February 27th, 2014

De-extinction: should we do it?

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.

15 Responses to “De-extinction: should we do it?”

  1. Lizzy Says:

    I think Cricton’s “Jurassic Park” (the book) covered this quite well. We have no idea what the impact will be, but it certainly won’t be controllable or close to what they predicted.

    Also, how does this square with the whole evolution/Darwinism crowd?

  2. roc scssrs Says:

    In Europe, they’re “re-wilding”: http://www.economist.com/news/special-report/21585084-dutch-experiment-recreates-nature-red-tooth-and-claw-amsterdams-wild-side

  3. waltj Says:

    Species go extinct for a reason–changing habitat, predation, disease, to name just three. We wouldn’t be doing them or ourselves any favors by bring them back.

  4. waltj Says:

    …by bringing

  5. Mike Says:

    If we can get a few Mastodons to crush the WH I’m all for it.

  6. DNW Says:

    “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.”

    That’s a strange remark. Megafauna declines prior to their extinction were not say recent researchers due to lack of variety in grasses, but forbs.

    Those mammoths found with mosses and grasses in the intestines may have had a much less than optimal diet for their species.

    Of course you could reengineer a mammoth to eat grasses rather than flowering plants, and then supplement its diet with baled protien, and imagine that you were doing something for the tundra.


    You could also reintroduce the mastodon, say by replanting northern Ohio in spruce trees – or something.

  7. Matt_SE Says:

    The lesson I learned from the movie “Gattaca” was that humanity lacks the wisdom to tinker with creation.
    That is directly applicable here.

  8. artfldgr Says:

    they want eden

    a static fantasy world where the bad things we dont like about reality dont exist.

    its an edenic movement to the followers
    (its a means to power for the participants/leaders)

    a world that changes is terribly scary to the confucian mind who wants stasis, and familiarity and so on.

    Siddharta Gautama
    Lao Tse Tung
    Kung Fu Tsu

    in the super abriged form, Gautama saw the world as evil and full of bad, and rather than deal with it, one transcends it and divorces and leaves it behind… (westerners, even followers, tend not to get this right, and so make their following cargo cult)

    the second man, he saw the world as perfect, and that our problems are mostly caused by ourselves. that we fight against reality, rather than work with it… (this appeals to the western conservative, who accepts reality even though its not what he wants)

    the last one, confucious, saw the world much as bhudda did… but rejected the idea of bowing out on reality as a way to get past reality and back to the nothing you are in the universe when part of it, rather than apart from it.

    he thought that if you could fix things to not change, keep customs and ritual, you could find a solition to each one of these traps and so, employ the tradition.

    now this might have more to do with appealing with your employer.. lao tzu and bhudda had no such employeer while confucious served in the court… and so, could not suggest to the emperor, strip naked, meditate and thats that…

    modern day leftist socialists are much the same
    wanting to replace ritual and instruction from a superior with self action and failure in the world.

    so they seek to stagnate everytthing
    and in their world of opposites call this progress

    so halting the extinction of species
    something the soviets expanded greatly

    just read the words of the founder of greenpeace.
    “After 15 years in the top committee I had to leave as Greenpeace took a sharp turn to the political left, and began to adopt policies that I could not accept from my scientific perspective,” – Patrick Moore

    if you read erin pizzy, you will find a similar story
    as you will find with unions, and teachers, and other cultural groups takenover by the process.

    From The Personal To The Political
    by Erin Pizzey
    she created the first womans shelters before the commnists took it over, threatened her life so she fled to the US and now is forgotten… unlike sanger..

    i remember reading why

    like CO2 being selected, this was a way to waste western resources… ie. if you could get the west on this, it would spend billions on it, and all would be wasted (for the reasons you put forth that we all know)..

    all kinds of stuff left over from the cold war, with the idea of burdening us in a way that would lead to economic problems. .

    so we waste on enviornmental stuff, and we get to murder africans by stopping DDT, and restriucting business, changing laws to not access resources, and so on..

    its economic warfare once big wars between the big guys became too unproductive… (nuclear)

    as exampled a nuclear state can fall economically, and be changed and NOT go to nuclear war.

    so economic collapse is the way to go, followe by a short war without nukes to lock things down. that easy… as we dont have the expertise, the physical ability, the desire, the drive, the cohesian social, and on and on and on…

    this time
    the worst generation would take up the charge
    and they would WANT to give up!!!

    so this stuff is all part of the war
    waste resources on things that are not stoppable like extincitions and weather…

  9. Lizzy Says:

    Matt_SE, I love the movie “Gattaca.” And you’re right, it shows that you cannot determine the will of the living being you are creating in a petri dish (nor discount the will to live/prevail of those made without explicit engineering).

  10. Ymarsakar Says:

    Environmental welfare, ka?

    Humans think they have done such a good job managing themselves, now they can manage the Earth just as well as nature and divinity.

    As for Gattaca, people that like science fiction and social analysis should watch that. Along with Aeon Flux.

  11. Ymarsakar Says:

    Two examples of what happens when nature’s balance is artificially tinkered with using human scales.

    The lion fish in the Mediterranean and killer bees in N America.

    Look up the historical results, if you can on the net.

  12. parker Says:

    Bad idea for many reasons. However, if it can be done it will be done.

  13. OldTexan Says:

    It appears that nature abhors a vacuum and alway seems to fill the voids left when other species depart the area. That is why we no longer have elk and buffalo all over the place going up and down I35 but we have more deer than have ever existed before, ever. Not many wolves around but they are making their way south since being reintroduced and there are freaking coyotes everywhere even in the Northeast where they were never seen before.

    My suggestion is don’t mess with momma nature because we have millions of doves who seem to fill the same slot passenger pigeons did over a hundred years ago and their habitat seems to be decreasing year after year with the increase of commercial farming.

    So my suggestion as an outdoorsman and avid hunter is that we don’t screw around with what we currently have too much and don’t introduce new species that might and probably will, rest in unforeseen outcomes.

    However, how cool would that be to draw a tag to shoot a Wooly Mammoth on the tundra just to balance the population. I am too old to ever see that day but we might as well put some saber tooth tigers out there too.

  14. Mythx Says:

    I see one major reason that some people are against this. If you can bring a species back then they argue there will be no reason for conservation now.

    I dont think rational people believe that. But the Left sure does. Much of their self esteem is tied up in hectoring the rest of us. They would lose that lofty perch they have put themselves on.

    And lots and lots of money…never forget that one.

  15. q Says:

    I think this goes back to the inane belief that a species might carry the cure for cancer, Alzheimer’s, etc.

    kinda like the crazy belief that the ancients could talk to the spirit world, reincarnate, etc so we need to learn all we can from them. news flash, they knew how to find and prepare food. the rest of what they knew has pretty much been invalidated by science.

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