Leading on from last week’s post on potential de-extinction methods, this week I’m returning to my overview of the Natural History Museum’s After Hours event “Bringing Back the Dead” to consider the ethical arguments surrounding the resurrection of extinct species.
One of the greatest criticisms of molecular biologists working to bring back extinct species is that they’re not ecologists! – They often don’t consider where and how these animals would live and what effect they would have on the ecosystem once they’re brought back into the realms of the living.
Before the animal is even born there’s potential for complications. Due to the fragile nature of the cloning processes, there are high chances that foetuses will have health complications, as with the Pyrenean Ibex. But even if the clone does survive – what kind of a life will it have? A single mammoth would probably get quite lonely! Its original habitat no longer exists, what would you feed it? Where would it live? To keep it in a zoo would call into question why you even brought it back in the first place.
If one wishes to learn more about the animal, you’re unlikely to be seeing its true behaviour and ecology anyway as it is so far removed from its native habitat, climate and social structure. In a sense you would merely be recreating the physical presence of the animal, without observing how it would naturally act with other members of its species or its natural habitat. There were suggestions that it might be worth keeping species around in the hope that we can restore or recreate their habitats someday, but personally I think it seems rather pointless to go to a huge effort resurrect both a species AND its environment when both are so long gone.
The next controversy, and perhaps one of the biggest, is the question of bringing back hominid species. There’s no doubt that the chance to study a real live human ancestor would offer a fascinating insight into their characteristics and perhaps even why they went extinct. The obvious problem is that, being so closely related to humans, and therefore having fairly highly developed intelligence and social skills, would it be morally acceptable to bring a hominid (or several) into a world in which it no longer belongs. You could only begin to speculate how they might behave, and what cultural and physiological differences they might have. Personally, I would have to agree with Prof. Lister’s concluding remark, that “frankly, it sounds quite dodgy!”
Plants, on the other hand, are a little different. The moral issues aren’t quite as rife – after all, you don’t often see a depressed plant! Resurrected plant specimens could be kept in pots if necessary, unlike a thylacine! →
…So that’s a whole lot of negatives I’ll admit! But this doesn’t mean we should quit our efforts all together. The overwhelming consensus at the event was that there’s no point in bringing back a species that has lost its evolutionary background or “niche”. But it could be argued, therefore, that the best plan when it comes to de-extinction is to focus on more recently extinct species, those which are more likely to have suitable habitats to return to. Alternatively, it may be a case of distinguishing between human-caused extinctions and others – perhaps, from a sense of environmental stewardship, it is our duty to seek to restore those species which we eradicated (deliberately or otherwise)?.
But would it be better to focus on saving presently endangered species from extinction rather than bringing back those that have already died out? Prof Holt’s reaction was that we should concentrate on what we have, especially since species we did reintroduce could end up in competition with already struggling modern species. Others, however, believe that there can be a balance between the two, with benefits to each side from such research. It is possible that the technologies developed to resurrect extinct species could either be used to help preserve endangered species or to help promote their conservation – perhaps using extinct species as icons for the preservation of those currently threatened with the same grim fate… The danger with this, I believe, is that it may leave people with the impression that if something goes extinct, we can just bring it back again thanks to the marvels of science!
Finally, from a completely opposite viewpoint, there is the argument that we should just leave well alone and let extinctions happen because they are a “natural cycle”… To be honest I could write a whole other blog post on this, and maybe I will, but for now I would have to agree with Prof. Lister’s response that the kind of human-driven extinction we are experiencing at the moment is in a different category to previous ones. We are the first species ever to destroy on this scale, and whilst I am against separating humans from natural processes, I do think that the case for resurrecting more recent species for which we are responsible for their demise is much stronger than that for more “ancient” species. I don’t think the argument is as simple as whether this current extinction crisis is “natural” or not and whether, therefore, we should attempt to repair our damage or not. If there’s an ethical case for not just sitting back and allowing extinctions to happen it should stem from a sense of responsibility and natural stewardship that we should at least attempt to lessen, if not reverse, the detrimental impact of our actions. As prevention is better than cure, the best way to do this is to focus our efforts on stopping extinctions from happening in the first place.