Can extinct species ever truly be brought back to life? More importantly, should they?

Woolly mammoth

Right now, in labs around the world, researchers are doing what science-fiction writers used to dream about: trying to bring extinct species back to life.

The science of resurrecting lost species takes many forms, but collectively it has become known as “de-extinction.” According to advocates like Stewart Brand, de-extinction could soon result in the return of the passenger pigeon to the skies of North America or the woolly mammoth to the forests of Eastern Siberia.

With the actual science advancing so quickly, perhaps it’s time to take a step back and examine the implications of such technological advances and potential resurrections. In fact, a journal called The Hastings Center Report — which “explores the ethical, legal, and social issues in medicine, health care, public health, and the life sciences” — has done just that in a special supplemental issue devoted to the topic of de-extinction. The issue — subtitled “Recreating the Wild: De-Extinction, Technology, and the Ethics of Conservation” — contains 11 fascinating and thought-provoking essays addressing what de-extinction really is, the promises of biotechnology for conservation, the value of the technology to still-living endangered species, the morality of the concept and the potential risks.

The Revelator reached out to Gregory E. Kaebnick, editor of the Hastings Center Report, to dig even further into the topic.

Platt: How did this special issue come about?

Kaebnick: I came at it from a nearby issue. I’d been doing research on the ethical questions surrounding the group of high-tech endeavors that go under the heading of “synthetic biology,” and I kept seeing these references to a new example of synthetic biology that was getting called “de-extinction.” Most of syn bio has to do with making genetic changes to microorganisms that cause them to do something useful for humans — produce fuel photosynthetically or turn a sugar into a medicine, for example — and some of that stuff seems acceptable to me in principle, as long as details about the organism or the way the organism is being changed and used give reason to think that the risks aren’t going to be unbearable when set against the potential benefits. However, the idea of genetically changing organisms, in the process maybe basically creating new species, does raise an important question about how far we humans should be going in bending the natural world to suit our needs and preferences. I thought de-extinction offered a chance to dig into that question.

De-extinction raises that question in a really powerful way because it’s about using those technologies specifically to alter the shared natural environment and because extinction has always seemed to be such an inalterable fact of nature. De-extinction also raises that question in a very complicated form, because the idea in it is that you’re trying to protect nature, but you’re doing that by changing nature. Is that even conceptually coherent? And if it is, how should you be thinking about the changes you’re making?

At the same time as I began working on de-extinction, I was invited to serve on a National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine committee about the use of gene drives, which are another technology for altering the shared environment, again with some potential conservation-oriented uses. So de-extinction seemed like maybe the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent. It might lead to other and even more significant ways of altering nature.

Platt: What do you hope readers will take away from reading these essays?

Kaebnick: First off, de-extinction is no solution for the extinction crisis. It is too hard to do, and most of the few “successes” would be so limited that they wouldn’t deserve the term “de-extinction.” If you were trying for a wooly mammoth, all you’d be likely to get is a hairy, cold-tolerant Asian elephant. Even if you got something genetically almost identical to a mammoth, it would still have such a different set of relationships to its environment and to other species that it wouldn’t really be a mammoth. (Curt Meine emphasizes this point in his essay.) And just as a conceptual matter, a species is not something that can be “brought back” or “resurrected,” as some proponents like to say. A species is a lineage of organisms, and once that lineage ends, the species is gone. Period. Even if we created something totally identical to the original mammoth, it would be a human creation, not a “resurrection” of the extinct species.

That said, the technologies are still very interesting. Perhaps the technologies could sometimes be used not for “de-extinction” but for the protection of merely threatened species. And maybe sometimes “de-extinction” would be reasonable. There might be some few occasions where creating a kind of proxy or replacement of a lost species would be possible and environmentally reasonable, maybe because having something in that environmental role is necessary for an ecosystem, for a network of other species. And in a very, very few cases, “de-extinction” might be done simply through cloning rather than with genetic alterations, and the organisms created that way could be put back into the original environment in a way that essentially picks up and carries on the species’ relationships with the environment. The gastric brooding frog might be an example of this category. “De-extinction” is still not the right word for these cases, but it’s less misleading than when we’re talking about bringing back the wooly mammoth.

So, I guess the second take-home point is that while de-extinction isn’t the answer to the extinction crisis, the technologies may have some meaningful conservation-oriented uses. We should be realistic about them — which the proponents of de-extinction are not — but we shouldn’t unthinkingly write them off, either.

And I think a third big take-home point is that the emergence of these technologies means we need to think very carefully about what we mean by “conservation” and what the goals and values of conservation are. How much human intervention is consistent with a preservationist mindset? Is the “gardening ethic” that Michael Pollan and Emma Maris have proposed a better mindset for an environmentalist?

Platt: What surprised you from the contributions?

Kaebnick: The contributions largely agreed that, as a practical matter, de-extinction is very limited, but they got to that point from very different philosophical positions. Philip Seddon, a zoologist in New Zealand who chaired a task force on de-extinction for the IUCN, defended the idea of using technological interventions for conservation goals, while Claudio Campagna, a biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, and some coauthors argued basically that the very idea of de-extinction is horrible and shows that conservation isn’t sitting on secure philosophical foundations. Hank Greely, a legal scholar who served with Seddon on the IUCN task force, argued that de-extinction is basically just another in a line of bioethical issues, and he laid out a bioethical framework as the philosophical foundation for assessing it, but some environmental theorists, including Curt Meine from the Aldo Leopold Foundation and Christopher Preston, who’s a philosopher at the University of Montana, put de-extinction in the context of other environmentalist thinking about the human relationship to nature.

Maybe this combination of near-agreement on practical conclusions and wide divergence on theory is not all that surprising, but it is very interesting, and as the technology moves forward and some of the other, more powerful ways of intervening in nature become feasible (if they do), then we may well need better clarity on the philosophical foundations. That’s what I argue in my essay in the set, anyway.

Platt: What topics might still need to be explored?

Kaebnick: Can we use genetic or other technologies for “assisted adaptation”? The work being done to make an American chestnut that survives chestnut blight is an example of that. Can we use “de-extinction” merely to help threatened species like the black-footed ferret — say, to recreate some of that species’ lost genetic diversity? And how should we think about human management of nature? Obviously the main thing we need to do is to reduce our alteration of nature — eat more wisely, drive more efficiently, fly less frequently, keep houses cool in the winter and warm in the summer, and so on — but it seems pretty plain to me that it is no longer possible to protect biodiversity just by reducing the alteration of nature. Management is necessary. But does accepting that we have to manage nature force us to go along with Pollan’s gardening ethic? To me, that seems dangerous. I can go along with the gardening ethic only if we’re very careful and conservative about what “gardening” means.

You can read the entire issue of The Hastings Report special issue on de-extinction here.

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John R. Platt

is the editor of The Revelator. An award-winning environmental journalist, his work has appeared in Scientific American, Audubon, Motherboard, and numerous other magazines and publications. His “Extinction Countdown” column has run continuously since 2004 and has covered news and science related to more than 1,000 endangered species. John lives on the outskirts of Portland, Ore., where he finds himself surrounded by animals and cartoonists.