I rarely see a subject which so neatly sums up the human situation on Planet Earth in the 21st century like today's topic. A reader (Brian) sent me a link to Stewart Brand's Ted Talk The dawn of de-extinction. Are you ready? (2nd video below). That talk led me to the debate National Geographic hosted about de-extinction.
[Image left: the thylacine ("Tasmanian Tiger"), hunted to extinction in the 19th and 20th centuries]
Advances in molecular biology and genetic manipulation have enabled humans to bring extinct animals back from the dead. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see the irony in this—humans caused their extinction in the first place. Both in driving these species to extinction and bringing them back, humans get to play God, which is clearly something they love to do.
De-extinction is not a fantasy because we don't have the technological wherewithal to resurrect a few extinct animals—we do. It is a fantasy because doing so is viewed as somehow redeeming humankind by making up for past "mistakes" which pushed these species into extinction. But those weren't mistakes. Those extinctions happened as a result of characteristic human behavior. De-extinction is therefore the usual fantasy in which technology saves the day.
In killing off the animals and then attempting to use technology to resurrect them, Homo sapiens is acting in strict accordance with its nature. For those of you still laboring under the illusion that humans are exercising Free Will in these big behavioral matters, this de-extinction case presents an excellent opportunity dispel your confusion on this point.
I was going to write an essay-length response to the de-extinction question, and I may still do that at some point, but when I ran across Stuart Pimm's "con" case against de-extinction at National Geographic, I was so impressed that I will simply reproduce the text, making some additional comments/clarifications along the way. Stuart Pimm is the Doris Duke Chair of Conservation Ecology at Duke University.
De-extinction intends to resurrect single, charismatic species, yet millions of species are at risk of extinction. De-extinction can only be an infinitesimal part of solving the crisis that now sees species of animals (some large but most tiny), plants, fungi, and microbes going extinct at a thousand times their natural rates. (Related: Photos of Nearly Extinct Species.)
"But wait"—claim de-extinction's proponents. "We want to resurrect passenger pigeons and Pyrenean ibex, not dinosaurs. Surely, the plants on which these animals depend still survive, so there is no need to resurrect them as well!" Indeed, botanic gardens worldwide have living collections of an impressively large fraction of the world's plants, some extinct in the wild, others soon to be so. Their absence from the wild is more easily fixed than the absence of animals, for which de-extinction is usually touted.
Perhaps so, but other practical problems abound: A resurrected Pyrenean ibex will need a safe home, not just its food plants. Those of us who attempt to reintroduce zoo-bred species that have gone extinct in the wild have one question at the top of our list: Where do we put them? Hunters ate this wild goat to extinction.
Here Pimm makes the obvious point—Homo sapiens has resurrected the species, but Homo sapiens itself has not changed. Humans will simply drive some fragile population to extinction all over again. He belabors the obvious in the "cautionary tale" of the Arabian Oryx.
If this seems cynical, then consider the cautionary tale of the Arabian oryx, returned to Oman from a captive breeding program.
Their numbers have declined so much that their home [since re-introduction], designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, was summarily removed from the register.
Yes, the set of plants alive a century or so ago when the passenger pigeon went extinct are probably still here. Is the pigeon's habitat intact? Surely not: The land use changes since then have been far too extensive.
In every case, without an answer to "where do we put them?"—and to the further question, "what changed in their original habitat that may have contributed to their extinction in the first place?"—efforts to bring back species are a colossal waste.
The situation is actually far worse than Pimm outlines here. A revived individual animal, or a few such animals, do not constitute a living population. And even if we managed to create a small population, that population would require constant tender loving care to maintain it in the wild, for it would be constantly endangered on its own. Beyond the obvious concerns Pimm mentions, this group of animals would be very far below what ecologists (like Pimm) call the Minimal Viable Population required to maintain the species in question. We might as well keep them in a zoo.
Having noted that species resurrection is a colossal waste of time, Pimm goes on to say that de-extinction is even worse than that—it is destructive, not constructive.
De-extinction is much worse than a waste: By setting up the expectation that biotechnology can repair the damage we're doing to the planet's biodiversity, it's extremely harmful for two kinds of political reasons.
Fantasies of reclaiming extinct species are always seductive. It is a fantasy that real scientists—those wearing white lab coats—are using fancy machines with knobs and digital readouts to save the planet from humanity's excesses. In this fantasy, there is none of the messy interaction with people, politics, and economics that characterizes my world. There is nothing involving the real-world realities of habitat destruction, of the inherent conflict between growing human populations and wildlife survival.
Why worry about endangered species? We can simply keep their DNA and put them back in the wild later.
When I testify before Congress on endangered species, I'm always asked, "Can't we safely reduce the spotted owl [pictured above] to small numbers, keeping some in captivity as insurance?" The meaning is clear: "Let's log out almost all of western North America's old-growth forests because, if we can save species with high-tech solutions, the forest doesn't matter."
Excellent point! If you're playing God, it doesn't matter what you do. You can always undo a result later if it displeases you. Of course, politicians want to further human interests (logging old-growth forests) in all cases, regardless of whether science can resurrect the spotted owl. Here's the second "political" point.
The second political problem involves research priorities. I work with very poor people in Africa, Brazil, and Madagascar. Rich only in the diversity of life amid which they eke out their living, they generate no money for my university.
Too many other universities equate excellence with funds generated, not with societal needs met. Over my career, molecular biologists flourished as university administrators drooled over their large grants and their expensive labs. Field-based biology withered. Many otherwise prominent universities have no schools of the environment, no ecology departments, no professors of conservation.
It was all too easy to equate "biology" with molecules and strip faculty positions and facilities from those who worked in the field. De-extinction efforts can only perpetuate that trend.
That may sound like the complaint of an academic, and it is, but it is also far more than that.
Very poor people in Africa, Brazil and Madagascar ... generate no money for my university.
Field-based biology withered...
Many otherwise prominent universities have no schools of the environment, no ecology departments, no professors of conservation...
It was all too easy to equate "biology" with molecules...
In other words, Fuck The Biosphere! Fuck Other Species! There's big bucks to be made in high-tech wizardry. Duke University is just like General Electric or Toyota. They're simply in another kind of business.
Pimm finishes up.
[De-extinction] gives unscrupulous developers a veil to hide their rapaciousness, with promises to fix things later.
It distracts us from guaranteeing our planet's biodiversity for future generations.
Well, plainly, humans don't give a damn about future generations. They're too busy making money (or getting grants) and playing God. That's their Nature, that's what they like to do, if they have the means and opportunity to do it. Which they do.
The first video provides a nice overview of the de-extinction "issue" (1:53). Steward Brand's Ted Talk follows. In that one, you can see the "seductive" nature of the de-extinction case. I recommend you watch them both.