13 Jan 2014: Point/Counterpoint
The Case Against De-Extinction:
It’s a Fascinating but Dumb Idea
Wouldn’t it be great to have vast herds of mammoths roaming the Canadian tundra, or a thrill to see flocks of hundreds of millions of passenger pigeons settling in Michigan forests once again to gobble down vast amounts of beech mast and supply succulent squabs to Chicago restaurants? Or maybe enjoy watching flights of Carolina parakeets over southern farms, or at least observe a living pair of saber-toothed cats in a cage in a zoo. Of course, being able to rent a pair of velociraptors to add spice to the “reality” TV show you’re directing would be nice too.
An appealing picture to say the least: Jurassic Park in reality, bringing vanished animals back to life, made possible by spectacular progress in molecular biology.
After all, isn’t Homo sapiens destined to use its fine brains to engineer the entire planet (or universe)? But let’s restrict our dreaming to recreating organisms that Homo sapiens has itself exterminated. Surely, if that’s an achievable goal, and we want to do it, humanity should go full speed ahead and resurrect the creatures we have wiped from the earth.
Or should we? I’ll answer this question, but not before I briefly address another: Could we? Would it be possible? It seems likely that in some cases a simulacrum — perhaps a quite reasonable simulacrum — of an extinct organism can be produced. And one would be foolish to predict that even making a fully successful reconstruction of an extinct species is impossible. Science has come a long way in genetics, genomics, and development in a very short time; much that can be done today seemed impossible when my wife, Anne, and I came to Stanford in 1959.
Spending millions trying to de-extinct a few species will not compensate for the thousands of species lost to human activity.
So, even though I suspect the resurrectionists generally underrate the genetic, epigenetic, and environmental dimensions of the problem they recommend tackling, for the purposes of this discussion let’s assume that reconstructing extinct species eventually will be practical at some level, behavioral traits and all. Yet I believe that the resurrectionists have been fooled by a cultural misrepresentation of nature and science — as in Jurassic Park, Avatar, X-men — traceable perhaps to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. As my colleague Chase Mendenhall put it, “We need more representations of the future, but we must live and act in the present, and there are far more urgent and tractable ways for creating imagined futures that don’t include bringing back a “pet” for humanity before you’ve had time to prepare its terrarium.”
So what are the objections to an effort to start making amends for anthropogenic extinctions by trying to restore the victims to life? The soundest scientific reason, in my view, is misallocation of effort. It is much more sensible to put all the limited resources for science and conservation into preventing extinctions, by tackling the causes of demise: habitat destruction, climate disruption, pollution, overharvesting, and so on. Spending millions of dollars trying to de-extinct a few species will not compensate for the thousands of populations and species that have been lost due to human activities, to say nothing of restoring the natural functions of their former habitats.
Sadly, most non-scientists, and too many conservation biologists, who really care about the decay of biodiversity, are concerned about preventing the extinction of species, and the de-extinctionists thus naturally focus on resurrecting species. In part, this traces to a mistake my hero Charles Darwin made by mistitling what I consider the most important book ever written “On the Origin of Species” instead of “On the Differentiation of Populations.” Among other things, this has led to a century of pointless argument about how to define “species.” It’s as if geologists wasted their time in interminable ranting over how to define “mountain.” How high does it have to be? How isolated from other high points on a ridge? How steep the slopes? More important, this species-centric view also has led to the conservation focus being on species, even though right now the critical problem humanity faces is not species extinction but one of the extinction of populations. Populations are the entities that deliver crucial ecosystem services to society and the ecological engines that sustain and create species. Of course, when all populations of a species are gone, that species will be extinct, but there are orders of magnitude more populations than species disappearing today. And in most cases, as populations disappear and species extinction becomes more likely, the value of the organism as a service-provider approaches zero, including the aesthetic service of giving us the joy of watching or interacting with it.
Resurrecting a population and then re-inserting it into habitats where it could supply the ecosystem services of its predecessor is a monumentally bigger project than recreating a couple of pseudomammoths to wander around in a zoo. The passenger pigeon is often mentioned as a target for de-extinction. Passenger pigeons once supplied people with abundant meat and likely helped to suppress Lyme disease. To create even a single viable population might well require fabricating a million birds or so, since the species apparently survived by a strategy of predator saturation.
If we do not very quickly curb greenhouse gas releases, the passenger pigeon’s old homeland will be unrecognizable.
