Last week, Australian scientists announced they had successfully brought an extinct species of frog back to life—temporarily.
Rheobatrachus silus, the gastric brooding frog. was lost to the world in 1983. It was a marvel of nature that incubated its young in its stomach and gave birth through its mouth. Humans were ostensibly to blame through erosion of the amphibian’s habitat.
Scientists were able to clone the frog by implanting a cell nucleus from a lab specimen into the egg of another frog species. The individuals created only lived a few days, but it is a proof-of-concept that has de-extinction proponents excited that it is only a matter of time before the technology is sufficiently advanced to bring all kinds of species back to life.
I have to admit to a certain amount of bias. I think this is exceptionally cool. How fascinating would it be to bring back woolly mammoths, saber-toothed cats, Tasmanian tigers or dodo birds?
Unfortunately, I have yet to think of or even hear a good argument for why we would want to that doesn’t come off sounding narcissistic or penitential.
“Because it would be cool,” just isn’t good enough.
On Friday, the Revive & Restore (a project of the Long Now Foundation) in conjunction with the National Geographic Society and supported by TED (Techology, Entertainment, Design), held a symposium in Washington DC to grapple with the desirability, practicality and ethics of de-extinction.
In the morning, speaker Mike Archer, a professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, outlined a common rationale for de-extinction saying it is worthwhile “to restore the balance of nature that we have upset.”
Bad argument number two.
I agree that because we are aware of the harm we cause to ecosystems and ultimately our descendants, we have a moral obligation to do our best to stop doing harm, but to resurrect extinct species as a form of penance for the sins of our ancestors is just not sound reasoning.
It is predicated on the notion that at some point in time there was some kind of ideal balance to nature. We know that is not true. Nature is constantly in a state of flux. Extinction is to a species as death is to an individual—inevitable.
We have no way of knowing for certain what the consequences of reintroducing a species might be. It may well be more disruptive to the balance of nature than beneficial.
Assuaging our collective conscience may also be disingenuous. The candidate species list does include some animals that humans have had a hand in destroying, but some of the most popular, such as the woolly mammoth and smilodon (saber-toothed cat) went extinct naturally.
About as close as I’ve seen to a good argument is that it may advance the science of preventing future extinctions. This rationale is on the right track, but doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny, either. If what we are actually trying to do is protect endangered species, shouldn’t we be concentrating our efforts on that?
It’s really tough for me to let go of the “because it would be so cool” argument. I am a huge advocate of science for the sake of science. We don’t always know what the benefits of basic research are going to be. There may be some really good reasons for doing this that we won’t know until we do it.
Nevertheless, I’m simply not convinced it is a good idea or ethical. If we care about animals that currently exist, it is imperative that we show the same respect for a potentially resurrected species.
Where would they live? Can they be reintroduced into the wild or would they simply wind up being prisoners of laboratories or zoos? Can they adapt to current habitats or are they simply back on the road to extinction 2.0? Is de-extinction even possible or would we be introducing an entirely new species?
These are all questions that are being asked and fortunately the technology of de-extinction is still a long way from realization. In the interim, the focus of the discussion should be on ethics.