Extinct Needs to Remain Forever

There seems to be one thing that fascinates and terrifies the scientists of the natural world more than almost anything else: extinction. Extinction can be looked at as the pinnacle of evolution. When a species has failed—when there is absolutely nothing left for it to contribute—a slow and steady decline begins. Evolution removes species naturally through extinction, and in doing so, maintains a healthy and viable ecosystem. However, extinction is also a terrible side-effect of the actions of humans. When extinction is caused while a species is still contributing to the health of an ecosystem, it has dire repercussions. This is the tragedy of human-caused extinction. It isn’t just the loss of a species before its time; it is the corruption of a natural process. In either case, extinction has a definite finality. Extinct means forever—or it did until very recently. Now, in today’s world of rapidly evolving technologies for genetic manipulation, we are faced with a full set of new questions that would have seemed outlandish just a few decades ago.

De-extinction is probably the flashiest (and most controversial) development in conservation and wildlife management in history. In an article that ran in the New York Times in February of this year—which has been widely credited with introducing the concept of de-extinction to the general public—Nathaniel Rich characterized de-extinction as an “ambitious, interdisciplinary and slightly loopy project”, which seems something of an understatement when you pause to think about it. De-extinction is exactly what it sounds like—bringing a living creature that has disappeared from our world back into it. For anyone familiar with Jurassic Park, it is a concept straight out of science fiction. It isn’t just ambitious, its borderline audacious.

De-extinction can be “achieved” through a variety of processes. The more traditional method, are somatic cell nuclear transfer, is also the primary method of cloning. In this process, a non-reproductive cell (somatic cell) from the mother has its nucleus replaced with the nucleus of a reproductive cell from the animal to be cloned. The cell is then given an electric shock to promote division and inserted into the mother animal. This technique can only be used, however, on species for which reproductive cells exist—species which have only recently gone extinct, in other words. For species for which that kind of genetic material is not existent, another, more complicated method is used. First the extant species most closely related to the extinct one must be identified. After this, the genomes of the two species must be examined, and the differences between the two inactivated by replacing the segments of code in the extant species with analogous segments from the extinct species. Afterwards, somatic cell nuclear transfer is used, with the main difference being that instead of a reproductive cell from the clone individual being used, the fabricated genetic code is inserted into the somatic cell.

All that scientific jargon aside, the appeal is obvious and deeply tempting. For a real conservationist, there are few things more troubling than seeing a stuffed specimen of a passenger pigeon or sea cow, and the desire to see one of them alive is overwhelming. Furthermore, unlike so many conservation management schemes, de-extinction is actually monetarily possible. Because de-extinction is so ostentatious and futuristic, it attracts donors that would otherwise ignore wildlife issues and conservation concerns for instance, silicon valley types who are heavily invested in the technology being used, and pharmaceutical companies interested in the implications the genetic manipulations might have on future drug-development.

There are also more esoteric—or at least more difficult to prove—arguments in favor of de-extinction. Many of de-extinction’s supporters argue that we have a moral responsibility to bring back species that we condemned to extinction. We had the power to drive them to extinction, and now that we have the power to undo it, we should use it. Rich describes it as “grasping for a silver lining” in a history dotted by conservation failures and relates how a leading conservation ecologist, Stewart Brand, likens de-extinction, and its effect on people, to the re-introduction of some of America’s formerly lost megafauna “it gives people hope when rewilding occurs — when the wolves come back, when the buffalo come back”. When discussing de-extinction with the general public, it is not surprising that this idea of giving people hope and a sense of morality is one of the most commonly heard discussion-points. There is also a very commonly-heard argument about biodiversity. It has long been understood that the more species there are in existence the stronger biodiversity is, and the healthier the planet is. These arguments aren’t really possible to prove—the first is a moral statement, and the second isn’t so much a law of nature as it is a widely accepted theory or hypothesis on the way the world works. But they sound appealing and comforting, and get passed around extensively.

All of this being said, the arguments against de-extinction are many. In April, 2013 National Geographic’s Carl Zimmer wrote a cover story about de-extinction. It was ahead-of-its time, preceding Rich’s article by nearly a year, and so did not gain nearly the press that it probably deserved. In the article, Zimmer begins by describing the first successful attempt to revive an extinct species. A species of mountain goat from Spain was revived when a clone of the endling—the last existing member of a species—was delivered by a closely-related species. The goat returned from the dead, but only for ten minutes. A severe birth defect caused the young goat to suffocate within minutes, and the species was once again lost. This story set the tone for most of Zimmer’s article. He discusses in detail the methods for bringing back species. He is careful to emphasize both their difficulty and their plausibility—something which is common among the opponents of de-extinction. The party-line for Zimmer and like-minded individuals is that while the science is there, it’s not as easy as proponents make it out to be.

