Maybe Extinction Isn't Forever. Is That a Good Thing?

Have you heard about the big event National Geographic is hosting with TEDx this week, the one about restoring species? No, not endangered species–but ones that are already extinct, like the woolly mammoth.

I have mixed feelings about the idea. In the abstract, I think it’s pretty cool. The prospect of regaining lost pieces of our evolutionary heritage is exciting, as I wrote in a 2006 Audubon magazine review of a book that argued for “reversing prehistoric extinctions when we have the chance.”

Ecologists and conservationists seem divided, though. A group of them expressed their enthusiasm in a 2005 commentary in Nature; others, such as the prominent conservation biologist Stuart Pimm, argue forcefully against the “de-extinction” proposal. In a piece this week at the National Geographic site, he discusses a host of  likely problems that cannot be ignored.

In a world of finite resources and attention, I’m inclined to side with Pimm, who writes:

Fantasies of reclaiming extinct species are always seductive. It is a fantasy that real scientists—those wearing white lab coats—are using fancy machines with knobs and digital readouts to save the planet from humanity’s excesses. In this fantasy, there is none of the messy interaction with people, politics, and economics that characterizes my world. There is nothing involving the real-world realities of habitat destruction, of the inherent conflict between growing human populations and wildlife survival. Why worry about endangered species? We can simply keep their DNA and put them back in the wild later.

The thorny issues raised by Pimm are similar to those that have been debated in controversial endangered species reintroduction programs, involving wolves, black-footed ferrets, panthers, and lynx. (A while back, I wrote about one such effort involving the latter.) Some of these species reintroductions have been successful, others not as much. But they have all been fraught with challenges that are sure to be magnified 1000 percent by the potential return of formerly extinct species proposed by the Revive & Restore initiative.

Writing over at ScienceBlogs, Frank Swain offers a larger perspective (which I share) on the subjective motives perhaps underlying the “de-extinction” idea:

“Conservation” is an awkward term, because it evokes two daft ideas.  One, that natural environments have some kind of pre-human Eden state, which ought to be maintained (and even preserved in the face of non-human impacts).The obsession with restoring lost species is a hallmark of this conservation attitude. But animals aren’t puzzle pieces you can slot back into the environment – the world has changed, and there’s often no room left for that animal.

Secondly, this form of conservation fantasizes that human impacts on environments move them away from a “natural” state. There is no human versus natural environment, there is only the environment. When human activity impacts on an environment, it’s rare that the humans living there are willing to pack up and leave in order to let it return to its previous state. We are the dominant species on the planet. We are going to exploit every bit of it we can. Nothing will ever change that, but we can choose what kind of world we want to live in. This means that conservation will have to be about balancing competing demands on an environment – both human and non-human. One of the criteria for the Revive and Restore selection process is that species ”should be able to take up their old ecological role in their old habitat”. It may well be true that some animals and humans simply cannot live side by side, and we need to accept that.

He also echoes the concerns expressed by Pimm:

Finally, if we can revive species, might that undermine efforts to preserving existing ones? Grab some DNA, let the animal die out, and bring it back when you have 100,000 acres of farm or a small Caribbean island to play with. In fact, if we are reducing biodiversity to the existence genetic material for big glossy animals, why keep them alive at all? If the genes are their essence, aren’t they equally de-extinct, so long as an intact DNA sample exists?  The zoo that fits in a freezer. Why not render them in biomolecular binary? The tiger on a microchip. Ultimately, if we can raise the environment from the dead, where is the impetus to keep it healthy?

These are questions that are sure to be vigorously debated at tomorrow’s day-long conference on “de-extinction,” which has been organized by Stewart Brand’s Long Now foundation. Another one might also be worth discussing, and that is the philosophical question of who we are (potentially) doing this for? Is it for the species we killed off, like the Tasmanian tiger and passenger pigeon, or is it for ourselves? For our own redemption, as Cynthia Mills pondered in a mid-2000s article in Conservation magazine. Regardless, the cloning of extinct species, as she put it, “could be the Holy Grail of conservation or it could be the ultimate folly.”

I’m guessing that we’ll find out.


Additional pieces worth checking out: “The promise and pitfalls of resurrection ecology,” by Brian Switek and “Resurrecting a forest, by Carl Zimmer (both at the the Phenomena blog). See also, “Will cloning ever save endangered animals?” by Ferris Jabr at Scientific American.


[Photo of Tasmanian tiger in Washington National Zoo (1904), via Wikimedia Commons.]

