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Should We Be Trying to Bring Extinct Species Back to Life?

Here's a look at the greenwashing, guilt-tripping and the politics of “de-extinction.”
 
 
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Photo Credit: Linda Bucklin/ Shutterstock.com

 
 
 
 

This article was published in partnership with GlobalPossibilities.org.

There’s a buzz now around bringing species back from the dead. There’s even a spiffy new name for it: “de-extinction.” To some people, it sounds cute and cool and seems to be a sort of compensation for the human complicity in driving species out of existence in the first place. To others, it’s a business opportunity. Environmentalists should not be fooled by the flim-flam and should be very wary of the implications of this campaign.

Of course, there is an attraction to the idea of seeing near-mythical creatures walk. It tugs on the heartstrings and makes us feel better about things that we know are getting worse and at least suspect are partly our own damn fault. All this encourages us not to look too closely at the gift horse being dangled in front of us. In short, proponents — at least some of them — are guilt-tripping us into letting them follow their own agenda, which they are carefully and thoroughly greenwashing. 

Actually, the short-term commercial goal is to create or modify farm animals. On a further horizon is the prospect – which some find appealing for ideological purposes, business reasons, or both – of genetically modifying people. 

Meanwhile, the hopes the “de-extinctors” raise could well get in the way of real, effective preservation of habitats and ecological communities. The Endangered Species Act is under continual attack from particular interests, and the idea that species can be “saved” by technology could serve to provide political cover for weakening the Act. Even worse, perhaps, in the long run is that the entire approach of designing and controlling nature is at odds with the deepest goals of the environmental movement. We cannot live in harmony with a world we are actively trying to redesign in accordance with our whims.

“De-extinction” is a transparently phony concept. In general, it won’t work as typically advertised. Most of the extinct species being discussed have left only fragments of DNA, if that. Even if scientists manage to modify (for instance) elephant DNA in the direction of mammoth DNA, they will never know if they exactly succeeded, and they certainly won’t know whether the regulation of gene expression is the same. That’s why Harvard’s George Church, one of the people behind this, refers to “neo-mammoths” with the “best qualities” of elephants and mammoths. It’s not raising a species from the dead, it’s building a brand-new one.

There is an immediate price for that, in pain and suffering of the animals involved. Cloning, which would be part of the process, remains extremely inefficient. The latest published work on mice had success rates that varied, inexplicably, between 3% and about 20%. Clones that make it to birth are often defective; many die quickly. And of course surrogates would be needed to carry the constructed embryos to term, with definite but unpredictable risks: for example, some surrogates carrying clones have died in pregnancy because the fetus they carried grew too large for no known reason. 

Moreover, even if a species were revived, where would it live? That environment is gone, which is likely a major reason for the extinction in the first place. And how many would you make? All the animals being touted for re-creation are social species. How cruel would it be to make just one?

Some otherwise reputable scientists are even trying to sell the concept of “de-extinction” as a way of mitigating climate change. Reintroducing mammoths — if that were possible — might help restore the Arctic as a place to sequester carbon dioxide, since the Proboscidea would, they speculate, tramp the emerging grass down. This is flailing around for justifications; a classic case of the man with a hammer looking for something worth hitting. 

But the fantasies have an appeal. The idea of re-creating long-extinct species has been discussed for several years, mostly by scientists such as the disgraced Hwang Woo-suk, who made his reputation cloning animals and lost it by faking human stem-cell work. There was a failed attempt to clone an endangered gaur in 2001, a failed attempt to clone a recently extinct Pyrenean goat in 2009, and a failed attempt to make an extinct frog just this year. (All were reported as successes, which says more about media credulity than science.) Some journalists have kept trying to revive the “Jurassic Park” concept, and some scientists — notably George Church and Robert Lanza, of whom more shortly — have been happy to cooperate.

Then Stewart Brand got on board. Nearly 45 years after he produced the groundbreaking Whole Earth Catalog, with its iconic cover picture of the earth from space, Brand retains credibility among large numbers of older environmentalists. By the 1980s he had begun leaning to his techie and business sides; he was an early advocate of hypertext, email and other pre-Web technologies, and organized conferences for corporations including Royal Dutch/Shell and AT&T. In 2005 he came out in favor of nuclear power and GMO crops.  His clout and — pardon the inevitable pun — rebranding of Jurassic Park-type cloning as “de-extinction” got National Geographic interested and thus a TEDx conference held on March 15th, which stirred up a lot of interest.

The TEDx event, which was webcast (it’s on-line), did include critics of the concept, notably renowned conservationist David Ehrenfeld, but the tone was overwhelmingly slanted in favor. For instance, evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro argued that the attempt to reverse-engineer and re-create the passenger pigeon was misguided and unlikely to succeed — but was willing to accept Brand’s protégé Ben Novak into her lab to do that work as a doctoral candidate, because she suspected that the side issues, the tangential discoveries, might be valuable. In other words, it won’t work but what the heck, let’s try. In an era of scarce resources, that seems foolish in the extreme.

Stanford legal ethicist Hank Greely put his thumb firmly on one side of the scale during his summing up. He made lists of the five pro’s and con’s, carefully matched and putting the pro’s last of course. Number five compared the disadvantage that some people had spiritual if not actually religious qualms about the project (muttered grumbling in the audience) with the advantage that seeing extinct species appear again would be really cool (excited buzz). Fantasy is not generally a good guide for public policy.

Perhaps the most glamorous scientific names in attendance were George Church and Robert Lanza. Lanza has been cloning since about 2000, working for Advanced Cell Technology, a company notorious for “science by press release.” He worked on the gaur and the goat, and got good headlines for those cloning misadventures, as well as for premature announcements of advances in human embryonic stem cell work. 

Church is a Harvard professor who made his name in genomic sequencing and is heavily involved in synthetic biology, specifically in the technologies of altering genes. There are some solid scientific reasons to explore this, but he has for years been happy to fuel wild speculations about adjusting elephant genomes to mimic mammoths, or even chimpanzee or human genomes to mimic Neanderthals; he’s either naive or cunning when it comes to press attention, and he gets a lot of it.

Church is also an entrepreneur. He’s founded or advised several companies, including Knome (know me, geddit?) to exploit the genome-testing market, and Codon Devices, which was described as “PhotoShop for DNA” but flopped. And now he and Lanza are starting a company they’d like to call Ark Corporation (geddit?), according to Antonio Regalado of MIT Technology Review. Why? Well, the real money is in big agribiz. Customizing livestock, and maybe even pets, is the goal. And the extinct species? They are a means to an end: as Church told Regalado, it’s “a good will thing, to show that we are interested in helping conservation as well as agriculture.”

But wait, there’s more. Lanza holds a bunch of patents for using these technologies not just for animals, extinct or imagined, but for human reproduction. Yes, designer babies. Church’s response when Regalado asked about this was: “It’s not part of the company. And if it were, we wouldn’t be saying it.

Well, that’s reassuring, right? 

There is no doubt that some conservationists are genuinely hoping to use genetic technologies to slow the slide to extinction of current species, and have a very understandable interest in the ideas of gene banking and possible revival. Many people are emotionally affected by the sense of group guilt that derives from the damage humans have done to the environment. And there are scientists and businessmen ready and waiting to lean on that, and to cast their commercial interests under the banner of conservation. That’s classic greenwashing, and we shouldn’t fall for it.

 

Pete Shanks works with the Center for Genetics and Society and blogs at Biopolitical Times. He is the author of Human Genetic Engineering: A Guide for Activists, Skeptics, and the Very Perplexed (Nation Books).

 
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