After seeing a life-size replica on Saturday of the extinct dodo and being awed by the strangely comical-looking bird, news stories debating “de-extinction” have been popping up around me.
The latest is today’s HuffPost article, “De-Extinction Experts See Benefits in Resurrecting Extinct Animals, But Critics Abound.”
First off, this field is so new that it really can’t be considered a field at all. Maybe a burgeoning area of study, but not an actual field yet. So calling people “De-Extinction Experts” is stretching things. But then again, HuffPost is not exactly known for scientific writing even to National Geographic quality, let alone Science, Nature, or an actual scientific journal.
But that’s getting off the topic a bit, because modern science does actually make this idea of reviving species or using genetics to manipulate threatened species a possibility – if not now, then in the relatively near future.
So the question has to be asked: Should we do it?
At present, I’m firmly against the idea. I just finished volunteering as an advisor to a fundamentals science course for new volunteer docents at the California Academy of Sciences. One topic of discussion, and a major message and area of research of the museum is the study of species and systems.
Every creature in an ecosystem has a part in it. Whether helpful or harmful, the system overall tries to equalize. In South America, scores of ants which would decimate another environment actually help to breakdown plant material, returning nutrients to the system. Bees, flies, moths, and even bats are necessary to pollinate different species of plants. And the list goes on and on.
Extinction – however regrettable and regardless of the cause – is part of the process of a system trying to reach equilibrium. If a system can’t support a species anymore, and the species can’t evolve quickly enough or move to another environment which can support it, the species can’t survive.
This isn’t something we want due to human activity, but we also have to realize it is a natural part of… well, nature.
So, with how little we actually know about the relationship of different species in a system, their interactions with each other and with the world at-large, how can we justify reviving extinct species with no true understanding of how that will disrupt the equilibrium further?
Although I’m far from an expert, I definitely am a critic of the idea of “de-extinction” and it will take a lot of convincing for me to change sides. Simply telling me how amazing it is that it can be done or how emotional I’ll be if I see a living mastadon is not enough to justify with further disruption of these species.
The answer to the extinctions we’re seeing in nature still lies in reducing and removing the destructive influences of our species on the these systems and letting them go back to finding their own equilibrium. It takes patience, determination, and thinking long-term – not a lifetime or a generation, but in scores of generations.
Here, also, is part of a recent TED Radio Hour on “Hacking The Animal Kingdom.”
What do you think?
- Loss of Biodiversity (visual.ly)
- Scientists working to de-extinct some of nature’s missing species (pri.org)