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Bringing species back from the dead – a mammoth responsibility: Opinion Piece

In this post I will take a look at the moral and ethical dilemmas posed by de-extinction. I’ll address the issue from numerous angles; though I must admit that a post such as this cannot do more than scratch the surface of such a complex issue. What I hope it will do is spark some debate and encourage you to think about where you stand on the matter. This is an incredibly important field of research and one that warrants debate and discussion. As such, I’d invite you to leave a comment at the bottom of the page if you want to weigh in. So, here we go…

Morality

A key argument used to defend the theory of de-extinction is that it will allow humanity to atone for past mistakes. Most, if not all, of the species scientists are proposing to bring back went extinct because of human activities. If we can develop the ability to undo the damage we’ve caused then do we not have a moral obligation to do so?

 A light-coloured Cane Toad.  Photo Credit: Bill Waller, via Wikipedia

A light-coloured Cane Toad.
Photo Credit: Bill Waller, via Wikipedia

Well, not necessarily! Just because we have the ability to do something doesn’t necessarily mean that we should. There have certainly been instances in which our ‘meddling’ with nature has had only positive results. For example, we wouldn’t have enough food had we not bred crops that grow at a faster rate and with greater yield. However, there have been many cases in which our attempts to improve our own lifestyle has dramatically backfired, as was the case when we tried to introduce the Cane Toad into Australia.

A Bearded Capuchin Monkey. Photo Credit: Bart van Dorp, via Wikipedia

A Bearded Capuchin Monkey.
Photo Credit: Bart van Dorp, via Wikipedia

Linked into this matter is the horrendously complex question of how morally right de-extinction is as a concept. Mankind is just another species on the planet, naturally selected to achieve dominance in many environments. Therefore, one might argue that any tools and technologies we have developed are the result of our natural intelligence. Other species have learned to use rudimentary tools without us gasping in horror; for example, bearded capuchin monkeys use rocks to open nuts. If you follow this thought process logically you come to the conclusion that ‘de-extinction’ is just another natural application of our intelligence. But, of course, your viewpoint on this depends entirely on whether you set humanity apart from other species.

Conservation

The other major argument in favour of de-extinction is the fact that the techniques developed in pursuit of that end-goal could be used to help prevent endangered species going extinct in the first place. The biggest challenge in cloning an extinct species is getting the body of a living organism to accept an embryo containingmostly the extinct species’ DNA. If scientists can achieve this, then one could assume that they could do so with species that are not extinct, but endangered. We would then have a way of artificially boosting numbers of endangered species.

The counterpoint to this argument is that such an ability might encourage apathy. Leaving aside the question of our moral right to try and stop species going extinct, would we go to such great lengths to preserve endangered species if we knew we could just bring them back at a later date? Many people would argue that we wouldn’t and that, in trying to be more responsible for the world around us, we might become even less so.

Environmental Impact

A model of a Woolly Mammoth at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, Canada. Photo Credit: FunkMonk, via Wikipedia

A model of a Woolly Mammoth at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, Canada.
Photo Credit: FunkMonk, via Wikipedia

Here we come to, in my opinion, the main crux of the argument. We have yet to consider how the revived species and the environment into which it is thrust will cope. For long-dead species, such as the woolly mammoth, the environment in which they lived will have changed drastically in their absence, adjusting to function without them. Regardless of whether they were wiped out by man, these species have lost their place in the world.

Let’s consider for a moment just a few of the ways in which the habitat of a species such as the woolly mammoth might have changed over time. Firstly, the climate may have changed. This could obviously mean that our de-extinct species can no longer survive in its old habitat. However, even if it could, if the average temperature or humidity has changed, then the range of other species that the environment supports could have changed drastically too. Animal species might have migrated or died off; plants might have died off or suddenly found themselves able to grow where they couldn’t before; and bacteria and viruses will doubtless have evolved massively over time too.