24 Responses to “Maybe Extinction Isn't Forever. Is That a Good Thing?”

  1. Pimm’s case against de-extinction rests on two perhaps plausible, but certainly not proven assumptions about its political risks. The first is a sort of moral hazard issue whereby Pimm speculates that we would do less real-world conservation if we believed that extinct species could be brought back. What’s the evidence for this claim? I mean, it’s not like we’re saving a whole lot of species even now. And protecting areas or species will always depend on a lot of different factors: political, economic, technological. I see the moral hazard Pimm postulates as a pretty small risk in this context. The second political risk is that conservation biology would receive less funding as a result of de-extinction efforts. Again, what’s the evidence for this? Is there a fixed pot, to be split up between all conservation-related activities? Or might, conversely, de-extinction get entirely new funding, thus only adding to the larger pot? I don’t know – but neither does Pimm.

  2. kkloor says:


    I think Pimm makes reasonable assumptions.

    One example of what I would consider a diversion of resources and funding is the Ivory bird case. The evidence for a sighting was pretty circumstantial and highly disputed by notable bird experts. But it tug at our heartstrings, and so years of $$expense were devoted to finding the bird. It’s been futile.

    It’s not directly applicable but I think it’s a good analog for what might happen with de-extinction.

  3. I wasn’t saying that Pimm’s assumptions weren’t reasonable. But a reasonable assumption is not the same as evidence, and if we are serious about policy, we need the latter. Indeed, reversing Pimm’s assumptions would also be reasonable. Thought experiment: Let’s assume for a moment that the de-extinction debate reaches a whole new crowd not previously too concerned about conservation — perhaps younger people who are attracted to the mix of high tech, animals, and history. I, for one, find the whole idea pretty mindboggling, in a cool way. Let’s then assume that these people would like to see it happen, but as they read up, realize that we need habitats and a whole bunch of other things to turn it into reality. So they get involved, donate, whatever. I don’t think this is exactly an “unreasonable” scenario. So then we have two conflicting reasonable scenarios supported by anecdotal evidence, at best. Whichever way you slice it, my point remains: evidence can, and should, be applied to these sort of issues. Even something that seems intuitive might upon closer inspection turn out to be false. Pimm’s assumptions might be true, might be false, or there might be some whole other dynamic that is more important. It’s disturbing how conservation can spend decades trying to figure out whether protected areas should be circular or rectangular to maximize species protection, using all the best theory and empirics, and then resort to virtually unfounded assumptions the moment it comes to politics or any sort of social science. My two cents: pay more attention to evidence on the “social” side of the equation, and conservation might actually have a better chance to succeed.

  4. kkloor says:

    I’m not really getting your insistence on evidence for something that hasn’t happened yet. In the real world, there’s always gong to be a limited pot of money, not to mention socially-directed incentives.

    For example, the FWS has, in recent years, put out a plan that addresses conservation in the age of climate change and other land use changes. They have openly said that they are going to have make choices on which species to spend money and resources on. There are always winners and losers, and sometimes human predilections play a big role.

    Personally, I’m not looking at this in a binary way. I think you can do both–de-extinction and old fashioned conservation, but I think we should be honest about them being in competition with each other, which seems pretty likely to me.

  5. Thanks for your response – I think this is a vital debate. A couple of points.

    Evidence could take the form of a careful review of the history of conservation initiatives, and their effects on overall spending; perhaps surveys of people’s attitudes towards the issue; a better understanding of where the money comes from and how it is allotted, and so forth. Plenty of material there. What’s not honest about that? I’m *not* saying that they’re not in competition – I’m just saying that we shouldn’t just jump to conclusions based on very poor foundations.

    Saying that there can’t be evidence for any of this is just a conversation-stopper that happens to end with one’s own assumptions (and not those of others) – just like appeals to the precautionary principle always do.

    I also contest the idea that there’s always a limited pot of money. My previous thought experiment just showed that the opposite is quite plausible; if you reach new people you can bring in new money, growing the pie. It’s not necessarily a zero-sum game. Again, I don’t know the answer, but I’m not content to rest with the assumption of a fixed pot, which might in fact lead to lost opportunities.

    Lastly, Pimm’s first political risk is not strictly one of diverted money, it is a moral hazard argument that says that if people *believe* that species can be brought back from extinction, they will be psychologically less inclined to support ongoing conservation efforts. Translating that assumed sentiment into actual changes on the ground — while not unreasonable as such — seems quite far fetched, and this risk might pale in comparison to a whole bunch of other factors. Among these factors might be some that have positive consequences. Who knows. I’d say the jury is still out.

