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The Narcissism of De-Extinction

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Winner of Best Biology Blog Post of 2013 from
The TedxDeExtinction conference, discussing how and whether to resurrect extinct species from DNA, took place on the Ides of March 2013 at the National Geographic headquarters in Washington, DC. Watch archived versions of the talks.

Passenger pigeon. Photo Credit: Biodiversity Heritage Library

If people had the ability to resurrect extinct species (dubbed “de-extinction”) and reintroduce them to the wild, should we direct our energy and resources towards it?

I will admit my bias straight off: I’m skeptical of the utility of resurrecting extinct species for a multitude of reasons. Many extinct species no longer have the wild habitat to support them, even if a population could be resurrected from DNA, as Brian Switek wrote. Cloning technology is advancing quickly, but not yet ready for large-scale implementation, a topic Ferris Jabr takes on. And, to note the more mundane step between cloning and wild release, we can’t keep most wild animals alive in captivity, which is why you see the same species in zoos around the world. Are we really prepared to keep animals alive if, for example, we don’t even know what environment they prefer or what they eat?

But the main thing that bugs me is the blatant narcissism and anthropocentrism behind it.

Passenger pigeons. Photo Credit: Biodiversity Heritage Library

This morning, speaker Mike Archer argued that resurrecting extinct species is worth doing to “restore the balance of nature that we have upset.” This statement assumes that nature has some pristine state—an Eden containing an ideal balance of organisms. Over the years, ecologists have tried to find this balance and fit organisms and ecosystems into models. But, time and time again, they haven’t been able to fit ecosystems into neat, balanced pockets.

Ecosystems change constantly. Animals migrate. Weather kills off local populations and allows others to thrive. Disease strikes. And, yes, animals go extinct. Most of the time, ecosystems continue on as they were, with organisms making slight changes to their behavior to compensate for the loss. Sometimes the changes are more drastic and the relationships between organisms are reconstructed. It’s a shocking thing to witness—organisms and ecosystems shifting around us—but this isn’t anything new. It’s been happening since the beginning of life.

Passenger pigeon. Photo Credit: Biodiversity Heritage Library

So not only are we trying to restore nature to a balance that doesn’t seem to exist, but we’ve picked a rather arbitrary point in time to return it to: the moment when people first started paying attention. The only species we are capable of resurrecting are those that we know went extinct, those large and common enough to leave fossils, and those that we watched die off. So you see a familiar cadre of de-extinction candidates on the list: mammoths, passenger pigeons, thylacine tigers. These are all big animals that we are sure used to be around because they are large enough to leave an impact on human culture—or, as speaker Stanley Temple put it later in the afternoon, “species that I lamented as a boy.”

This suddenly is less about the species themselves and more about us.

But why shouldn’t it be, if we’re the ones causing so much damage? Sure, people have caused many recent extinctions, as our species spreads and displaces others. And because we are aware of our actions, we have a moral obligation to try to not drive species to extinction. But to say that our extinctions are worse than any other extinctions is a display of narcissism. Extinction is part of life.

What makes our extinctions different, however, is that we can learn from them. We can avoid having to lament species by learning how to take better care of habitats and ecosystems, how to use technology and back-crossing to induce greater genetic variation in small, endangered populations to give them a better chance of survival, and how to properly raise animals in captivity and then release them into the wild.

It’s to the future we must look, not the past. Cut your extinction losses, people: we have to focus our energy on the extinctions that haven’t happened yet.

Hannah Waters About the Author: Hannah Waters writes about natural history and the way people think about nature. She lives and works in Philadelphia, PA, but really on the internet. Follow on Twitter @hannahjwaters.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Mythusmage 4:23 pm 03/15/2013

    Resurrect? Don’t you mean recreate? Mastodons are gone, all you’d be doing is creating a new species that resembles the mastodon.

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  2. 2. tharriss 5:32 pm 03/15/2013

    Not sure you can put the jinni back in the bottle… we are going to figure out how to replicate extinct species and we’re going to create new species for purposes of our own, and we’re going to alter our own forms and functions as we see fit. In some cases we already have the technology, in others we will within the century.

