There’s no Edit>Undo button in real life. Except when it comes to accidentally/on purpose eradicating an entire species from the planet. There’s an app for that.
Back in the day of Jurassic Park, this was the stuff of theoretical philosophizing. Today, geneticists are in the process of bringing extinct species back from the dead and diversifying the gene pools of many endangered species through genetic restoration and de-extinction. From flocks of passenger pigeons to zoo exhibits starring the great woolly mammoth, we will see true resurrections within the century.
According to The Long Now Foundation, a group dedicated to bringing extinct species back from the dead as well as reviving endangered species, there are three “semi-successful” techniques proposed thus far for de-extinction.
- Selective back-breeding “to recreate a primordial ancestor”
- “Cloning with cells from cryopreserved tissue of a recently extinct animal can generate viable eggs”
- Hybridizing a living species into an extinct species
Not every species is a viable candidate for de-extinction. Proponents are quick to note that dinosaurs will not be returning for a second act. There must be complete or close to complete DNA from museum specimens or fossils less than 500,000 years old as well as a living species to serve as a surrogate mother. Perhaps most interestingly, there must be a healthy habitat for this “new” species. The Chinese river dolphin, declared functionally extinct in 2006, cannot be re-introduced into the Yangtze River as it is still intolerably polluted.
A Pyrenean ibex, an extinct Spanish mountain goat, was momentarily brought back to life after an intensive cloning project. Spanish researchers used cells retrieved from Celia, the last of her kind who died in 2000, to grow embryos, which were then transplanted into a female goat. In 2009, a Pyrenean ibex was born, but died after seven short minutes, leaving its species, once again, nothing more than a memory. Even if the ibex had survived, she would not have been able to reproduce without a male partner. The Pyrenean ibex would have been in the same dire position.
The future of de-extinction lies with efforts broader in scope.
The Long Now Foundation’s most prominent project is the passenger pigeon, a North American bird once so abundant the skies would blacken behind thousands of flocking birds. This proved too irresistible for our trigger-happy society. Pigeons were killed in droves. Between overhunting and loss of habitat, the bird whose population once numbered in the billions, vanished from existence when Martha the last passenger pigeon died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.
A group of Harvard scientists are working to hybridize the band-tailed pigeon with passenger pigeon DNA. The project is much more ambitious than simply bringing a single pigeon back to life. The Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback aims to re-introduce a sustainable population of pigeons to their former habitat. To do this, scientists must utilize inter-disciplinary practices, including comparative genomics, bio-engineering, and captive breeding, to re-create the passenger pigeon’s genome – the species’ entire genetic code.
If successful, these practices can be used to restore species like the Carolina parakeet, the dodo, and even the woolly mammoth.
The great ancestor of the elephant died off around 200,000 years ago, but as the planet warms, a trove of woolly mammoth specimens have been discovered, near perfectly preserved in the melting ice.
Stewart Brand, founder of the Long Now Foundation, writes “Woolly mammoths, for instance, were the dominant herbivore of the “mammoth steppe” in the far north, once the largest biome on Earth. In their absence, the grasslands they helped sustain were replaced by species-poor tundra and boreal forest. Their return to the north would bring back carbon-fixing grass and reduce greenhouse-gas-releasing tundra.”
Conservation has been touted as one of the leading reasons for why we should pursue de-extinction. With the planet’s biodiversity shrinking everyday, we may be able to use de-extinction and genetic rescue to “fight back,” in a sense. As populations decrease, so too does genetic diversity. Many of the same techniques scientists use for de-extinction can be applied to endangered species in order to help them survive.
Proponents also argue from the heart. It’s our duty to right our past wrongs. Humans have systematically wiped out countless other species. The dodo was unafraid of humans and simply made an easy target. Steller’s sea cow, a mammal similar to the manatee, was easy to catch and made a tasty meal for 18th century sailors. Others, some we never knew existed until too late, have been destroyed by our incessant growth and destruction of ecosystems worldwide.
The possibility of restoring Earth’s lost plants and animals raises much bigger questions than when and how. If humans were to succeed in manipulating and creating new life upon the planet, we will have effectively established our place above Nature. No longer will we be subject to the constraints of the planet in which we live upon.
Brand writes, “The current generation of children will experience the return of some remarkable creatures in their lifetime. It may be part of what defines their generation and their attitude to the natural world.”
Yes, their attitude to the natural world will be that of a ruler. Not a subject. Is it our place to destroy because we have the power to create? Many of the great environmental writers speak of humility in the face of Nature. There is no humility in de-extinction.
Perhaps we are too far past humility. Perhaps there is no future in respect for the Earth. That may be a sentimentality of the past. Dare I say – extinct? Is de-extinction a form of redemption? Or is it merely a stop-gap? A way to slow the irreparable damage we’ve done?
There is one final case for de-extinction: to satiate our curiosity. National Geographic writer Carl Zimmer quotes Stanford bioethicist Hank Greeley in a recent article as saying, “What intrigues me is just that it’s really cool. A saber-toothed cat? It would be neat to see one of those.”
I can think of only one suitable quote in response. Dr. Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park said, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
De-extinction and genetic rescue are not Edit>Undo buttons. We cannot reverse the fact that these species are gone. What we create will never be the same. It will be artificial. It will be of our making. Instead we should put the full power of human ingenuity to find solutions to our problems rather than patches.