On the Morality of: De-Extinction

I was fascinated by a lengthy article last week on “de-extinction“, the emerging science of cloning extinct species back to life. While we almost certainly won’t be recreating dinosaurs Jurassic Park style, there are many vanished animals for which we have well-preserved specimens from which we could extract genetic material, from passenger pigeons to woolly mammoths, dodos to thylacines (or even the Australian gastric brooding frog, a bizarre species that gestates its young in its stomach).

On a purely scientific level, there’s no doubt that this could be done. In fact, it already has been done: in 2003, scientists cloned a mountain goat called the bucardo, whose last surviving wild specimen had died three years earlier. The kid died shortly after birth, but it proved that the process is feasible. For species for which we only have stuffed or pickled specimens, rather than cryopreserved cells, the technical challenges would be greater – most likely, it would entail finding a close living relative and editing the DNA of an egg cell to match its extinct cousin. But our ability to engineer DNA is improving all the time, and there’s no question that, sooner or later, we’ll be able to do it.

The question is, do we have the moral right to do it? Bringing an extinct animal back to life in a lab or a zoo is a big step, but the scientific foundations working on de-extinction are proposing a much bigger one: releasing an engineered species back into the wild to establish stable breeding populations. Is this a goal worth working towards?

One could argue that because these species were driven to extinction by humanity, we have a moral obligation to undo that harm by bringing them back, just as we restore natural habitats that were damaged by human activity. That argument does strike a chord with me, I admit. The number of species we’ve killed off is great enough to count as a new mass extinction, and their disappearance will impoverish the planet for millions of years, what E.O. Wilson hauntingly calls “the age of loneliness”. Even beyond the quantifiable benefits that nature provides to humanity, each species is a unique product of evolution, a single thread woven into the great tapestry stretching back to the origin of life. Any extinction deprives us of something precious and otherwise irreplaceable, like the destruction of a work of art. If we can repair that harm, shouldn’t we do it?

Then again, even if we could create a perfect genetic copy of a vanished animal, there’s no way to be sure it would seamlessly reoccupy its former niche. An ecosystem is a complex and contingent natural process, not just a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces can be taken out and later put back. Rather than restoring a missing part of an ecosystem, the new species might become a pest or a nuisance just as great as any of the invasive species we’ve accidentally introduced to places where they don’t belong. In trying to make things better, we might instead make them worse.

Besides, environmental conservation is always a question of triage, of allocating scarce resources where they’ll do the most good: preserving vital habitat, establishing breeding programs for critically endangered species, fighting the spread of invasive exotics. In that respect, it’s perfectly plausible to argue that de-extinction is an expensive frivolity, one that will take dollars and attention away from more pressing concerns. These species, after all, are already dead. Whatever harm could be done by their departure has already been done. And by definition, even if we choose to restore them to existence, we have virtually limitless time to do it, whereas grave damage can be prevented by our efforts in the here and now.

Granted, one could argue that these objectives aren’t in direct competition: the kind of people who’d underwrite a de-extinction project may not be the same as the people who work on the less glamorous but more important day-to-day work of conservation. And the prospect of recreating charismatic megafauna may attract the interest of people who wouldn’t otherwise participate in the environmental movement, similar to the guaranteed crowd-pleasing appeal of giant pandas and other large, cuddly mammals. It’s not a great leap to imagine that a zoo with live woolly mammoths could spark tremendous public interest that could be used to help fund conservation efforts. (But would it also detract from their urgency? Why bother preserving a species from extinction, a naive visitor might think, if we can always bring it back later?)

Still, when all is said and done, I hold a similar view of de-extinction as I do of human cloning: it solves no pressing problem. The prospect of recreating lost worlds has an undeniable cool factor, but we don’t even need cloning and genetic engineering to accomplish that. Consider the Dutch nature preserve called the Oostvaardersplassen, which is stocked with species that were bred to resemble, as much as possible, their extinct wild ancestors like the aurochs. It may not be quite the same as seeing herds of mammoths thundering across the plains, but it does offer glimpses of diversity rarely seen anymore in densely urbanized countries. And if we had a hundred Oostvaardersplassens all over the Earth, sustaining and sheltering the biodiversity that still exists, maybe then would be the time to consider resurrecting some extinct species to rejoin the world they’ve long been absent from.

Image: Dolly the sheep, at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh

Other posts in this series:

Neil deGrasse Tyson Shows Why Small-Minded Religious Fundamentalists Are Threatened by Wonders of Universe
Rosetta’s Comet Rendezvous
Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
You Got Your Ideology in My Atheism!
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Richard Hollis

    Goody! De-extinction! One of my favourite topics.