    The world of the future is going to be one shaped increasingly less by nature than by man.

    I agree we should have whatever discussions we can to try and make our choices as wise as possible, but what won’t happen is stuffing this knowledge/ability/technology back on the shelf and forgetting about it.

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  3. 3. erbarker 5:47 pm 03/15/2013

    tharriss, I agree with you 100%. As you point out the jinni is out of the box and we can not put it back. For good or bad our future is now in our hands.

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  4. 4. Geologon 7:17 pm 03/15/2013

    Otis Taylor – Resurrection Blues

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  5. 5. dwbd 8:52 pm 03/15/2013

    I say let’s do it. We build all kinds of crazy shit like giant skyscrapers in the middle of the friggin’ dessert, it is hardly a bad thing to recreate a magnificent living organism like a sabre-toothed tiger or mastodon or even more to my liking a full-sized, jaw-nashing T-Rex – impressive or what. Of course these creatures will be relegated to being zoo or animal park curiosities and tourist attractions.

    My philosophy has always been – It is better to create than destroy – and humans have already destroyed a lot of species, and a whole lot of our own species.

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  6. 6. qwerpa 8:54 pm 03/15/2013

    The extinctions we cause are not natural. We’re not simply “displacing” other life as has happened through all of evolution. We have created technology that disrupts and despoils the entire planet.

    To say “We can avoid having to lament species by learning how to take better care of habitats and ecosystems” makes it sound like we are going to great lengths to protect habitats and we merely need to fine-tune our efforts. No, we are not. We are clear-cutting the extremely diverse ecosystems we have to grow palm oil, to raise cows, etc.

    We must stop the devastation we are wreaking first-off. If we can resurrect eco-systems and species that is great, but let us not be side-tracked or lulled into a false sense of comfort that we can resurrect what we destroy. On this the author is right. Successful resurrection is by no means certain; it is more of a pipe-dream. We must immediately protect what is rapidly disappearing completely.

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  7. 7. curiouswavefunction 9:48 pm 03/15/2013

    I agree that we ought to do it and start thinking about the right guidelines and regulations from right now. This is the same kind of argument they were making about recombinant DNA in the 70s. I do agree with the argument about a “natural balance” being misguided, and of course I agree that we should do what we can to prevent extinction in the first place. But I do think the technology itself should be explored to prevent someone like Dr. Moreau from doing it surreptitiously, and also to find out potential benefits. De-extinction if it succeeds will be a double-edged sword like other scientific inventions and we must do what we can to maximize its benefits and minimize harm from it.

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  8. 8. RSchmidt 12:23 am 03/16/2013

    “But to say that our extinctions are worse than any other extinctions is a display of narcissism. Extinction is part of life.” isn’t that like saying when a person kills another person it is no different than when they die of natural causes. Death is a part of life. I agree that there is no point in de-extincting an organism if we can’t restore it to its natural habitat. Also, when you clone an animal you clone its genes, not its memes. Who is going to teach it how to be what it is meant to be? If we were to clone a mammoth who would teach it how to be a mammoth? Certainly elephants couldn’t. I would certainly prefer to see the money spent on saving habitat but that is a false dichotomy. It is possible to do both and more likely that we will do neither.

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  9. 9. PatriciaJH 12:15 pm 03/16/2013

    Some, or many, of these creatures will certainly never have a natural ecosystem to support them; I don’t see us ever restoring the vast forests that the passenger pigeons depended on to support the huge flocks which were their evolved strategy against predation — or tolerating their depradations on grain fields.

    But, as others have said, the de-extinct feline is already out of the bag. IMO, this is going to happen, whether it is done badly or well; the task is to see how to do it well, or at the very least to avoid doing it really badly.

    De-extinct creatures could be ambassadors for conservation: Here is this unique, beautiful, fascinating creature; here is why it went extinct; here is (or was) the ecosystem that supported it and all the other creatures that are part of it, and why they’re important and interesting too; here are other creatures that are currently at risk, and what can be done to protect them.

