Why "De-Extinction" is a stupid idea

You had your chance. You had your chance.

A while back I chanced across a post by Carla Sinclair at BoingBoing, recounting a recent TED talk that proposed reviving extinct species:

Stewart Brand began his TED talk today with the statement, “Biotechnology is about to liberate conservation.” Before I had a chance to process what that meant, he went on to list a number of birds and mammals that have become extinct in the last few centuries, including the passenger pigeon, which was killed off by hunters in the 1930s. For a moment my mood plunged, as it always does with conversations of human-caused animal extinction. And then he asked the question, “What if DNA could be used to bring a species back?” I felt a tsunami of awe and excitement barrel through the audience. This was as exciting as his declaration about the digital world in 1984 when he said, “Information wants to be free.”

So far, the usual dewy-eyed gravitas we've come to expect from TED talks. But my reaction was quite different from Carla's. "That is, without doubt," I muttered to myself, "the stupidest thing I've heard this year."

Stewart Brand is President of the Long Now Foundation, a charity dedicated to taking a 10,000 year view of humanity and one that's produced some neat ideas in the past, such as the 'clock of the long now', designed to keep time for 10,000 years. Brand is also the organiser of DeExtinction, a TEDx event held on Friday which seems to be a showcase for Revive & Restore, another Long Now project. In case it wasn't obvious, the project plans to revive extinct species such as the auroch, the Tasmanian tiger, the woolly mammoth and... well, that's where things get a little vague. The splash page announces:

"Genomic technology and techniques are advancing rapidly.It is becoming feasible to reconstitute the genomes of vanished species in living form, using genetic material from preserved specimens and archaeological artifacts. Some extinct species may be revivable. Ecological enrichment through species revival..."

So why do I feel this idea is a damp squib instead of the tsunami of awe Sinclair experienced? Let's take a look at the first of the proposed candidates for resurrection: the Passenger pigeon. It's an obvious species for the Revive and Restore project to showcase, given that it is an American bird, instantly familiar, and its reduction from unimaginably large flocks (a single nesting site could comprise over 100 million birds) to complete  extinction in the space of a century is a powerful motif for man's environmental destruction. However, the restitution of the Passenger pigeon demands many more questions than cloning alone can answer.

To start with, remember those hundred-million-strong flocks of pigeons? That wasn't just abundance. That was their survival strategy. Passenger pigeons were probably the most socially-gregarious bird in known history. They overwhelmed their predators with sheer numbers. Nothing could kill all of them - well, except humans, who put a big dent in their numbers. Big enough that the system became unstable, and the birds began to die out. Long before the last one was killed, the passenger pigeon was already in terminal decline.  To pull a handy quote from Wikipedia:

Naturalist Paul R. Ehrlich wrote that its extinction "illustrates a very important principle of conservation biology: it is not always necessary to kill the last pair of a species to force it to extinction".

Turn that phrase around and you'll see that the ability to clone two birds in a lab does not make a species un-extinct. And to matters worse, even breeding passenger pigeons in captivity is not a new idea. Attempts during the 20th century failed because - surprise - the birds will only reproduce in large flocks where they feel safe. So you better be prepared to clone a few thousand. Did I mention that Dolly the sheep took several hundred attempts and we've not improved or cloning success rate much since?

In fairness, the Revive and Restore page asks these questions. The problem is, it doesn't answer them. They just sit on the page, as if doffing a cap to the fundamental flaws in their plan is the same as addressing them.

But why let technical barriers stop us? If we threw up our hands at every technical challenge we'd never have got out of the caves. Instead let's think about what we could do with a De-Extinction box: key in a piece of DNA, and out pops an animal. Auroch, Tasmanian tiger, tarpan, mammoth. Now what? Where are you going to put these animals? The forests that once nested billions of  passenger pigeon are now shopping malls and cornfields.  The grassland plains that the auroch called home, that once stretched from Portugal to the Pacific ocean, are nothing but tiny parcels of farmland marked out in fence and wire.

And therein lies the rub. The environment wasn't damaged by the loss of the auroch. The auroch was lost by damage to the environment. The overwhelming driving force for extinction events is habitat loss.  Extinction  is a symptom of wider environment degradation, and the ability to resurrect species does nothing to counter that.

“Conservation” is an awkward term, because it evokes two daft ideas.  One, that natural environments have some kind of pre-human Eden state, which ought to be maintained (and even preserved in the face of non-human impacts).The obsession with restoring lost species is a hallmark of this conservation attitude. But animals aren’t puzzle pieces you can slot back into the environment – the world has changed, and there’s often no room left for that animal.

Secondly, this form of conservation fantasizes that human impacts on environments move them away from a "natural" state. There is no human versus natural environment, there is only the environment. When human activity impacts on an environment, it's rare that the humans living there are willing to pack up and leave in order to let it return to its previous state. We are the dominant species on the planet. We are going to exploit every bit of it we can. Nothing will ever change that, but we can choose what kind of world we want to live in. This means that conservation will have to be about balancing competing demands on an environment - both human and non-human. One of the criteria for the Revive and Restore selection process is that species "should be able to take up their old ecological role in their old habitat". It may well be true that some animals and humans simply cannot live side by side, and we need to accept that.