  6. Ena Valikov says:

    I am sorry, I don’t see the value of bringing these species back, while there are other species going extinct as we speak, we are incapable of protecting from the exotic animal trade (loss of habitat aside).

  7. I’ve been following the chestnut story for a few years. I think it should be attempted.

    But not only for the end game. There’s a lot of biology to learn from trying this. In the case of chestnuts they had to do work to learn how to get chestnut cells to grow in culture. That’s worthwhile knowledge that may be applicable to other trees even if we don’t ultimately get giant chestnut trees back again. And there are other aspects of the basic biology that are worth knowing about as well–what are the resistance genes in the Chinese ones?

    Other stuff we need to learn: has the soil changed, are the appropriate microbes still around to support these trees? What does happen if you re-introduce this food source? Can some species still utilize it?

    And it’s not like we can’t catch these if we release them into the wild again….

  8. I’m sure if someone brought back the woolly mammoth someone would kill it for the ivory in its tusks!

  9. jh says:

    Your argument overlooks the most obvious and strongest argument against resurrection: the natural world has moved on. The species composition of ecological networks has transformed or partially transformed to a system that lacks the missing species. Resurrecting an extinct species under these conditions is yet another human induced disturbance – hardly a benefit from an ecological point of view.

    Furthermore,the extinction of mammoth and other Quaternary megafauna was just as natural as any other extinction in the distant geological past. Humans,like hundreds or thousands of species before them, invaded a new territory and extinguished many species that had no natural defenses to human technology, as basic as it was at the time of invasion.

    Nor do I see any benefit from the scientific point of view. There are
    hundreds of cases of species invasion for scientists to study and even the best technology isn’t likely to recreate enough of any particular ecosystem – aside from the fact that no prehistoric ecosystems are known well enough to recreate them, even if it was possible to do so.

    Overall, I have no objection to allowing private donors to fritter away their money however they might like. However, no public money should be spent on such a foolish adventure, nor should any species so resurrected be given any legal protection.

  10. Ena Valikov says:

    It seems like there are many benefits to reviving these trees

    Yet, I see quite a distinction between figuring out how to control blight and prevent extinction of the chestnut, which while debilitated and vulnerable still exists; and bringing back a mammoth which hasn’t walked the earth in thousands of years. I think that the chestnut situation is analogous to protecting the vulnerable elephant populations, which I likewise believe is very important;
    and unlike de-extinction of the woolly mammoth.

  11. If we can bring back the woolly mammoths, maybe we already find ways to grow tusks in a lab…..

  12. Buddy199 says:

    Reviving extinct species and reintroducing them into their former habitats would make as much sense as bringing back Ben Franklin and dropping him off in modern Philadelphia. Let the dead stay buried, that’s Nature’s plan to make room for new life to have it’s turn.

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  14. Nullius in Verba says:

    Similar question:
    Would it increase “species diversity” to use genetic engineering to create thousands of new species?

    What if you engineered them to be able to survive with humans? Could you make an urban-living vegetarian tiger, and release them in the West so we could all enjoy them?

    What is it people want? More species? Fewer species? Particular species? Stasis? Improvement? Peaceful coexistence? Natural beauty? Ecological productivity? Knowledge?

    We will soon have the ability to shape nature even more than we do now. Extinct species are only the start – possibly selected on the basis that environmentalists can’t so easily argue when they’ve spent years fighting to bring these species back from the brink in just that way. But eventually it will go beyond that.

    The debate starting here is because technology is about to give the environmentalists what they have been asking for, and they are starting to realise that it isn’t what they actually want. What they want is a world without humans, without feeling guilt for the changes humans have made in it, without the burden of responsibility for the consequences. Reviving or creating species is just as reviled as destroying them – it’s artificial, unnatural interference. It’s not the species itself that they’re fighting about, it’s about the role of humans in the world.

  15. Humans act like the earth is theirs for the taking and destroy all in the process. If we could control our population and allow space for all the other species trying to survive here, there wouldn’t be so many extinctions. We owe it to the species we have already destroyed to try and revive them if possible. I would love to see huge flights of passenger pigeons as my ancestors did right before they killed them all. I’d like to see a dodo or an ivory billed woodpecker or a myriad other species we have wiped out. It is true that many extinct species went that way due to habitat loss and reintroduction is pointless if they can’t survive. Still, I’d love to go to a zoo to see revived species.

