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
On Financial Independence
New on the Guardian: Beyond Debating God's Existence
When Would You Rather Be Alive?
About Adam Lee

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


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