Are You Ready For De-Extinction?

Humans have been fundamentally reshaping ecosystems and causing massive megafaunal extinction events since we emerged from East Africa ~75,000 years ago.  Over this time period iconic animals like the wooly mammoth, wooly rhinoceros, giant wombats, American horses, western camels, giant beavers, saber-toothed cats, and many other species suffered extinction.  It is estimated that the world lost at least 178 large mammals during our migratory emergence.  Ecosystems continued to collapse as we established ourselves globally and continued to extend our use (and misuse) of resources throughout the Holocene.  Today many of the animals that suffered extinction during this period (e.g, Tasmanian tiger, dodo, passenger pigeon) have become permanently associated with our species capacity to destroy ecosystems.

But what if we could undo this damage?  What if we could bring all of these species back and revive the healthy megafaunal ecosystems that existed throughout the world before our emergence?

Remarkable advances in synthetic and molecular biology within the past decade will allow us to bring back Paleolithic ecosystems.  Researchers can now take ancient DNA fragments (e.g., like preserved wooly mammoth DNA) and compare them with DNA from the extinct animals closest living relative (e.g., for the mammoth that would be the Asian elephant).  After the genetic comparisons have been made, McMaster University geneticist and biological anthropologist Hendrik Poinar claims the possibility of de-extinction is theoretically plausible:

“We can in theory use that information to modify existing chromosomes with what we imagine to be mammoth substitutions, the result would be an elephant-mammoth hybrid, and such a creature could theoretically be implanted into the womb of a mother elephant. Get the formula right, and the offspring might be a mammoth in the eye of the beholder.”

— Hendrik Poinar

As a result of these scientific possibilities, The Long Now Foundation’s Revive and Restore program held a de-extinction conference on March 15th 2013 supported by TED and the National Geographic Society to begin discussing these scientific and ethical issues.  The fact that science has progressed so far as to enable the possibility of de-extinction may at first seem like a compelling enough reason to do it.  After all, who wouldn’t want to see iconic ice age mammals like the saber-toothed cat and wooly mammoth?  However, we immediately run into ethical questions that prove challenging to answer.

Biologist and de-extinction enthusiast Stewart Brand stated that Revive and Restore held this recent TED conference in order to “open the discussion to the public.”  So in this article I want to list the pros and cons of de-extinction so that everyone can make an informed decision for themselves.  Whether you are scientifically literate or not, whether you have a love of science and nature or not, de-extinction would effect everyone.

Let the De-Extinction Revolution Begin!

1. We have a responsibility to the biosphere

As I stated at the start of this article, our species is largely responsible for the high extinction rates of the Middle Paleolithic, Upper Paleolithic, and Holocene.  Of course, extinction is a natural process and it is a driver of biological evolution.  However, in contemporary times the extinction rate is more than 1,000 times above the “normal” estimated background extinction rate before our emergence.  This means that there is overall declining biodiversity and ecosystems are suffering as a result.  Therefore, we have a responsibility to not only reverse these trends, but also to “re-wild” what we have destroyed.

2. Increase ecological and biological diversity

Many ecosystems today are unstable. Some rainforests suffer from “empty-forest syndrome” and food chains in the oceans, seas, prairies, and mountains are collapsing as a result of extinction and climate change.  We could potentially revive and re-create vibrant ecosystems by bringing back species that used to play pivotal roles within various niches.

3.Iconic, Beloved, Missed

On the Revive and Restore home page they claim that key revival criteria is how “iconic,” “beloved,” and “missed” currently extinct species are.  This may seem like a trivial reason, but many humans love and care for nature, and would love to see Paleolithic biosphere revived and restored.  Certain animals hold cultural capital and unique places within the population imagination.  For this reason many people would argue de-extinction is intrinsically good and morally justified.

4.Science!