    I have to say I am massively in favour of de-extinction, and I hope I live to see its successful implementation as part of the conservation process.

    It is true that I see potential problems – many of which you have covered. I admit I know little about how much this process would cost, and about where such money would come from (it would be terrible if it came from the same pot that funds other conservation projects). There is also the point that ‘resurrected’ species would not be EXACTLY the same as the extinct species from which they descended. For one thing, no proposed process would result in a 100% genetically identical copy. For another, some behaviours are learned (particularly among higher, sociable species). Would a cloned chimpanzee know how to behave like a chimpanzee if there were no others of its kind around to teach it? If it was raised by, say, gorillas, would it not simply learn to behave like a gorilla instead?

    But that aside, I think the potential benefits outweigh the dangers. For one thing, we have already reintroduced species which were not identical to their forebears. The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone Park is a famously successful reintroduction project, and yet those wolves carry a few genes from domestic dogs. Does that matter? Not really. They are still behaving as wolves, and performing the function of wolves in the park.

    For another thing, this could be invaluable in rescuing species who have not quite become extinct. When a population crashes to tiny numbers, one of the greatest issues is genetic bottle-necking. But this cloning process can be used to broaden the desperately restricted gene pool and help reduce inbreeding, giving the species a better chance to bounce back.

    Then there is the issue of timing. A habitat may quickly unravel when a single species is removed, as it’s former prey sudden boom, and its former predators starve. This means there is a certain time constraint on ‘resurrecting’ these species. The dodo and mammoth have been gone for hundreds or thousands of years, and their native habitats have likely readjusted themselves, but the gastric brooding frog has been gone for only 30 years, and doubtless it’s loss it still being felt in its habitat. The sooner we bring back the species, the sooner we minimise the fallout from its absence.

    When faced with new technology, a lot of peoples’ reactions is to recoil. They list the potential issues, problems and horrors that may follow. But scientists are not idiots. The people pioneering de-extinction are acutely aware that this is a tool to be wielded carefully and thoughtfully. And in the right hands this could undo a lot of the damage we are currently doing to the planet. I say bring it on!

  • Shawn

    It’s an intriguing question. It seems to me, though, that once humanity gained the ability to manipulate our environment (as we do) that there really isn’t a “natural world” any longer. We certainly have an obligation to ourselves not to wreck the world and it’s probably in our self interest to maintain as many species as possible in as close to their natural habitats as possible. Still, we shouldn’t kid ourselves – the only reason that animals larger than a rabbit are still around is that we haven’t chosen to kill them all.
    The only chance that life on Earth has to spread beyond Earth or to survive the eventual expansion of the Sun is if humans or another intelligent species removes them. I’m not sure if that’s even possible, but to the extent that de-extincting species gives us biological expertise, it’s probably not entirely a waste of time.

  • Alex Harman

    That’s an excellent point — resurrecting a species that was one of the keystone species for its entire ecosystem may sometimes be the only way to prevent catastrophic changes in the ecosystem and the extinction of numerous other species. The wolves of Yellowstone are such a good case in point that I’d like to elaborate a bit on their role. They don’t just limit the population growth of the various animals on which they feed — their presence also causes some of their prey species to modify their behavior. In particular, in the absence of wolves the elk in Yellowstone tended to browse preferentially in the riparian woodlands around the park’s streams and rivers, damaging that habitat and leading to a reduction in the populations of many bird species that nest and feed there. With the return of the wolves, the elk have gone back to feeding higher up on the slopes where they’re less vulnerable to wolf predation, and the riparian forests are recovering.

  • Jason Wexler

    When did humans stop being natural? Isn’t it just as arrogant and misinformed of the environmental left to say that humans have a responsibility to be stewards of nature, as it is for the religious right to say that man is the master of nature? In so far as both separate man from nature and pretend that somehow he is something distinct and different.

  • Tova Rischi

    Having the ability to de-extict however could be an important tool of last choice with some more intimately human problems.

    Considering the Irish potato famine, or any number similar events; crops can suffer plagues of their own. Consider the fears of many genetic-engineering skeptics; although I don’t think rejection of the method is the appropriate responce, there is a risk of a staple crop being irreparably damaged and destorying existing crops through interbreeding (like if pollen from a fast reproducing plant that was accidentally bred to be smaller escaped into the wind). Or consider if a pest were to rapidly consume a particular crop and wipe it out (sort of like what the boll weevil did to cotton in the south, but at a much greater scale).

    None of these are particularly likely, and none of these things have a proper reason to be so extreme; however, if just one thing wipes out a staple crop like corn, wheat, potatoes, rice, yucca, even in just an area, it could prove immensely deadly. In that event we’d go to seed banks to try to restore the crops; but at times that would simply be building our houses on top of smoldering embers of the previous. Not to mention, not every seed can last long enough to escape a disaster.

