13 Jan 2014: Point/Counterpoint: Reviving Extinct Species

De-Extinction Debate: Should We
Bring Back the Woolly Mammoth?

A group led by futurist Stewart Brand is spearheading a movement to try to use genetic technology to revive extinct species, such as the woolly mammoth and the passenger pigeon. In a Yale Environment 360 debate, Brand makes the case for trying to bring back long-gone species, while biologist Paul R. Ehrlich argues that the idea is ill conceived and morally wrong.

Back to the article >>



To examine this idea, let's look at one of the species Brand is working to bring back. Consider the passenger pigeon. This year is, after all, the centennial of its extinction. At some point it would be great fun to have it back, or a close simulacrum.

Anyone who has flown over eastern North America has seen the expanding fragmentation of the eastern forest in recent decades. Suburban sprawl, roads, pipelines, extensive clear-cutting of timber, strip mines and mountain top removal, fragmentation from gas fracking development, "harvesting" of hardwoods for biofuels, proliferation of thousands of wind mill "bird blenders" ...all are obvious from the air. And all are growing threats, from Gaspe to Georgia, from Minnesota to Mississippi.

Then there is the problem of lack of nut trees. Most Eastern forests are changing from oak and hickory to maple and cherry. As Brand points out, chestnut is functionally gone, and current efforts at revival will take decades, if they succeed at all.

If the dream of passenger pigeons helps us undo all of this harm, why not? Brand is correct when he implies we do not have to fight over a fixed size protection pie, the pie can get bigger if people have the will. But the actual reintroduction will not be possible until all the habitat problems have been fixed. Mr. Brand, keep the dream alive and let's do this once you have convinced people to abandon suburbia. I am happy to wait. And help.
Posted by David Burg on 13 Jan 2014

Just as GMOs present a risk enhanced move into an unknown future, re-inventing extinct species poses a near exact risk enhanced move from the past.

External conditions from the past cannot be duplicated, as external conditions from the future cannot be fully anticipated.

The precautionary principle, anyone? Or perhaps, the extinction principle taken into a future context?
Posted by Kathryn Papp on 14 Jan 2014

Why not start small? Try to insert genes from museum specimens into already extant but critically endangered species that are suffering from low genetic diversity like the red wolf. There are plenty in captive breeding facilities to work with. Same with the whooping crane or Mexican wolf.
Posted by Andy on 16 Jan 2014

Mankind has a long history of eliminating species that are inconvenient and dangerous and of converting ever-increasing portions of the planet to our own needs. Our success at this undertaking has transformed us from a species focused on survival in a hostile world into the next extinction event.

Ideally we would be willing and able to learn from our history and experience and fashion a new way to relate to the world around us that takes into account this new reality, but all signs to date do not portend well.

The ultimate irony of all this is that we really do not have to worry about "Saving the Planet" or "Nature" or even "Humankind," as all are amazingly resilient and adaptable. What is not is civilization as we know it.
Posted by Adam Albright on 17 Jan 2014

Did some kid take a random photo of a Carolina Parakeet in 2010?

I have a soft spot for this extinct bird and, though Occam’s Razor admonishes that there are more likely alternative theories to this bird being a member of a Lazarus species, I’d love to find out otherwise. S. Georgia isn’t too far from the Okefenokee.
Posted by MaryJane Sofft on 28 Jan 2014

Why bring it back? So, some un-evovled, testosterone-poisoned Neanderthal can shoot it?
Posted by Jennifer on 19 Feb 2014

Might I suggest to Mr. Brand and all who think as they do that our first responsibility, or rather, obligation, is to assertively steward those biomes and their native flora and fauna currently under pressure. After this, our collective task seems to me to be the restoration and preservation of countless other inventoried species of all fragmented phyla making up the bulk of those biological kingdoms devastated by the past 500 years' human industrial production and consumption patterns. It's searingly frustrating to read about yet another thought leader/organization focusing away from the pressing problems of today and toward some alternative neo-utopian creation-mimicking fantasy. To access your castle in the sky, Mr. Brand, wouldn't you think a secure foundation on the planet would be a wise preliminary investment?
Posted by Andrew on 03 Mar 2014

Sounds like Jurassic Park. Michael Crichton, for all his commercialism, did come out with some valid analysis. I'm referring to the book, included on teen book lists in the 90's, and I always, at least, glanced through the recommended texts before giving my endorsement. Instead of the reckless theme park entrepreneur in the novel, we have here mad scientists types, wanting to bring back long extinct species for the "thrill" of seeing them roam the earth once more and contributing to the revival of hypothetical ecospheres. (Actually, they never saw these extinct animals and birds roaming or flying in the first place.) A destructive "humanity" is blamed for the disappearance of these animals and birds.