Understanding nature and the biological world is important for our own understanding of the universe and our planet.  If we started to recreate ecosystems specifically designed for currently extinct flora and fauna we would learn a great deal about how ecosystems function.  We would also learn about currently extinct animal behaviour that we cannot learn from fossils.  Selfishly, I think the evolutionary anthropologist in me would be interested in studying Paleolithic fauna because it would potentially help us better understand our own evolution.

Keep The Past In The Past

1.Many Paleolithic biospheres no longer exist

There is a massive ecological problem with bringing back species from the Paleolithic: many of these species habitats no longer exist.  The last Ice Age ended 10,000 years ago.  This means that most of the species that suffered extinction as a result of our emergence lived in habitats and ecosystems that cannot be redesigned today.  This problem would be most pressing for Eurasian megamammals like the wooly rhinoceros and the wooly mammoth.  These species would be revived into a quickly warming world that may not be able to support them.  The consequences would likely be a quick “re-extinction.”

2.No country for wild carnivores

A second equally important question is whether there would be a country that would want to protect and maintain populations of vicious Ice Age carnivores like the saber-toothed cat.  Stanford University ethicist Hank Greely and de-extinction enthusiast claimed that it would be “neat to see [a saber-toothed cat].”  However, would they be destined to live their lives in zoos and labs?  Would we ever be able to establish a population in the wild? As paleontologist Brian Switek pointed out:

“Wildlife experts in and around Yellowstone National Park have enough trouble trying to get the public to accept the presence of wolves – carnivores that were extirpated from the area within recent history before being reintroduced two decades ago – and conservationists continue to struggle with the persistent conflict between jaguars and ranchers in South America. Can you imagine the uproar over sabertoothed cats being returned to the western United States or South American grasslands?”

— Brian Switek

3.Lack of conservation funding

Conservationists struggle to make progress with limited funding.  Although many international organizations have managed to stabilize many animal populations that would otherwise be de-extinction candidates today, they still have not managed to significantly reduce the background extinction rate.  If we bring back currently extinct animals that may put even more stress on underfunded conservation organizations and prevent them from allocating resources effectively.  The result could be increased extinction of currently endangered species.

4.Genomic engineering can serve more practical purposes

There are several population of megafauna today (e.g., cross-river gorilla, white rhinoceros) that are on the edge of extinction.  With genetic engineering we could help these populations stay afloat by adding genetic variation to populations in risk of a genetic bottleneck.  This would give conservationists a useful tool to help these populations rebound in the wild, as opposed to suffering from genetic inbreeding and eventually collapse.

Let The Debate Begin

We are currently on a revolutionary scientific frontier.  De-extinction is a real possibility right now.  What will we do?  Will we bring the Paleolithic into the Anthropocene?  As I have tried to illustrate, de-extinction raises very complex questions.  Undoubtedly there will be very passionate de-extinction enthusiasts and equally passionate de-extinction opposition.  I hope that this article helped inform you about some of the important questions that we will all be encountering this decade.  The fate of the biosphere is now in our hands.

Have an opinion on De-Extinction?  Let Cadell know on Twitter!

Also posted via Svbtle:

Related Advanced Apes content:

The Sixth Mass Extinction

21st Century Neanderthals

The State of Things

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About Cadell Last
I am a science educator, freelance science writer, and founder of The Advanced Apes based in Toronto, Ontario. In the past my academic research focused on the evolution, ecology, and behaviour of non-human primates (i.e., chimpanzees, gorillas, ring-tailed lemurs). Currently, my official blog, The Ratchet, can be found via The Advanced Apes and Svbtle. I enjoy exploring recent research in human evolutionary sciences, as well as biology, ecology, astronomy, physics, and computer science. My work has been featured in Scientific American, American Humanist, Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, and Jane Goodall Institute of Canada. I am also exploring science popularization in new mediums in collaboration with PBS Digital Studios with an animated YouTube channel. You can contact me on Twitter (@cadelllast) or via email: cadell.last@gmail.com

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