosity thanks to the blockbuster hit, “Jurassic Park.” But it wasn’t until very recently, with scientific advances in cloning and increased awareness about the rapid rate of species loss, that de-extinction has become a legitimate (albeit controversial) scientific project.

“Jurassic Park” remains science fiction, to be sure. Dinosaurs went extinct long enough ago that we don’t have viable DNA samples for them from which to clone. But other famously extinct species, like the Mammoth, and the Saber-Tooth and Tasmanian Tigers, are possible candidates for de-extinction at the center of this debate.

Jamie Shreeve of National Geographic summarized the arguments for and against de-extinction as follows:

Most arguments in favor of species revival fall into two basic camps: we should do it because we can do it. Why impede the progress of science, when the benefits that may accrue up the road are unknown? And we should do it because we have an obligation to do it, to right some of the enormous wrong we have done by driving these co-tenants of the Earth off the planet in the first place.

On the other side of the debate, some conservationists argue that we should not be bringing back extinct animals when 1) We don’t yet have any clear notion of how to reintroduce them into natural ecosystems; and 2) There are plenty of living species that are critically endangered. Why waste resources trying to resurrect the dead when we can use them to save the sick?

On an emotional level, the arguments for de-extinction are more resonant. Logically, however, I have some concerns. I agree with some detractors that we shouldn’t rush into re-introducing extinct species without first anticipating how disruptive this could be for certain ecosystems. I also worry that de-extinction gives rise to an unintended moral hazard: If we can simply revive and restore extinct species, that saps much of the motivation from conservation efforts to prevent extinction in the first place.

Reservations notwithstanding, the science of de-extinction continues to make progress. In March, for example, geneticist George Church of Harvard University successfully copied DNA from frozen woolly mammoth specimens and spliced them into the genome of an Asian elephant. All this accomplishes, at present, is to create a mammoth-elephant hybrid, but scientists expect to incorporate more and more mammoth DNA as technology improves and more mammoth DNA samples are recovered. In the meantime, I expect this debate over dead species to become increasingly lively.

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