Last month, National Geographic sponsored a TEDx conference in Washington DC centered on the possibility and implications of reviving extinct species. The platform transcended principle and theory, submerging its panel into the murky waters of morality. Capable of resurrecting something that no longer exists back into existence seems like a charlatan parlor trick, and yet it is far from quackery. Plucked straight from realm of the incredible, new age technologies now make it possible to pursue ideas of “de-extinction.” In light of this recent development in genetic science, appositions and contradictions emerge. Rethinking the covenants between God and man, the relevance of nature and evolution, and the rights, responsibilities and considerations of humanity, a worthy idiom comes to mind – if you play with fire, you get burned.
Of course, human hubris has been the principle cause for many species extinctions since the Neolithic conception of civilization. Some such species include the Carolina parakeet, the moa, the quagga, the dodo, the thylacine, the passenger pigeon, the Pyrenean ibex, the baiji river dolphin and the huia. Annihilated by over hunting and disruption of natural habitats, with the latest extinction on the list, (the baiji river dolphin) having occurred as recently as 2006. However, some of the other species on the hot seat, up for de-extinction consideration are the wooly mammoth, the wooly rhinoceros, the saber-toothed cat, the ground sloth and the Irish elk. Unlike their short-term extinct counterparts, these prehistoric animals vanished 4 -11,000 years ago during the Quaternary extinction event of the Mesolithic epoch. It was at this time, that the eradication of many ice age megafauna across Eurasia and North America took place.
Naturally, the practical criteria for “de-extinction” directly depends on access to tissue with good quality DNA samples and/or germ cells in order to reproduce the species. However, other deliberations over species reintegration focus on speculation over successful therapy and rehabilitation programs, as well as considerations over ecological function. From this, certain fundamental questions arise. What are the ramifications of reviving an extinct species? Are we testing fate by playing God’s hand with the state of nature? Is it our responsibility to revive and restore a certain species regardless if we had a hand in their demise? Proponents argue that while extinct species and those endangered are both a part of the same continuum, studying them will therefore help preservation efforts in biodiversity, restoring diminished ecosystems and advancing the science of preventing further extinctions. Moreover, by reintroducing the wooly mammoth and rhinoceros, the European auroch, and the passenger pigeon for example, carbon-fixing grass, as well as reducing greenhouse-gas-releasing tundra and bio-diverse meadows may be reintroduced. Others argue that reviving extinct species has the potential to create a less complacent and more compassionate outlook on the global ecosystem, inspiring the protection of whole regions.
However, as noble as these intentions may appear, intuitively something just doesn’t feel right. Maybe it’s the uncanny images conjured by Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, or the provocative Jurassic Park franchise, or the metaphorical understandings of Mary Shelly’s, Frankenstein that evoke a visceral apprehension. After all, they connote a common principal: actions have consequences. Firstly, one must consider the long list of endangered species that are currently occupying our rapidly disappearing natural habitats – habitats that are in desperate need of vast monetary contribution and support for conservation and sustainability. Why bring back the wooly mammoth when we can’t even support the dwindling demographic of our African elephants? Furthermore, it may very well be that de-extinction serves to create more complacency rather compassion for the critical state of our global ecosystem by trivializing the impact of extinction. Why should we care if the polar bear goes extinct when we can simply revive the species in the future? While resurrecting those species that have only recently become extinct may, in some ways, prove to be beneficial to our current global ecosystem, bringing back prehistoric extinctions however would not be so practical or advantageous. The cyclic nature of our planet has bore whiteness to the rise and fall of millions of species throughout the ages as the world has shifted, shuddered and shed its skin again and again and again. Reviving a species that no longer has a place or meaning in the world today would only create confusion, distortion and misplacement, disrupting that natural cycle upon which all things depend.
Apart from the fact that reviving extinct species will be a costly, difficult enterprise that will take decades to complete, questions of ethics and morality dominate the think tank. An extension of our expedient culture, de-extinction should, in all realness, be perceived as a manifestation of our social conscience. As we play the Modern Prometheus, de-extinction sees humankind flexing the muscles of our relentless curiosity in an audacious display of, look-what-I-can-do-simply-because-I-can. In this sense, we, the human, assume autocracy and god-like superiority over all things, living and dead, without a care for the inevitable consequences. Considering humankind’s nature, it seems likely some of these extinct species might soon be seeing the glowing effervescence of a stark, impassive 21st century medical laboratory. However there is some sense to be found amidst all this senselessness. At the end of the day, human beings are simply animals ourselves – the homo sapien sapien, struggling within our own orbit of existence that is apart of a greater whole. Regardless of how disruptive and albeit, unnatural our thoughts and actions may appear at times, the truth holds: collectively, everything that defines us is an expression of naturalism itself. Paper or plastic. Buildings or mountains. Mammoth or elephant. So we ask ourselves, why? And the answer may very well be, why the heck not? Does it really truly matter, when in the course of time, we all end up in the same place anyway.