Four Reasons Why We Should Oppose ‘De-Extinction’

The National Geographic website asks you to vote for your favorite extinct animal to be brought back to life. Would it be a woolly mammoth, the passenger pigeon, or perhaps a saber-toothed tiger?

De-extinction, the concept of “reviving” members of extinct species, is one of the hottest scientific topics around, and inching closer to realization with our burgeoning scientific capabilities in genomics, molecular biology and cloning. But there are some very sound reasons why the current enthusiasm for “bringing back the dead” should be left to popular television shows and apocalypse movies.

The whole idea, spearheaded by Revive & Restore, a project of the Long Now Organization, has been gaining plenty of interest, including a cover story in the April issue of National Geographic by science writer Carl Zimmer, a recent daylong TEDx conference on species-revival and ethics in Washington D.C., and articles and blogs in The Huffington Post, Wired, Scientific American and many more.

These websites and events have brought the ethics of the science of de-extinction to the fore with the central question: “Does being able to do something mean we should do it?”

Here are four reasons why de-extinction is something we should not do:

1. De-extinction is antithetical to animal welfare

In the rush to preserve species, we often forget that species consist of individuals and that whatever we do to a species we are doing to individual animals who have the capacity to suffer.

dollyWe should not be lulled into a false belief that de-extinction (as well as cloning and genetic manipulation) isn’t vivisection.

Dolly, the famously cloned sheep, was the only successful organism in 237 eggs that had been used to create nearly 30 embryos that perished after being implanted into 13 surrogate mothers. Three lambs were created but only one survived. Dolly suffered from severe arthritis and lung disease due to genetic mutations that occur during cloning and had to be euthanized at the young age of 6 years – half her species’ natural lifespan.

De-extinction will not be possible without violating any reasonable standard of humane treatment.

In order to create one surviving woolly mammoth, several modern female elephants will need to be impregnated in order for one to give birth to offspring that survives more than a few days. How many modern and extinct pachyderms need to be sacrificed in order for this method to become reliable? Modern elephants have a difficult time reproducing in captivity already. Who is willing to make the decision that will probably end the lives of so many elephants, who are already becoming extinct? De-extinction will not be possible without violating any reasonable standard of humane treatment.   For that reason alone it is unethical.

2. De-extinction ignores the current mass extinction problem

As conservation biologist Stuart Pimm and others have pointed out, preventing existing endangered species from going extinct should take precedence over reviving species already lost.

Preventing existing endangered species from going extinct should take precedence over reviving species already lost.

From an ethical point of view, why should the world’s scientific resources be focused on reviving species for which there are so many unknowns rather than on saving any of the millions of species facing extinction in the next few years? What is the validity of promoting the revival of mammoths, for instance, when Asian and African elephants will be lost by 2020?

And although some de-extinctionists insist that the knowledge we gain from de-extinction science may help us to save current species, this is a very dicey premise given the dire situation of the current mass extinction.

3. De-extinction is not conservation

One of the most voiced concerns about reviving lost species is over whether there will be a habitat for them to go to. Although DNA preserves the genetic template of a species, it does not preserve the way these genetic instructions unfold in the physical, social and psychological context to yield the whole animal in all of his or her essence. Beside the fact that it’s essentially impossible to reconstitute a complex ecosystem of the past, the introduction of revived species into present habitats puts current species at risk.

Members of species that exist only in captivity are functionally extinct.

Some pro-revivalists suggest that we should put revived animals in captivity, following the claims of the zoo and aquarium industry that keeping endangered animals in captivity is the equivalent of conserving them. But keeping animals in zoos and aquaria has had little positive impact on the status of most endangered species. Of the multitudes of endangered and at-risk animals kept in zoos, including elephants and great apes, only a handful of species have been successfully reintroduced into the natural habitat. Members of species that exist only in captivity are functionally extinct; their identity is not fully realized in an artificial environment. So, captivity offers little-to-no gain in conservation for either current species or ones brought back to life.

4. De-extinction promotes risky human attitudes

As Stuart Pimm points out: “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 [various reasons].”

De-extinction represents a minefield of potential welfare and conservation missteps.

Pimm and others argue that de-extinction sends the message that we need not worry about what happens in the real world as long as we can keep re-constituting members of dead species. This is the same dangerous psychological game played by zoos, who fashion themselves as modern-day Noah’s Arks, providing false hope that species are being protected.

De-extinction represents a minefield of potential welfare and conservation missteps. Tragically, if we wait just another ten years or so then the African or Asian elephants of today will populate the growing list of candidate extinct species. Kimmela is dedicated to helping to protect elephants and other species before this happens.

12 Replies to “Four Reasons Why We Should Oppose ‘De-Extinction’”

  1. I like to find middle ways in situations like this. My suggestion to the world is that we could de-extinct animals only when we can efficiently and effectively conserve our currently non-extinct species and/or after we can completely deal with our natural global issues happening around the world right now!
    I agree with your post, but I believe de-extinction is a good thing when we can solve the current problems we are having right now.