    It wouldn’t be an ideal situation, but in the event the crop is utterly wiped out, we could wait for everything to die and de-extinct the crop. Through the method, although slow and costly, we could repair our own niches to support our own populations; the decades between the fall and the de-extinction would be marked with death, violence, and emergency food aid, but at least the after would be an era of rapid repair and recovery instead of for centuries handicapping the region and its population as the famine did to Ireland, or the South (externalities that I’m aware of aside).

    I’m far from an ag expert though – I don’t know my history in this respect very well. I feel I’m not doing this argument justice, but I feel very much so that this can be used for more explicitly “human” purposes and not just ecological.

  • Tova Rischi

    natura, naturae has always been a useful term to describe “not-us”, or at least “not by understandable intelligence”. Sometimes you have to look beyond flowery words – the green’s argument, which is neither left nor right albeit usually the former, better communicated is usually “we need to pay attention to the ecology including us for our own enlightened egoist purposes” while the religious or “skeptical” argument (not always right or left) is “I think you’re overemphizing the impact we have”.

    And I also find it bewildering how you think saying “we have a responsibility” is arrogant, much less arrogant as “we have no such responsibility”..

  • DavidMHart

    I think it fair to say that humans have become so ecologically dominant, so impactful on any ecosystems we encounter, that it makes sense for us to consider ourselves to be for all practical purposes different from the natural world even if on a philosophical level we are part of it.

    That is, our very existence (or at least, our existence at current population levels) makes leaving-nature-alone simply not an option (unless you are a fan of the Voluntary Human Extinction movement); our only options in relation to the (rest of the) natural world are stewardship or being resigned to the ongoing destruction. I think stewardship is the better option, however arrogant it may be.

  • Jason Wexler

    The only way to see man as divorced from nature is at a philosophical level, not the other way around as you seem to have implied.

    I think it is more accurate to say we are more cognizant of our dominance and the implications therein than any other dominant species has ever been, but not that we are significantly more dominant. For instance despite the claim that we are responsible for a modern mass extinction event, it is a very small one by comparison to those that happened elsetime in history, such as the Permian-Triassic extinction or the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction, even the small by comparison Eocene-Oligocene extinction dwarfs what man has been capable of. Keep in mind extinction events which aren’t linked to man effect all 6 kingdoms and result in 50% or greater elimination of species and genera and families. Assuming man is primarily responsible for the Quaternary extinction event (a proposition which is only highly likely not certain), that leaves us as responsible for killing 80% of mammals weighing over 40kg and living in the Americas or Oceania, and we haven’t really done anything to non mammals, small mammals and plants and protists and fungi.

    Further, I think trying to separate man from nature as an ecological actor creates the very dangerous problem of being unable to tell what is a result of human ecology and what is the result of nonhuman ecology, in fact it’s a huge headache trying to even describe that distinction. I am concerned that ecological stewardship will lead to a belief in ecological stagnation an attempt to prevent any further ecological evolution or mutation. There is no consciousness to nature, it doesn’t have goals or desires, so we as humans can’t interrupt those goals. Other historical dominant species have been so ecologically dominant on smaller ecosystems as to have rewritten the ecology several times for their benefit. The closest I can come to supporting ecological stewardship is to say we ought to use our cognizance of our abilities to make sure we don’t wipe ourselves out, but otherwise behave “naturally”.

  • Plutosdad

    It seems if we are going to try to combat inbreeding, we will have to start saving DNA now of top predators, before we end up having to resort to cloning to re-introduce them. That might be something that even gets funding now, since it’s not “scary”, and the collapsing populations of wolves, tuna, etc, and their importance to keeping much more destructive animals in check is already well known.

  • L.Long

    Other then as an exercise on the genetic playground, so what!?
    the animal itself is not really important as you would have to succeed good enough to make a breading group. But until you can cutback on the humans growing their numbers to deadly amounts, stop them from destroying the ecology there will be no real location for them to live anyway. We are driving large numbers of animals into extinction now. Cloning Humans? big deal nature has been doing it for centuries.

  • L.Long

    Issac Asimov said it in one of his science articles….
    why is a beaver building a dam for beaver purposes NATURAL but a man building a dam for man purposes UNNATURAL???
    The obvious answer is it is all natural. I love how people LLLooove to abuse the idea of natural.
    But you are correct in that being a steward of nature is very important as we are here now because of the way nature is as it is. If it changes drastically nature and the world wont care they will survive and carry on, but will we???