  16. So do you want to tell people they can’t have more than two kids like in china? Or perhaps you want the species that were dangerous to kill off some people after we bring them back. The reason these species went extinct was us killing them, many time for control the numbers. Because that’s is what really controls numbers. Deaths. So you tell the world you want some people dead so you can see you precious animals. I’m all for conservation, I think we HAVE and DO over step our boundaries. But to say we need to control our population is kind of dictator like.

  17. Peristroika says:

    Wow, now it’s”dictator-like”to realize that “be fruitful and multiply” has had its day?? Surprise, Mir, but a lot of people have figured it out already and there are less and less large families in the western world. Animals ARE precious if you were to understand anything beyond your nose. And your assertion that animals went extinct because we had to control their numbers is patently ridiculous as itis untrue and makes no sense at all. “keep shooting, there are still three auks!”

  18. Harold Ziel says:

    I would like to see the DoDo bird restored. It was turkey sized and an old book said it was very good eating. In my minds eye, I can see it on the Thanksgiving table (farm raised for meat and eggs).
    When I was stationed in Viet Nam, the striped dog was common. I recently saw a woman walking one past my home, I asked her what kind of dog is that? The lady said ‘I don’t know, I found him in a shelter’.

  19. Alan says:

    In theory,
    extinct species are to a certain point preserved in the DNA of closely related species. The potential for the related species to evolve back into the extinct species is there, given ecological demands/opportunities. On the other hand, their distinct and unique characteristics are gone forever. I believe genetic diversity should be as diverse as possible at all times. Diversity contains for life on this planet the greatest potential for survival. It is the genesis of new life after catastrophic ecological collapse. A few rats like critters managed to survive the great die off 65 million years ago and managed to repopulate the earth and all the formally filled niches with mammals, including us. This is the same strategy that HIV and other viruses use when they hide away in nerve cells to survive “treatments”. Just a few hundred of these guys, maybe even a couple is enough to save the species for later. Genetic studies show that at some point in our past, there were only 3 thousand or so humans on the planet, yet we recovered. So, I believe it is worthwhile to preserve just a few species in zoos or preserves or test tubes, much the same as we are doing with seed vaults. The arguments that say once we can do this, there is no reason to protect endangered species don’t hold water. That is like saying once the pill is invented, or a cure for AIDS, all women will become promiscuous and
    the fabric of our society will completely break down. Or saying if the bicycle
    is invented humans will lose the ability to walk. It is always up to us how we use technology and generally we use it for the better most of the time, at least just barely. That is the nature of humans. We destroy all around us, but only up to the point where it is almost too late, and then we rally around saving what is left at the last minute. Think Cuban missile crises. It is always better to save what is left before it is all completely lost.

  20. says:

    forget the sarcasm, if we put half the energy into protecting our world as we put in to arguing about what we should and shouldn’t do, then the next generations would have a lot less to worry about.

  21. Name says:

    Mammoths didn’t go extinct in the “distant geologic past” they went extinct less than 12,000 years ago with pockets of survivors living as recently as 3700 years ago. Thats an eyeblink. There is no reason to think that a Mammoth couldn’t still live quite comfortably in Siberia, Alaska, and Canada. Look at the Musk Ox that still live there. They have many of the same biological adaptations.

  22. tony says:

    I can not believe that the Tasmanian tiger are back and better than ever

  23. ICanThinkAndDoThink says:

    I read an article on raising meat in a Petri dish absent the animal. It was barely possible, expensive, tedious, costly in human time. So in the near future, slabs of meat or hamburger will not come from Petri dishes or the like because the money & human time costs are too great. Artificial wood is another more costly than the natural product. So artificial ivory is not very likely to happen.

    The talked about projects are important. Most of them will not happen but a few do. Geo synchronous satellites & medical scanners are two science fiction ideas that now live in the real world. Follks forget that if there is a profit possible, the long & tricky path will be taken over the shorter path. I tell folks when they figure out how to make money off of something on or in the moon or Mars or those asteroids, then bang suddenly very fast development will drive the scientific progress & folks will be living & working there. Don’t forget the economics of the equation.

    Conservation is an interesting field. As in other fields one scratches the surface, & finds that others are meaning something different when they say this word or phrase OR folks are saying similar things but expressing it with different phrasing. What should be done, how to do it, where to do it, who funds it, who manages it, what is really possible: these are all interrelated not separate questions.

  24. ICanThinkAndDoThink says:

    I understand your point, I think, that you are making at the bottom of your comment. Folks who look at truth, facts, reality, & if they collect evidence then what they say is possible & what they say should be done is raised above the level of mythology or a pretty idea (what we used to call a rocking chair trip) when they present facts & evidence to support the how & how much.

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