This leads onto the second major issue – the food web. If the inhabitants of the environment have changed in the absence of the extinct species, then it has no place in the modern-day food web. Quite frankly, even if the species living in an area haven’t changed, if enough time has passed then they will have evolved to survive without the extinct species, meaning it might still cause massive disruption. It might endanger the indigenous populations by outcompeting them or hunting them in a way they have not evolved to cope with, or it could be threatened with ‘re-extinction’ itself!

Finally, I mentioned earlier that bacteria and viruses would have evolved greatly over such a period of time. Well this offers no shortage of complications when trying to bring a species back from the dead. Obviously, a long-dead species’ immune system will be outdated, what with having missed out on potentially millennia of natural selection. We cannot know in advance but it might be that modern-day microbes could wipe out the resurrected species immediately if its immune system could not cope with these new threats.

Also, animals’bodies contain massive amounts of bacteria, which help our bodies to function. We could not digest our food as effectively as we do without bacterial colonisation. It is headache-inducing to try and work out the ways in which the body of a member of a resurrected species would respond to colonisation by all of these species that its ‘ancestors’ never encountered.

In short, it is very difficult to consider every single factor when introducing an organism into an environment in which it simply does not belong. There are often distant, subtle relationships and interactions between parts of an environment that we cannot anticipate.

Sergei Zimov surveying Pleistocene Park. Photo Credit: Enryū6473, via Wikipedia

Sergei Zimov surveying Pleistocene Park.
Photo Credit: Enryū6473, via Wikipedia

In more extreme cases, scientists may try to make an environment suit the extinct species, rather than going about things the other way round. For example, the Siberian steppe that served as the woolly mammoth’s habitat changed drastically at the end of the Pleistocene epoch (roughly 11,700 years ago). Russian scientist Sergei Zimov has, since the 1980s, been reintroducing flora and fauna into an arctic region of Siberia dubbed ‘Pleistocene Park’ in a bid to recreate the ecosystem that was lost millennia ago. This could, ultimately, include providing a home for mammoths.

Of course, here, we’re talking about manipulating entire environments rather than individual species. It is difficult to know where to draw the line, if one even believes that a line should be drawn anywhere! In my opinion, the line should be drawn before even taking de-extinction beyond being just a theory. I don’t believe that the potential benefits of such an ability outweigh the incredible and unknowable risks that come with playing God in this manner.

As I said before though, I would be very interested to know what you think of this and if you would like to add to my list of arguments. Here, we really have only just begun to consider the ramifications and justifications behind this incredibly controversial area of research.

 

This SSApost, by author Ian Wilson, was kindly donated by the Scouse Science Alliance and the original text can be found here.

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3 Responses to Bringing species back from the dead – a mammoth responsibility: Opinion Piece

  1. Greg Lobel says:

    I think we have to step and act more gently to avoid extinction when possible. In certain instances when climate or conditions change, it may be impossible to prevent extinction and it should occur naturally rather than trying to bring back species from the dead, so to speak

  2. Andy Edge says:

    Ian – great article! It’s something I was also really interested in when I did my degree.

    I think a key question to ask should be *why* are we trying to bring back an extinct species. If there’s a real, tangible reason to do so, or if by doing so it could benefit humanity, then I think you could perhaps make a case for it, but it would certainly need a lot of cost-benefit analysis, not to mention risk analysis before we could introduce a species like that back into the wild.

    I think a much stronger case could be made for the reintroduction of extant species (or their modern-day equivalent) into their former range, if we wanted to go down the “restoration” route. That could even serve as a trial run before we went down the “de-extinction” route.

    If the reason is more along the lines of “because it would be interesting” or “because we killed them, so we should bring them back”, then it gets a whole lot more complicated. That’s not to say they’re invalid reasons, but if it’s purely for scientific curiosity or for human entertainment, I can’t help but wonder if we should be confining these animals to zoos or research institutes, rather than releasing them into the wider environment.

