Playing God: A Pros and Cons List of Reviving Extinct Species

Veteran science writer Britt Wray has published a book on what has been a recurring news topic for decades: can we. and then should we, use biotechnology to bring extinct species back to life? This is not only a favorite topic in the science and technology sections of newspapers and magazines, but a popular fictional topic, with the foreboding tale of Jurassic Park being just one prominent example.

Unlike the Michael Crichton novel turned Steven Spielberg blockbuster, however, most actual scientists describe using today’s cloning technology for more recently extinct species, on the order of decades, centuries or, at most, thousands of years.

So the questions, again, are: Can we, and should we? Since the answer to the former is almost certainly yes, let’s move on to the second question.

Pro #1: Righting a Wrong

It may be “playing God” (however literally or metaphorically you may use that phrase) to create new species through technological means, but is it any more acceptable to wipe out species forever as we remake the world for our own convenience? If we take the approach of a certain karma-like moral accounting of our past misdeeds as a species, it surely makes more intuitive and mathematical sense that if every lost species is a -1, then bringing those species back is a +1. I’m reminded of the Boy and Girl Scouts camping and hiking maxim to leave the environment in better shape than you found it. As a species we certainly haven’t been doing that. If we have the tools to repair some of the damage, are we morally obligated to try?

Pro #2: Restoring Balance

Many species that have disappeared have had profound effects on the ecosystem. Keystone species are those that serve so many critical central functions that affect the living and non-living aspects of the environment that removing them completely destroys the ecological balance.

One example might be African elephants, who prevent acacia trees from taking over the Savannah whenever grass fires allow the fast-growing trees to get the upper hand, pushing out grazing animals and their predators. In North America, the overhunting of bison/buffalo also had far-reaching effects on biodiversity, as these grazers did all kinds of things, including providing manure and stamping soil compression that helped seeds grow, and keeping grasses in check so that wildflowers can thrive, in turn providing for butterflies and other important pollinators.

Neither elephants nor bison are yet extinct, and scientists are working at restoring bison in particular to regions in which they have all but disappeared. But what if, like many species before them, they had disappeared? Recreating the species might be our only recourse.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault hedges against ecological doomsday, in whatever form, making it possible for us to return lost plant species to the land. To do the same for lost animal species would require a more technologically advanced solution, frozen ova (or even fertilized zygotes) such that young women freeze before reproductive surgeries, or outright cloning from preserved animal DNA.

Con #1: Do We Have Any Idea What We’re Doing?

You can’t unscramble an egg. Once a certain number of species are lost, do we honestly think we can get things back to the way they were? The thing is, when an ecosystem collapses and shifts to a new balance point, we probably won’t be aware of just how many things have changed or disappeared, from bacteria to the most innocuous of macroscopic critters.

Further tampering can just make things worse, like when farmers brought in a foreign species of ladybug hoping to use them as “natural” pest control. Likewise, forget dinosaurs–a popular species option to revive is the beautiful woolly mammoth. But it may have disappeared due to climate change as much as human overhunting, and may be truly disruptive to modern ecosystems. Do we want to introduce it somewhere and just see what happens, consequences be damned?

Con #2: The Ethical Slippery Slope

Ethics is a double-edged sword. In 2013 a scientist put out a call for a surrogate mother to birth a cloned Neanderthal baby. Neanderthals are humans. A different, extinct species of human, but humans nonetheless. If you don’t agree that humans should be cloned (I won’t pretend this is universal agreement on this proscription), you can’t support the cloning of a Neanderthal. But once we make a habit of bringing back species, how long before those who want to do argue for the non-humanness of Neanderthals in order to get their way, and now we have a new class of humans that have legally been argued into non-personhood–Island of Dr. Moreau and Frankenstein territory.

There is a second slippery slope. Once we decide we can bring any species back, will we abandon our responsibility as stewards of the planet and try less hard to prevent extinction from happening in the first place? It’s a similar argument to those concerned a mission to Mars will ease the needed urgency on climate change. Is it ethical to greenlight a technology if we know a side-effect will be decreased environmental responsibility? These are not easy questions.

Conclusion?

I leave that to you. Comment away.

Photo credit: Mauricio Antón

85 comments

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill13 days ago

They are extinct for a reason. We have no idea the impact of bringing these animals back. Did we learn nothing from Jurassic Park?

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Peggy B
Peggy B2 months ago

What about existing animals,

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Mike R
Mike R2 months ago

Thanks

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Mike R
Mike R2 months ago

Thanks

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Caitlin B
Caitlin B2 months ago

Thanks

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Arlene C
Arlene C2 months ago

Merci

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Toni W
Toni W2 months ago

TYFS

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Toni W
Toni W2 months ago

TYFS

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Cathy B
Cathy B2 months ago

This hypothesis needs very careful consideration, our critically endangered animals should be our first priority.

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Jetana A
Jetana A2 months ago

Genetic diversity is essential for a species to survive. So cloning is not a good idea.

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