There has been a lot of talk in the scientific community and the media recently about the idea of "de-extinction;" that is bringing extinct animals back to life through the use of preserved DNA of the species. Some scientists are exploring the idea of bringing back the woolly mammoth, the passenger pigeon and the gastric brooding frog among others.
It's amazing to think of the advances in genetic science and technology made during our lifetime. But when it comes to the idea of resurrecting a woolly mammoth via genetic wizardry in a laboratory, just because we can, does that mean that we should? More importantly, do we agree on why?
I was privileged to join a conference of lawyers, philosophers, ethicists and conservation biologists at Stanford University Law School recently to explore this idea further and share thoughts and the latest science on this issue.
At first glance, the idea seems pretty enticing -- having the power to bring back animals that we have lost to extinction, giving them and us a second chance. What's to be against? Is this the life line we have been looking for or is it Pandora's box? As we consider the real life implications of de-extinction, scientists are already moving forward trying to bring back the passenger pigeon and the woolly mammoth. So we are wrestling with these issues in real time.
The reality is that these species went extinct for a reason: The woolly mammoth died out, ironically due to climate change, but it is also thought that hunting pressures and loss of habitat contributed to its demise; the gastric brooding frog died out due to the deadly chytrid fungus and loss of habitat and the passenger pigeon was lost to deforestation and over-hunting. Sound familiar?
These species, even as far back as the woolly mammoth, died for the same reasons species are dying off today. Polar bears and sea turtles are losing habitat, overfishing has caused sturgeon and blue fin tuna to dramatically decline, and many animals around the world including elephants, rhinoceros and tigers are in a free fall due to unrelenting pressure from hunting and poaching.
Would we do things differently if we brought back the woolly mammoth, the passenger pigeon or the gastric-brooding frog? Would we protect and restore the habitat needed for these species or make them safe from disease? Would we address and resolve the causes of climate change? Would we prevent over-hunting and poaching so these species could be restored? Would we be resurrecting these species in order to reestablish them in the wild or to generate valuable patents and ticket sales to amusement parks and zoos?
Those are some of the key policy and ethical questions we should be wrestling with as we explore this field further. In order to bring any extinct species back and truly advance its biological recovery, we would need to reestablish it back in the wild. Otherwise, this is just an economically driven experiment that does nothing ecologically for the species. And even if our goal was be to reestablish the species in the wild, would the small number of released specimens be like lonely Rip Van Winkles, struggling without the benefit of learned behavior from being part of larger flocks or herds? In addition, would a modern-day woolly mammoth truly behave like a woolly mammoth without its ancient-day predators like saber-toothed tigers or dire wolves? These are essential questions that society needs to answer before it recklessly embraces de-extinction.
For me, this brings me to what I consider an even greater moral question. If we are willing to go to such lengths for species that have already ceased to exist on this planet, shouldn't we put an even greater effort into conserving imperiled species in trouble today? In fact, acquiring and distributing DNA from animals that are in decline now could help diversify the gene pool so that we can better recover populations of wildlife that are struggling to survive today.
Take for example, the Florida panther. When I was in charge of the endangered species program for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Florida panther was in grave danger. The population became so small that inbreeding was causing severe deformities and reproductive issues in the remaining animals. Without a more diverse gene pool, the panther was going to disappear. We decided to make a last ditch effort to recover the species and brought in related Texas cougars to mate with the remaining Florida panthers. Our hope was that if we brought in some new blood, we would be able to diversify the gene pool enough to obtain a healthier population of panthers in the wild. It worked, but it was a tough decision both politically and biologically. A genetically diverse bank of panther DNA from carefully selected animals could continue to help this populations survive and thrive in its remaining habitat.
The real fear that I have with de-extinction is that politicians and policymakers will give up on the challenging but doable task of preserving imperiled species today, kicking the can down the road thanks to the allure and intriguing promise of a subsequent resurrection. It provides a release valve that tips the scales towards allowing habitat destruction and denial of the increasing impacts of climate change, in favor of restoring it someday later, when conditions are "better." There is a real threat that the excitement of de-extinction could unintentionally undermine current species conservation. I can hear them now: "Let's go ahead with development now, eradicate the species but store its DNA until the economy gets better." But will that day ever come, when we have fixed all of our other problems and decide we can get back to being good stewards of our planet?
We need to focus on being effective conservationists in the here and now. I have no doubt that we will see some of these extinct species being brought back to life in our lifetime. But we need to look at genetic advances through a different lens, refocusing the debate and energy to what such advances can do to save species in trouble now. That's biologically way more important than creating ticket-selling carnival shows of resurrected species from the past. And we need to recommit to a stewardship ethic that promises to advance the conservation efforts that are possible now, for the species that we have today.
Protecting the wildlife and the diverse habitat that make up our planet might seem altruistic but actually it is the most important and selfish thing we can do. We are all linked in this world, we need the clean streams as much as the fish, we need the clean air as much as the birds and we need a balanced ecosystem that continues to support life on this planet as much as any other species.
As a biologist and a mother, I would much rather leave my son a healthy planet with clean air and water, healthy soil for crops and an abundance of wildlife for him to enjoy and cherish than a couple of sad woolly mammoths on display, prompting him to wonder, "Why did they bring these ancient animals back but let so many others disappear?"