Finally, if we can revive species, might that undermine efforts to preserving existing ones? Grab some DNA, let the animal die out, and bring it back when you have 100,000 acres of farm or a small Caribbean island to play with. In fact, if we are reducing biodiversity to the existence genetic material for big glossy animals, why keep them alive at all? If the genes are their essence, aren't they equally de-extinct, so long as an intact DNA sample exists?  The zoo that fits in a freezer. Why not render them in biomolecular binary? The tiger on a microchip. Ultimately, if we can raise the environment from the dead, where is the impetus to keep it healthy?




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Finally, if we can revive species, might that undermine efforts to preserving existing ones?

No. Maybe it will be different if or when we have artificial wombs to raise animals in, but right now, preserving the DNA is proposed as a last ditch effort to save animals that are already seriously threatened with extinction - or extinct. And there are other reasons to preserve the environment aside from saving charismatic megafauna.

More valuable would be saving sperm and eggs from a wide range of individuals in critically endangered species. If you can at least keep a small population alive in zoos, then you could use that to keep the survivors from suffering severe in-breeding depression.

Yes, conservation is about humans as much as it's about everything else. Humans, as you said, are part of the environment and to fantasise that we can separate the two is naive and can lead to grave practices.

For instance, the recent erection of a marine park around the islands of the Chagos in the Indian Ocean has scientists divided over whether humans can actually live on the islands, given that they will fish (even though the practice will only be for individual and not commercial purposes). This debate is basically now one of the reasons used to prevent Chagosians from going back to their island (they were unlawfully deported 50 years ago). So basically, some conservationists are now brandishing conservation to justify displacement of a human population. It's incredible. I've written about this situation in more details here.

By Khalil A. (@no… (not verified) on 14 Mar 2013 #permalink

So pessimistic, and leaning toward a view that whatever humans do is natural, therefor OK, which is bullshit.

We need to do better about the ecosystem, sure. Without that bringing back pigeons will be hard. Maybe someone is saying it'll be easy, and they may be dead wrong about that, but that doesn't make them wrong about doing research to try to see what can be done.

" It may well be true that some animals and humans simply cannot live side by side, and we need to accept that."
But I don't take that to mean we must exclude the animals. Excluding the humans or their impacts (some places) sounds fine to me. I conclude we need to reduce our footprint, not celebrate it.

"The world has changed", and intelligent apes might reconsider some of that change.

"it’s rare that the humans living there are willing to pack up and leave" so let's just give up? Not worth trying?

I'm not saying I think every one of these species is worth trying do de-extinct, not nearly. Some sound very hard, or even dumb.

Of course all extant animals are also ecosystems in themselves, replete with highly adapted microflora and (in most cases) a suite of larger parasites to boot. These clones would be to their extinct forms what de-ionised water is to stream water.

Even if we knew more about how these affect the long term health, education of immune system and processing of potentially niche diets, I'd still think reviving extinct animals is a poor use of resources. As has already been said, look after those that we still have and the ecosystems that support them.

Maybe wolves is a good example where I live (Michigan). They were extirpated by humans. Luckily, they weren't extinct entirely so they've been repopulating. Very few people knowledgeable about land or wildlife management think that was bad. If they would have been entirely extinct it would have been technically more difficult, true. They do pass the test of doing the same thing as they did before.

Another example near me is Grayling. We have a town of that name, but the fish are gone. The environment was severely degraded by forest removal and repeated fire, but just maybe we've gotten better about taking care of the land, and will have it restored enough to permit re-introduction.

I agree there's lots less need to de-extinct something if there's no place for it to live. If the environment is too damaged, work on that.

Finally, if we can revive species, might that undermine efforts to preserving existing ones? Grab some DNA, let the animal die out, and bring it back when you have 100,000 acres of farm or a small Caribbean island to play with.

I really doubt that will happen. A lot of the support for "de-extinction" is coming from people upset that these animals went extinct in the first place - they tend to also support environmental protections.

While I agree that questions about consequences of conservation arise from cloning extinct species, I think you could split this problem into 2 questions.

1. Should we clone an extinct species?
2. Should we reintroduce said species into a working ecosystem?

In my opinion, the second question is speculating that this is the only reason for this line of research. If we were solely looking at the first question I would find it hard argue against it what with the discoveries that we could make into cloning techniques. With further research we could, for example, discover that it’s more viable to clone something rather than to grow it naturally. If this is the case we could then potentially clone species that are still around today for agricultural uses which could resolve global issues like world hunger.

That might sound a little far fetched but it is one possibility out of an infinite number of outcomes to this research.

I think we should be trying to STOP animals from going extinct before we do any of this!