  2. […] I believe concerns the welfare ethics. As Lori Marino wrote on her recent article over at Kimmela, Dolly the sheep became the only surviving lamb from 30 cloned embryos. Even Dolly was not left […]

  3. I fully agree with the author. When I read the National Geographic article the author denotes, what immediately came to mind was the very serious ethical concerns that the author exposes regarding sentient individuals…in particular, the animals. The vast majority of these extinct species will invariably be treated as “scientific” novelties and we don’t even have to step into the future or imagine how society might treat animals whose numbers are in serious decline or in jeopardy; today most of society already treats animals they find as curious with little regard to their true well being.

    Human encroachment / habitat loss as well as hunting are the greatest threats to animals like the Asian elephant. So what to do about this problem? Lock Asian elephants up in zoos and exploit them for entertainment (because they are seen as a novelty) in circuses like Ringling Bros? Ringling Bros owns a large elephant ‘conservation’ center where it is in the business of purpose-breeding substantial numbers of animals. Make no mistake, elephants raised in this facility are exploited and most will be forced to become part of Ringling’s entertainment paraphernalia. Is it really conservation to breed animals simply to be exploited? No.

    The very few and limited true conservation efforts that are trying to gain footing are not very successful because none have been able to cross the Rubicon and surmount the worsening conflict of human population expansion into animal habitats…as well intentioned as these noble efforts might be. Human wants still and probably always will trump other than human animal needs.

    Our society has already proven that by-and-large we can not be trusted to do the right thing for animals that will be seen as novelties or curiosities. Therefore, I am convinced that it would be very irresponsible for our society to engage in attempting to bring out of extinction any animal that could be seen as a curiosity or novelty.

    1. The letters in National Geographic replying to this article were about 10-1 against this crazy idea. I can’t believe (well, yes I can) that we would spend time, money and effort to “de-extinct” an extinct animal, all the while accelerating the extinction of others with our population explosion and disregard of the earth. I agree that human wants and needs will always trump those of non-humans, even though such behavior is NOT in our best interest.

  4. Nathan Peirce March 1, 2014 at 5:06 pm

    Great article. Ethically, if we were to de-extinct before the technology becomes more humane, we’d have to have a really good reason.

    IF mammoths were brought back, would they then get ignored as elephants are mostly ignored now, or would their plight amplify the already-accelerating cause to save elephants from zoos, circuses, and habitat-destruction?

    My cynical side says that once people are accustomed to mammoths, they’ll lose interest and stop caring.

    My hopeful side says that western culture’s obsession with competition is a big part of what causes us to not care about extinction, as if we still need to compete with animals for resources so our hearts are hardened against “not us” in favor of “our own”, whereas mammoths may be able to be used to engage maternal and paternal protection instincts by way of the simple and true message that we created them and we’re therefore responsible for them.

    That’s hard to argue against. Something (U.S.) civil-rights liberals and family-minded conservatives can agree on.

    To be clear, I’m not saying those potentials are necessarily enough to justify the currently inhumane methods, but if we fail to prevent it, which seems very likely to me, then I think we should then be ready to switch tactics and focus on trying to get high standards for zoos written into law and get mammoths introduced into the wild.

  5. Blair Frazer Smith March 21, 2014 at 11:16 pm

    Lets add humanity to the list, for surely before long we will be on it.

  6. I would just like to point out that the point of de-extinction is to help revive the extinct species that humans have killed. If you go to this website you will find that the goal for the organization that started it all, is not only to revive species like the Woolly Mammoth (which I’m not fully on board with that idea), but also bring a back species like the carrier pigeon and store species like the elephants. I don’t agree with with your claim about “De-extinction ignores the current mass extinction problem” because de-extinction it’s what’s helping solve that problem.

    1. Thank you for your comments. I’ve read the longnow website and still find their reasoning seriously flawed. While there may be arguments articulated for “storing” elephants and other species before they go extinct, there is, in my view, little appreciation for how that species is to be re-constituted in its original ecological environment in the future. It seems to me that once the environment is gone it is folly to think one can just keep the species in storage for “a better day”. That day will not come. And, although the stated goals of the organization are to help revive species which we have brought to extinction, the hype about woolly mammoths, Neanderthals, and dodos is driving the enthusiasm for these efforts and there is little to suggest that this organization is doing anything to curtail that. I appreciate your comments on this issue and do share, obviously, your concern about reviving species such as the mammoth. However, why not use those resources to find a way to preserve and protect living species who are endangered and their environments. It seems a bit like cryonics efforts to freeze people with terminal illnesses. Better to find a way to treat them before that becomes their only option, don’t you think?

  7. […] a previous post, I outlined Four Reasons Why We should Oppose ‘De-Extinction’. Some of the more thoughtful advocates for de-extinction, like Shapiro, share some of the concerns […]

  8. […] a previous post, I outlined Four Reasons Why We should Oppose ‘De-Extinction’. Some of the more thoughtful advocates for de-extinction, like Shapiro, share some of the concerns […]

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