    If a species has a “right” to be brought back because we pushed it to extinction (more on our role later), what about the “right” of those species who survived? They successfully survived or adapted, or expanded into a vacant niche – don’t they have the “right” to continue living in their niche, without it being threatened or altered by the introduction of a species which is either extinct altogether, or just extinct in a range it once occupied.

    Imagine if an advanced alien race suddenly arrived on earth, bringing with them cloned, “de-extinct” populations of archaic humans, who were then to be released into the areas of the planet in which they used to live. The aliens would probably give them a “helping hand” (at our expense) whilst they got established too. How would we feel about that? Whilst I’m not suggesting that the animals inhabiting those affected habitats would *feel* anything like we would, I think we can extrapolate our reaction onto them, and see that it may not be morally right to “play god” in that way.

    You also touched on the idea of whole ecosystem restoration, which is arguably more important and would probably be necessary to support a lot of these extinct species. I have the same reservations though – why? What’s our reason for doing it? Humanity is not yet at a stage where we can live in equilibrium with what we have. By that I mean that we’re still net destructors of habitat on our planet. Surely it’s more important to address that, to address things like rainforest loss and to bring humanity to a point where it can live in equilibrium with the environment as it is, than it is to be trying to recreate “lost” habitats?

    Another sticking point for me is the notion that we drove these animals extinct – I think in most cases it’s much too simplistic a viewpoint. Whilst there’s solid evidence that we played a role in a lot of extinctions, I don’t think the blame should lie solely on us. Would mammoths have gone extinct solely from human pressure in the absence of climate change? Hard to say. Would they have gone extinct anyway purely because of climate change? Quite possibly. Something like 99.8-99.9% of all species that have ever lived have gone extinct, and the overwhelming majority of those either pre-date humanity or lived (and died) in areas without a human presence. I don’t think we have enough evidence that it would be “atoning for our mistakes”.

    Finally – and it’s a view that I know a lot of people won’t like – I believe we should be taking a triage-type view with conservation. On a battlefield, casualties are often put into one of three categories 1) those likely to survive with or without intervention; 2) those likely to die with or without intervention; 3) those likely to survive, but only with intervention.

    There’s only so much money to go around, and I think you could make a case that we’re misallocating a lot of it in a vain attempt to save species which just don’t have a future. We should be focussing on species which would fall into category 3, because it’s those species which can both be helped, and which need helping. The example I usually go to is the giant panda – evolutionarily speaking, they’re probably a dead end, with or without human intervention.

    Here you have an animal which evolved as a carnivore, still has a lot of adaptations to carnivory (especially the dentition and digestive tract), yet which pretty much relies on a single species of plant to survive. It’s so poorly adapted to process this plant that it must spend most of its time either eating or sleeping to conserve energy. Whilst “novel” branches of evolution do occasionally lead somewhere, I can’t see any happy ending here, and suspect that – regardless of our arrival on the scene – the poor pandas would be destined to join the other 99.8% of species which went before them.

    In that vein, it could perhaps be argued that we shouldn’t be spending so much money on panda conservation – it could be put to better use protecting species or habitats which have a more viable future (the category 3s).

    From a more cynical, business-minded standpoint, I think allowing some high-profile species to go extinct could be a turning point for conservation. Imagine the global outcry and reaction if (when?) giant pandas do go extinct, especially if it’s portrayed in such a way that humanity was to blame (here’s where conservation media and marketing comes in!) I bet you’d see a huge increase in conservation awareness, a huge uplift in funding, and the start of some dramatic changes in behaviour and attitude. The extinction of giant pandas could be a lifeline for so many other species. The same could be said of the bald eagle in the late 20th century – imagine the reaction if the national bird of America had gone extinct.

    From a publicity/propaganda point of view it would be a dream for conservationists, could move the general public away from a general apathetic position, and could be the start of a wave of increased human awareness of the damage we’re doing to the planet, and what we need to change to reduce that damage. But apparently I’m just a heartless b*****d… 😀

  3. citewave says:

    This is great. It’ll be interesting to see if scientists can manage to clone a mammoth via one of its close living elephant (Indian or African) relatives.

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