In fact, "humanity" is not to blame, only the tiny segment of "humanity" that is represented by, and employs, those that want to de-extinct. Today we see greedy energy companies fracking, causing centuries of damage to the earth, doing this over the objections of millions of "humanity." For most of human history, especially Western history, the bulk of "humanity was too poor and totally under the control of those at the top, to directly drive most extinctions. Small farmers, craftsmen were driven off the land to work in factories and in industries that in a few short centuries destroyed the natural earth. Slaves and conscripted laborers were forced to grow cotton, rice, tobacco, sugar, pineapples, tea -cash crops - for which the land was cleared and habitats destroyed. But it isn't big agra, the industrialists or the mine owners or the big game hunters or the state sanctioned destruction of millions of buffalo in the U. S. West after the Civil War in order to starve out the Plains Indians that's blamed for extinctions. It's "humanity," most of whom died young and poor, giving the essences of their short lives to the build the fortunes of the mega rich rulers at the top of the "natural order" who reigned, and, still do, by "divine right". Divine right is obtained by accumulating billions of dollars, ill gotten gains being most expected and completely acceptable.

Wasteful suburban sprawl? Highways. At the turn of the 20th century there was a system of railways and trolley lines that was under construction that would have connected the entire U.S., but multi millionaires (billionaires in today's money) in the automobile industry lobbied the government, which then passed legislation crippling public transportation and promoting suburbanism and highway building in order to establish the ascendancy of the auto industry and enrich real estate investors, land speculators, and construction companies.

From the 15th century on, there was the invasion and genocide of aboriginal peoples around the world who had lived with nature for thousands of years. When colonialists went into Africa there were tens of millions of migrating animals, all sorts of birds. The colonists cleared land for cash crops, conscripted inhabitants as low wage workers, brought in European domestic animals and took away the people's traditional means of livelihood.

It wasn't "humanity" that brought about the extinction of so many animals, particularly, in the last 200-years. It was the rampant and wanton destruction of the natural world, plant and animal, by corporate industrialists, big land owners, mine owners, conquistadors, fortune hunters. Just think, as late as 200 years ago, in 1814, most of the U.S. continent was still pristine!

Who had the cathedral forests of the Northwest cut down? The lumber companies made millions. The lumber jacks risked their lives and made pocket change by comparison, and hundreds of thousands of trees, centuries old, are gone forever.

How about putting some of this de-extinction energy, attention, and money into stopping corporate oil spills from tankers and drilling in the oceans and from corporate chemical and ash spills into our rivers and lakes that have taken place not just in the past few years, but in the past few weeks.

Lastly, what about the die off and extinction of fish in the ocean caused by mercury, oil spills, industrial and hospital waste, agricultural chemical fertilizer and pesticide run off and government policies that allow mega trolling of the oceans, with resultant over fishing and collateral damage to non-commercial marine life and that now allow for filthy fish farms, whose escaping bacteria and lice and escaping antibiotics and pesticides used in the containment cesspools that kill real swimming, migrating wild fish. My generation Y children speak nostalgically of the 90's when we could still buy real fresh wild fish without paying a king's ransom. They now joke, speaking in mock octogenarian tones, that they'll tell their grandchildren "I remember when there used to be all kinds of fish swimming all over the ocean." They fully expect that in their lifetimes there will be no more wild fish.

Posted by possett on 14 Mar 2014

I like what "possett" has had to say on this matter, but unfortunately, there appears to be no way to put all these things right. A global consensus to save our world, is just never going to happen. Therefore, it seems that in the not-too-distant future, our current "civilization" will collapse in it's own filth and destruction and cause a great many more extinctions in the process. Either that, or more likely perhaps, pockets of "civilization" will persevere, where people with wealth and access to resources, will congregate at the exclusion of others. Devaluation of indigenous cultures has definitely added to the problems of this planet, as people have lost respect for the sustainable teachings and lifestyle of their elders and joined in the greed of the "modern" world. Restoration of extinct species, whilst an interesting prospect, seems to be just a distraction from an unavoidably horrible future.
Posted by Steve Matthews on 19 Apr 2014

It seems a bit absurd to me that at a time when we are heating up the planet, and are well on the way to causing a massive loss of biodiversity — even endangering the survival of our own civilization, if not, our own species — we would waste resources to bring back long extinct species.
Posted by Barbara Bengtsson on 20 Apr 2014

I doubt it could even sufficiently breathe in today's low oxygen environment.
Posted by Arthur D. Hall on 10 Jun 2014


Comments are moderated and will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive. They may be edited for length and clarity. By filling out this form, you give Yale Environment 360 permission to publish this comment.

Email address 
Please type the text shown in the graphic.

Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies


Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter



About e360
Submission Guidelines

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


e360 Digest
Video Reports


Business & Innovation
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology


Antarctica and the Arctic
Central & South America
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

A look at how acidifying oceans could threaten the Dungeness crab, one of the most valuable fisheries on the U.S. West Coast.
Watch the video.


The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.


An aerial view of why Europe’s per capita carbon emissions are less than 50 percent of those in the U.S.
View the photos.

e360 VIDEO

An indigenous tribe’s deadly fight to save its ancestral land in the Amazon rainforest from logging.
Learn more.

e360 VIDEO

Food waste
An e360 video series looks at the staggering amount of food wasted in the U.S. – a problem with major human and environmental costs.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Choco rainforest Cacao
Residents of the Chocó Rainforest in Ecuador are choosing to plant cacao over logging in an effort to slow deforestation.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Tribal people and ranchers join together to stop a project that would haul coal across their Montana land.
Watch the video.