The NY Times Magazine has an article about the looming possibility of what’s called “de-extinction”—that is, bringing back extinct species such as the passenger pigeon, or something close to them. It seems to be within our grasp to bring to life a few individuals, anyway; it’s hard to believe that the flocks of gazillions that darkened the skies could be revived, because the habitat on which they depended has changed also.
I wrote the world “could” in the above sentence, but the more appropriate word might be “should.” Humans have brought science to the point where we can (or think we can) do a lot of things that used to be science fiction dreams, but should we? Science fiction, in addition to speculating about what might be possible someday, has usually dealt with the more philosophical question of how it would effect human beings and the world itself.
There are people with the idea that any creature that vanishes, especially a pretty bird like the passenger pigeon whose demise was in large measure the result of human predation, represents a tragedy at the hands of a guilty humankind—and that it follows that if humans can undo that tragedy, they should. But it ain’t necessarily so.
A group called “Retrieve and Restore” has scientific arguments for the process:
Just as the loss of a species decreases the richness of an ecosystem, the addition of new animals could achieve the opposite effect. The grazing habits of mammoths, for instance, might encourage the growth of a variety of grasses, which could help to protect the Arctic permafrost from melting — a benefit with global significance, as the Arctic permafrost contains two to three times as much carbon as the world’s rain forests. “We’ve framed it in terms of conservation,” Brand told me. “We’re bringing back the mammoth to restore the steppe in the Arctic.
Others who argue for de-extinction just think it would be cool.
Those who argue against it mount the habitat argument I mentioned above, as well as the idea of introducing opportunities for pathogens. Some conservationists are worried that de-extinction will inure the public to the idea of extinction, and that people will then start to see extinction as a temporary and reversible thing.
But by far the best argument against de-extinction, to my way of thinking, is the possibility of “unacceptable ecological or socioeconomic impacts.” The re-introduced creature could disrupt the ecology of the environment into which it is placed, in unforeseen ways. What’s more, these are not really clones; they are composites resulting from the insertion of the extinct animal’s DNA into an already-existing and somewhat-related species.
Even though the details are new, the dilemma is an old one: Frankenstein, Faust, Prometheus, the introduction of the dandelion into the Americas. Be careful what you wish for.