It’s nearly impossible to have a discussion on this subject without making Jurassic Park references, but it’s actually getting more serious in the real world. There’s been a project going on for some time now which seeks to extract DNA from woolly mammoth carcasses found frozen in the tundra and attempt to use an elephant as a surrogate to give birth to a new one. Similarly, there have been attempts to resurrect the thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian Tiger. (Though those efforts may be rendered moot if some recent reports are true and the “extinct” animal is actually still around.)
This is a process which is being referred to as de-extinction, and while we may never have a new crop of dinosaurs, we could see any number of more recently eradicated species back in a zoo near you. But should we? That’s the question being addressed yet again by Tina Hesman Saey at Science News. (It was also the same question brought up by Jeff Goldblum’s character in the original Jurassic Park film.)
Take the gastric-brooding frog. The species, known for converting its stomach into a uterus and vomiting tadpoles, was driven to extinction in 1983 by chytrid fungal infections. A project to clone the frog managed to get the cells of another frog species to replicate gastric-brooding frog DNA — a promising first step in restoring a gone-too-soon species. Still, Wray wonders, “Is it really the right time to clone the gastric-brooding frog when the chytrid fungus that first killed the species continues to annihilate amphibians around the world?” Not to mention the hostility other reanimated species might face if their interests run counter to those of humans sharing a habitat.
Another ethical dilemma is whether it’s better to invest in bringing back extinct animals or in pulling endangered species back from the brink. For instance, if scientists could engineer gastric-brooding frogs to resist chytrid fungus, then researchers could make living amphibians fungus-proof, too. Or tricks borrowed from de-extinction could inject genetic diversity into dwindling populations, like those of black-footed ferrets on the Great Plains. Church and others, though, argue that de-extincting animals sparks the imagination in ways that merely maintaining endangered populations doesn’t.
Because this is an area of great interest for me I was really looking forward to reading this article. (As well as the new book, Rise of the Necrofauna.) But when the author gets down to the question of ethics as applied to de-extinction, she seems to be dealing with the mechanics of the process more than any underlying philosophical quandaries. Arguing against bringing back a frog which was wiped out by a particular fungus because the fungus is still out there is clearly a valid point. No sense wasting all of that creative energy if the frog will just go extinct again.
But assume for a moment that we can either wipe out the fungus or alter the frog so it’s not susceptible to it. Does that make it okay to bring that creature back from extinction? While it pains me to keep swerving back to the plot of Jurassic Park, they did raise some of these same questions in the movie and offered possible answers. What if the Gastric-Brooding Frog went extinct for a reason? That frog was one of the losers in the great lottery of life. The same goes for the mastodon, the giant sloth, the dodo and all the rest.
I suppose we might argue that the thylacine has a “right” to be here and deserves some de-extinction efforts because man literally drove them from the face of the Earth. (Assuming they’re not still hiding out there, that is.) But as for all the rest of them, particularly those which disappeared long before modern man showed up, is it really our place to make that call?
Such arguments can be persuasive, but then I have to turn around and ask myself the same question from the opposite angle. What’s the actual harm in bringing back some of these creatures? What risk do we run, assuming we don’t go the full route with velociraptors winding up in everyone’s kitchens. We’ve manipulated the animals and plants on this world since our earliest days of establishing settlements. We’ve modified and domesticated much of our environment to suit our needs. Why wouldn’t we have the right to try out some de-extinction?
To be honest, I can’t come up with a good argument in response to that last question. If scientists want to try it, we should probably let them. Just leave the velociraptors in the ground, please.