This assertion has its values. When you are dealing with controversy with such wide-ranging implications as de-extinction, perspective needs to exist, and the difficulties that would be faced are massive. However, this is not the most convincing argument against de-extinction, and it is at this point that I will turn to an article from May 2012, not about de-extinction, in order to prove a point. Leslie Kaufman ran an article in the New York Times about zoos and the way they manage their collections. She opens her piece by relaying the stories of two attractive and critically endangered primates. One of which is being saved and one which is not. She follows this up by remarking how zookeepers, vets, and collection managers “are increasingly being pressed into making cold calculations about which animals are the most crucial to save”. Zoos, which had, in the past, been imagined as places of entertainment and education, are now adding “modern Noah’s Ark” to their job descriptions. And deciding which animals to let onto this ark is a painful and desperately difficult decision. One of the problems zoos face is balancing this new responsibility as an ark with their more traditional roles.

In doing this, zoos have always faced criticism from factions that think they should be more devoted to conservation and not as interested in providing entertainment. The problem with this is that zoos did not develop to be arks. They developed as entertainment facilities reliant on public donations, admissions sales, and state grants. They certainly cannot gather the first two sources of income without spending a large amount of their time and resources on keeping zoo visitors happy.

Let us, for a moment, investigate the case of the St. Louis Zoo—one of America’s largest and more successful zoological parks. Despite being so large and well respected, this zoo faces the same struggle as any others. These include coming up with new ways of attracting visitors to the facility to meet the bottom lines. At present, the St. Louis Zoo is known in the zoo business for ostentatious and modern exhibits, displaying high-attraction species of conservation concern, including severely endangered black-and-white ruffed lemurs. The investment of money into breeding and maintaining appropriate exhibits for these species is huge, but having these species displayed brings in large numbers of guests. It has the added bonus of contributing to the conservation of these animals. Generally speaking, however, if zoos must choose between conservation and monetary success, they will choose the latter. An example of this comes straight from Kaufman’s article. She notes that while the St. Louis Zoo is highly committed to conservation, they are currently in the process of building $20 million dollar (around 40% of its total operating budget) polar bear exhibit despite the facts that “its last polar bear died in 2009 and the Marine Mammal Protection Act makes it illegal to remove or rescue the bears from the wild”. Additionally, polar bears are known to be quite difficult to breed in captivity, and individuals whose genes are not already overrepresented in the captive population are rare, so acquiring captive bears from other facilities is quite difficult.

Given this, if the St. Louis Zoo were to gain able to create a clone of a mammoth or genetically engineer one using recovered DNA, it is not entirely unreasonable that they might funnel some funds away from the ruffed lemur projects—a, presumably, less monetarily productive program. And if, after this is done, it is proven the mammoths brings in more money than the lemurs, which is all but guaranteed, it is not unreasonable to imagine the lemur breeding program being significantly scaled back, if not entirely phased out. For a population which is not abundantly common in captivity and which is facing near certain extinction in the wild, such a blow could prove fatal for the survival of the entire species.

The scenario outlined above has not happened anywhere yet, thankfully. But it is not hard to imagine how it might. The individuals who run the de-extinction programs are generally not conservation biologists or wildlife vets. They are computer scientists and geneticists who happen to like animals, or some facet of the natural world. As such, their primary interests are bringing extinct animals back and not the consequences these acts may have. No one seems to have thought about, for example, the space that would be needed to exhibit a mammoth in captivity, nor what its specific dietary or medical requirements would be. This, when combined with the issue of the disruption to the current conservation system, becomes, perhaps, the most convincing argument against de-extinction and which jumps to the forefront of my mind when I think of why it makes me uncomfortable.

Yet, this is also the greatest challenge facing the opponents of de-extinction. They are attempting to be accurate and precise and, thus, un-emotional. This is the sciences’ greatest flaw and strength. It is truthful to a fault. Scientists opposed to de-extinction continue to argue against it by saying that it is possible but difficult and flawed. This is perfectly true and relatively unbiased. But the less-constrained and arguably less professional and scientific proponents of de-extinction continue to appeal to the guilt of the public with moral arguments. As long as emotional cries for action are met with quiet and measured responses, the opponents are fighting a losing battle. The opponents need to embrace the more emotional argument I have outlined above—namely the devastating effects de-extinction’s widespread implementation could have on current conservation practices.

De-extinction is a scientific wonder. The very fact that we can bring back entire species from the grave is mind-boggling. And I must admit that it would be both morally gratifying and very reassuring to see a flock of passenger pigeons blotting out the sun again after one hundred years of absence from this world. However, I also recognize that the sentiment expressed by William Beebe, one of the most prominent naturalists of the twentieth century, when he espoused that “when the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again” is what has saved countless species from extinction. Threatening to change that now could unbalance the management of endangered species in a spectacular way. If we know that extinction is reversible, there is no moral imperative for us to act to keep species from disappearing. Extinction will become a catalogue of things that the human race has “put on the shelf”; a list of footnotes to be saved for future examination. Ironically, the prevention of future extinctions is reliant on the infallibility of a sober and chilling fact: extinct has always meant forever.