De-extinction – zombie wooly mammoths? (Biodiversity ethics part 4)

Woolly mammoth restoration at the Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria, British Columbia. Image by WolfmanSF, licensed under Creative Commons 3.0

Woolly mammoth restoration at the Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria, British Columbia. Image by WolfmanSF, licensed under Creative Commons 3.0

It’s now theoretically possible to re-create an extinct animal, provided a sufficient sample of its DNA is found – tar pits would be a good source, as they would capture the whole animal and protect it from environmental decay. For more recently extinct species, such as the thylacine (Tasmanian tiger), the task would be easier, and indeed work has begun on sequencing the genome of the thylacine.

We have a pretty good idea of how the thylacine became extinct in Tasmania, some time after it became extinct on the Australian mainland: concurrent extinction of prey animals, competition with introduced wild dogs, and destruction of its habitat, combined with a deliberate policy of extermination that offered a substantial bounty for every adult or pup killed, drastically reduced numbers. From the Wikpedia page:

Although there had been a conservation movement pressing for the thylacine’s protection since 1901, driven in part by the increasing difficulty in obtaining specimens for overseas collections, political difficulties prevented any form of protection coming into force until 1936. Official protection of the species by the Tasmanian government was introduced on 10 July 1936, 59 days before the last known specimen died in captivity.

The irony in this case is tragic and galling. But what if we had the ability to clone new thylacine individuals from DNA? Or mammoths, or dodos, or any other extinct creatures. How well would that work?

The first problem would be that we’d probably need to repair their habitat, since there’s a very good chance that that’s part of the reason they became extinct in the first place. This might mean starting from the soil up, which means minerals and trace elements, micro- and macro-organisms, and so on (for more on the complexities of soil, see my previous post here). Unless, that is, we only wanted a few poor specimens to spend their entire lives in a zoo, which to my mind is morally objectionable.

The second issue is that there would probably only be interest in resurrecting ‘interesting’ species. That is, the mammoths or the thylacines or the ivory-billed woodpecker might get the nod, but what about all the more mundane species? Marine creatures would probably miss out, unless they were large and unusual (and scientists were able to find enough undamaged DNA, which would be extremely problematic). And smaller creatures would be ignored entirely, so we’d end up merely with a few designer-showpiece animals, wearily living their lives in a zoo for our entertainment.

And while some might feel that de-extinction (or, as it is sometimes known, “resurrection biology”) offers a chance for philanthropists who have never been concerned about conservation to fund large, exciting, resurrection projects, and thence bring the sparkle back to conservation, there is another view. That is, in the general enthusiasm for bringing species back from the dead, we start to assume that we can bring anything back, at any time and for any reason.

That means that conservationists would have the ground cut out from under them. There would be no enthusiasm for saving species and ecosystems if there were the possibility of resurrecting them, and so habitat destruction and species extinction would continue unabated, under the assumption that we could easily bring them back later.

Sherryh S. Tepper takes this to the logical conclusion in her book Shadow’s End, in which a spacefaring humanity deliberately annihilates all life on all worlds, taking gene samples to be stored for a putative resurrection at some indeterminate time in the future. Of course, this resurrection never happens, and life continues to be extinguished in order for humans to continue to multiply and spread to yet more worlds, where the cycle begins again.

Here’s Jamie Rappaport Clark of Defenders of Wildlife, from her blog post on the subject:

There is a real threat that the excitement of de-extinction could unintentionally undermine current species conservation. I can hear them now: “Let’s go ahead with development now, eradicate the species but store its DNA until the economy gets better.” But will that day ever come, when we have fixed all of our other problems and decide we can get back to being good stewards of our planet?

We know that the economy (under the current system, at least) will never get better enough, so we would always be destroying something of long-term value for short-term gains. If we could, as Jamie suggests, “recommit to a stewardship ethic” that values the natural world and fosters conservation, we would be leaving something valuable for future generations, as well as having a better world for ourselves.

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