Scientific efforts are under way to revive a few extinct animals: the passenger pigeon, the woolly mammoth, and the dodo. Advances in biotechnology and cloning have brought the prospect of “de-extinction” closer to reality. But if we can reconstruct lost species in some form, should we? What ethical guidelines should scientists follow?
These are among the questions explored in a series of online commentaries organized by the Center for Humans and Nature in partnership with The Hastings Center. The commentaries represent a range of views. With 150 to 200 species going extinct each day, some experts embrace the prospect of countering this unprecedented loss of biodiversity. Others call for setting limits on human interference with nature.
“Perhaps the biggest challenge in talking about something like de-extinction is simply being clear on what it is you’re really talking about,” writes Gregory Kaebnick, a research scholar at The Hastings Center, in one of the commentaries. De-extinction would not actually “bring back” lost animals as they were, he says, but would instead construct “a hybrid of an existing animal and the lost one” using fragments of genetic material recovered from the latter.
He also sketches out the plausible promise of de-extinction. In addition to creating some new animals that look and behave like the lost species and can survive on their own, de-extinction technologies might prove useful to more conventional species conservation: “perhaps the genetic diversity of the Black-footed Ferret population could be enriched somewhat by producing new animals with the genomes of dead specimens, making the Black-footed Ferret likelier to survive in the long run.”
Kaebnick concludes by saying that now is the time to examine the ethical and societal implications of de-extinction -- “before the ‘thing’ has fully taken shape, while remaining clear about the uncertainties surrounding its development.”