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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.”

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. 

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