  • cipher


    You realize, of course, this demonstrates that species are stable over time. They can be created, destroyed or even altered slightly, but not changed in any significant manner. We’ve eliminated some of them due to our sinful nature, and God, in his omnibenevolence, has given us the means to restore that which we’ve destroyed.

    Evolution is a fantasy perpetuated by misguided atheists and amoral scientists who simply want to lead lives of hedonistic abandon and not be held accountable.


  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    For another thing, this could be invaluable in rescuing species who have not quite become extinct. When a population crashes to tiny numbers, one of the greatest issues is genetic bottle-necking. But this cloning process can be used to broaden the desperately restricted gene pool and help reduce inbreeding, giving the species a better chance to bounce back.

    That’s a potential benefit I hadn’t thought of, although I’m curious to find out more about how this would work. That seemed to me to be the biggest elision in the original articles: cloning can only produce genetically identical individuals. To create a true breeding population that can be released into the wild, we’d need to introduce genetic diversity into the clones. I’m not sure if anyone working on de-extinction projects has a clear idea of how to do that.

    A habitat may quickly unravel when a single species is removed, as it’s former prey sudden boom, and its former predators starve. This means there is a certain time constraint on ‘resurrecting’ these species.

    That’s true in theory, but as far as I’m aware, this is never going to be a quick process! It took years of work just to clone that single bucardo kid, and it didn’t survive long. Cloning enough animals to create a stable breeding pool would be a much bigger task. Granted, this may get a little easier as we get a better grasp of the technology,

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    It’s always worth remembering that many pre-Darwinian biologists were fiercely resistant in principle to the very idea of extinction. They believed it blasphemous to say that any species God had created could die out completely, since that would produce a gap in the Great Chain of Being.

  • stanz2reason

    Adam, it strikes me as downshifting into a safe ground with your conclusion of “… it solves no pressing problem”, which isn’t much of a position either way. At best it’s a ‘I’m sort of OK with it, but there are more pressing issues at hand’, which is pragmatically fair but kind of a dodge instead of actually making more of an ethical judgement call.

  • BT

    It’s an interesting thought though.

  • guest

    I don’t see how we could have a moral obligation to bring back mammoths. Surely obligations are owed to someone- moral agents like ourselves. If you kill a farmer’s cow, you could be said to have a moral obligation to the farmer to buy her a new cow, since she is a moral agent and the cow is her property. But to whom did mammoth’s belong? To no-one. Unless you’re some kind of pagan, nature and evolution aren’t people, and so we have no moral obligations to them. I guess you could say the mammoth was part of our shared heritage- the wealth of the ‘commons’ if you like, and so we have a moral obligation to ourselves to bring them back. But to me that doesn’t make sense, since no-one now alive ever co-existed with a mammoth. You might as well just say ‘I want some mammoth’ (which I do, I really do).

    Who is conservation for? Who should conservation benefit? My answer is simple: humans. I don’t see why we should conserve species unless they have value to us, either because they perform vital services for us (bees, earthworms, photosynthesising plants, possibly vultures) or because they are life-enhancingly beautiful (birds of paradise, pandas). Other animals aren’t self-aware and don’t qualify as people, with a few exceptions (great apes, cetaceans, parrots). They’re not part of our societies, again with a few exceptions for things like service dogs. So I can’t see where the moral obligation to preserve them would come from. I wouldn’t pay to preserve an ugly work of art, either. I don’t think we need to preserve every species in order for our own to survive. Europe has lost most of it’s major carnivores and megafauna and humans are thriving there. I think conservation programs should be targeted towards saving creatures we actually like, species we can hunt, farm or otherwise harvest, and potentially useful species. If species not in those categories die, we’ll barely even notice. There’s a great deal of redundancy in the ecosystem and niches made vacant by extinction will soon be filled- often by ourselves, since we eat everything and are top predator where-ever we go now, as long as we have guns.

    As for cloning mammoth, I think we should do it because it would be cool, and we’d learn a lot about archeology and genetics in the process. I don’t buy the arguement it will take money away from conservation schemes- where’s the proof? Has anyone done any surveys? I’m in favour of reproductive human cloning as well, once the process has been improved by testing on monkeys. Because it might give lesbian couples a way to have a child that’s biologically related to both of them (you clone one lesbian’s DNA and put it into the nucleus of the other lesbian’s ovum and she carries it to term, also contributing her mitochondrial DNA). Also because why the fuck not? And because we’d learn a lot about nature/nurture and genetic inheritences as well as epigenetics. Bring on the clones, already!

  • guest

    In that case there hasn’t been a natural world for about 40,000 years.
    Elephants and termites also change their environment. Are their surroundings unnatural?