Maybe Extinction Isn’t Forever. Is That a Good Thing?

By Keith Kloor | March 14, 2013 1:26 pm

Have you heard about the big event National Geographic is hosting with TEDx this week, the one about restoring species? No, not endangered species–but ones that are already extinct, like the woolly mammoth.

I have mixed feelings about the idea. In the abstract, I think it’s pretty cool. The prospect of regaining lost pieces of our evolutionary heritage is exciting, as I wrote in a 2006 Audubon magazine review of a book that argued for “reversing prehistoric extinctions when we have the chance.”

Ecologists and conservationists seem divided, though. A group of them expressed their enthusiasm in a 2005 commentary in Nature; others, such as the prominent conservation biologist Stuart Pimm, argue forcefully against the “de-extinction” proposal. In a piece this week at the National Geographic site, he discusses a host of  likely problems that cannot be ignored.

In a world of finite resources and attention, I’m inclined to side with Pimm, who writes:

Fantasies of reclaiming extinct species are always seductive. It is a fantasy that real scientists—those wearing white lab coats—are using fancy machines with knobs and digital readouts to save the planet from humanity’s excesses. In this fantasy, there is none of the messy interaction with people, politics, and economics that characterizes my world. There is nothing involving the real-world realities of habitat destruction, of the inherent conflict between growing human populations and wildlife survival. Why worry about endangered species? We can simply keep their DNA and put them back in the wild later.

The thorny issues raised by Pimm are similar to those that have been debated in controversial endangered species reintroduction programs, involving wolves, black-footed ferrets, panthers, and lynx. (A while back, I wrote about one such effort involving the latter.) Some of these species reintroductions have been successful, others not as much. But they have all been fraught with challenges that are sure to be magnified 1000 percent by the potential return of formerly extinct species proposed by the Revive & Restore initiative.

Writing over at ScienceBlogs, Frank Swain offers a larger perspective (which I share) on the subjective motives perhaps underlying the “de-extinction” idea:

“Conservation” is an awkward term, because it evokes two daft ideas.  One, that natural environments have some kind of pre-human Eden state, which ought to be maintained (and even preserved in the face of non-human impacts).The obsession with restoring lost species is a hallmark of this conservation attitude. But animals aren’t puzzle pieces you can slot back into the environment – the world has changed, and there’s often no room left for that animal.

Secondly, this form of conservation fantasizes that human impacts on environments move them away from a “natural” state. There is no human versus natural environment, there is only the environment. When human activity impacts on an environment, it’s rare that the humans living there are willing to pack up and leave in order to let it return to its previous state. We are the dominant species on the planet. We are going to exploit every bit of it we can. Nothing will ever change that, but we can choose what kind of world we want to live in. This means that conservation will have to be about balancing competing demands on an environment – both human and non-human. One of the criteria for the Revive and Restore selection process is that species ”should be able to take up their old ecological role in their old habitat”. It may well be true that some animals and humans simply cannot live side by side, and we need to accept that.

He also echoes the concerns expressed by Pimm:

Finally, if we can revive species, might that undermine efforts to preserving existing ones? Grab some DNA, let the animal die out, and bring it back when you have 100,000 acres of farm or a small Caribbean island to play with. In fact, if we are reducing biodiversity to the existence genetic material for big glossy animals, why keep them alive at all? If the genes are their essence, aren’t they equally de-extinct, so long as an intact DNA sample exists?  The zoo that fits in a freezer. Why not render them in biomolecular binary? The tiger on a microchip. Ultimately, if we can raise the environment from the dead, where is the impetus to keep it healthy?

These are questions that are sure to be vigorously debated at tomorrow’s day-long conference on “de-extinction,” which has been organized by Stewart Brand’s Long Now foundation. Another one might also be worth discussing, and that is the philosophical question of who we are (potentially) doing this for? Is it for the species we killed off, like the Tasmanian tiger and passenger pigeon, or is it for ourselves? For our own redemption, as Cynthia Mills pondered in a mid-2000s article in Conservation magazine. Regardless, the cloning of extinct species, as she put it, “could be the Holy Grail of conservation or it could be the ultimate folly.”

I’m guessing that we’ll find out.

*********

Additional pieces worth checking out: “The promise and pitfalls of resurrection ecology,” by Brian Switek and “Resurrecting a forest, by Carl Zimmer (both at the the Phenomena blog). See also, “Will cloning ever save endangered animals?” by Ferris Jabr at Scientific American.

File:Thylacinus.jpg

[Photo of Tasmanian tiger in Washington National Zoo (1904), via Wikimedia Commons.]
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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at http://www.keithkloor.com/

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets.From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine.In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest.He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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