And if the swarm were synthesized, where could it be introduced? The vast forests the pigeons required are partly gone and badly fragmented at best, and one of the birds’ food sources, the American chestnut, is functionally extinct. The passenger pigeon’s previous habitat is utterly transformed, and if humanity does not very quickly and substantially curb greenhouse gas releases, the pigeon’s old homeland will likely be completely unrecognizable in less than a century. In practical terms, in the near future in which action is required, extinction is certainly “forever.”
Reintroductions of surviving endangered species (which are vastly more important than attempted de-extinctions) illustrate the complexity and scale of the task. Culturing and reinserting animals into nature is already known often to require intense and expensive effort (consider the California condor), and even invasions of “natural” species (such as the first two introductions of starlings to North America) often fail to “take.” And as National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore has emphasized to me, zoos are already overwhelmed trying to breed endangered species for reintroduction and thus facing triage conundrums about which species to save and which to let go. Allocating more effort there is far more essential than research into restoring a few prominent elements of earth’s biodiversity with laboratory-created resurrections.
De-extinction thus seems far-fetched, financially problematic, and extremely unlikely to succeed on a planet continually being vastly transformed by human action. There are also risks beyond failure. Resurrected, previously benign organisms could become pests in new environments, might prove ideal reservoirs or vectors of nasty plagues, or might even harbor dangerous retroviruses in their genomes. But frankly, I think such problems will probably prove minor compared to the main problem, which is “moral hazard.”
De-extinction seems far-fetched, financially problematic, and extremely unlikely to succeed.
Moral hazard is a term invented by economists for a situation where one becomes more willing to take a risk when the potential costs will be partly borne by others. For example, if a person can get government flood insurance, she is more likely to build a beachfront home, worrying less about the risks of sea level rise. The problem is that if people begin to take a “Jurassic Park” future seriously, they will do even less to stem the building sixth great mass extinction event. We are already seeing species extinctions occurring at a rate at least an order of magnitude above prehistoric “background” rates (those outside of the past five mass extinction events), and that gives weight to the extreme seriousness of the current population extinction crisis. And while the critical problem of climate disruption tends to engross the attention of environmentally concerned people, the erosion of biodiversity is potentially equally crucial. The disasters to be caused by climate disruption could be resolved in a few hundred thousand years; recovery from a sixth mass extinction could easily take five or ten million years.
Right now the biggest moral hazard on the environmental front is created by the folly of “geoengineering” — the idea that, if humanity fails to limit the flux of greenhouse gases dramatically in the near future, overheating of the earth could be prevented by any one of a series of crackpot schemes. Biodiversity loss has not achieved the prominence of climate disruption, and it may not do so. But I’ve already had questions in classes and after speeches about the prospect of engineering biodiversity back into existence — always implying that “biodiversity” is giant ground sloths, ivory-billed woodpeckers, and the like. Moral hazard is already there, and if people ever wake up to their connections to the rest of the living world, it is sure to grow.
If people take a ‘Jurassic Park’ future seriously, they will do even less to stem the building sixth great mass extinction.
Scientists interested in trying to resurrect extinct species should surely be free to pursue their interests if they can get the needed support. Perhaps there will be some significant scientific positive fallout, and maybe, as my friend Stewart Brand suggests, we’ll be pleased to have some interesting results in a century (if civilization persists). But if de-extinction advocates are really concerned about the state of biodiversity, they should not be holding meetings or debates about de-extinction, or publicly dreaming about turning wood pigeons into replacement passenger pigeons in the foreseeable future. They should be putting much of their time into such efforts as keeping plastics and persistent organic pollutants out of the environment and reducing or eliminating the production of both, stopping mineral exploration in places like Yasuni National Park in Ecuador and Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda, trying to suppress the ivory trade, pushing reduction of meat eating, and educating decision-makers about the roles biodiversity plays in human lives. Above all, de-extinction scientists should be struggling to get a rapid transition to renewable energy, promote a stop-at-two goal for family planning, and generally seeking ways to reduce the scale of the human enterprise.
Failing in those areas will make all discussions of de-extinction moot, even in the long term. People crusading for women’s rights (which when achieved bring down birthrates) are doing a hell of a lot more for biodiversity than are biologists doing research on de-extinction.
By Stewart Brand
With advances in genetic technology, we may someday be able to restore long-gone species like the woolly mammoth and the passenger pigeon. It’s a goal worth pursuing, with real benefits for conservation and our sense of the natural world.