    Yes, in many ways this is narcisistic; marketing for good causes — such as conservation and species protection — harnesses narcisssim to a good cause.

    Standard of de-extinction ethics, anyone?

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  10. 10. doug_pdq 1:29 pm 03/16/2013

    It would be nice to see some efforts going toward developing this into a technology we might need in the future. If we ever try to colonize another star system we probably won’t be as lucky as Noah and have an enormous ark to carry all our desirable species along in. :>) This has been a staple of Sci-Fi stretching back some years now. There could be other reasons we would want to de-extinct a species, including ourselves. Plagues or natural disasters (or us) could create conditions where most of us die and few enough can be supported to have a diverse gene pool. Having a few million extra diverse DNA copies to resurrect the species might be valuable. Like any technology this could be either good or bad, more likely would be both.

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  11. 11. outsidethebox 3:32 pm 03/17/2013

    I certainly believe in this article but even more so in the natural extension of it. If it doesn’t matter if the woolly mammoth is gone does it matter in some cosmic sense if the elephant follows? Not so much. Do I feel poorer somehow for there not being dire wolves or saber tooth tigers or giant sloths around? Not a bit of it.

    [This is the reason, I think, why the "restoring nature" version of conservation is an easier sell to drum up public support. If you start talking about how common extinction is, the natural conclusion is that we shouldn't care about it now. But that isn't the case--it's just the easy-out argument. Just because evolution/nature cares little for the loss of species doesn't mean that people should act the same way. Thanks for reading. -HW]

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  12. 12. edwardr 1:23 pm 03/18/2013

    Everything flows, nothing stands still.

    [Are you also a fan of Ovid? Omnia mutantur, nihil interit. -HW]

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  13. 13. marclevesque 4:29 pm 03/18/2013

    “If people had the ability to resurrect extinct species (dubbed “de-extinction”) and reintroduce them to the wild, should we direct our energy and resources towards it?”

    I enjoyed reading, and, your views on the issue.

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  14. 14. Steven 10:40 pm 03/18/2013

    Dozens, hundreds, perhaps thousands of species are on the brink of extinction and we are attempting to keep them from totally disappearing. Animals such as whooping cranes, California condors, even things such as chinchillas in their natural habitat in the Andes. Blue Whales, possibly making a comeback although they have a long ways to go.
    Species which can be exploited economically, whales, elephants, rhinos, need protection, and that means enforcement. Lowland and mountain gorillas are on the brink of extinction. I am all for trying to save them as much as we can.
    Probably nothing can be saved in a commercialized, highly industrialized world with industrialized farming and extensive exploitation of resources.
    If the mammoth could be brought back, it would dramatize the plight of extinct animals. It is just one of the many mega-fauna which went extinct a the end of the last ice age. It seems there was a cometary impact which probably caused extinction of many animals, at least in North America, from Firestone’s original research and I think confirming studies last year which had found nanodiamonds which made the cometary impact theory more likely. Other extinctions, Neanderthals and the Hobbits. So perhaps it’s not so much what the next extinction is but who it will be.
    Be that as it may, I think the passenger pigeons could likely make a comeback and thrive, since wholesale market hunting would no longer be permitted. [Habitat destruction played a major role in passenger pigeon extinction along with hunting. More on pigeon de-extinction at Wired. -HW]
    Millions and millions of passenger pigeons were shot for the market.
    The buffalo or bison were down to 500 animals in North America about 1900, but made a great comeback and now are a commodity on the grocery shelf.
    Other extinct candidates for cloning, the hairy rhino, since well preserved frozen specimens have been recovered from permafrost. The marsupial tiger, or Tasmanian tiger. It would be terrific, and certainly could survive if wholesale hunting was restricted.
    Many of the contemporary extinctions were due to fanatical killing, in an age of ignorance.
    We have learned something since then, even about the necessity for predators in an ecosystem, so the grey wolf has been reintroduced into some habitats.
    There is a place for these animals to have a second chance.

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