The problem with de-extinction

"This photo is of a pair of Thylacines, a male and female, received from Dr. Goding in 1902." By Baker; E.J. Keller. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“This photo is of a pair of Thylacines, a male and female, received from Dr. Goding in 1902.” By Baker; E.J. Keller. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In my “Introduction to International Studies” course my students this spring watched a TED talk by Stewart Brand that discussed the idea of bringing back extinct species. This idea has attracted a great deal of media attention, but major challenges remain As my students pointed out, there is distinction between bringing back an individual and bringing back a population. Population geneticists typically say that the minimum size for a viable population is fifty genetically distinct individuals. Even if one thylacine or passenger pigeon could be brought back, how could a population with sufficient genetic diversity be recreated? What would the experience of an individual animal that was brought back be like, if it was the sole member of its species in existence?

My students also asked the question: “Where do we draw the line in terms of time?” Do we bring back passenger pigeons? What about mammoths? Other ancient species?

Still, work in this area is moving forward quickly. Scientists are working to insert the DNA of mammoths into elephants, which might succeed in creating a viable population, although they note that much work remains. Would such an animal, however, truly be a mammoth? Efforts that do not depend on cloning –such as the TaurOs project, to restore the auroch- seem much more likely to achieve success. Despite the accelerating rate of technology, I believe that deextinction is more distant than most media coverage might suggest. Of course, I would love to be wrong, and to be able to travel to Tasmania to view thylacines in the wild.

My students, however, often suggested that more effort should be put into preserving existing species, such as the California condor, before investing in reclaiming lost animals. One of my students said that this technology should be used to help save the northern white rhino, for which there are no breeding pairs in existence. While students loved the idea of seeing extinct animals brought back, they felt that the environments in which they lived had to first be preserved for this effort to be meaningful.

That said, a few students felt very strongly that all of humanity had a strong moral responsibility to bring these species back. Some students also argued that bringing back extinct animals will also benefit entire ecosytems, so that the impact on the species alone wasn’t the major issue. One point that all students seemed to agree upon was that there is a difference between a species that has recently gone extinct due to humanity’s influence, and ancient species. Nobody wanted to see dinosaurs brought back.

Shawn Smallman, 2016

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