The phenomenal ecological success of humans and our cadre of partner species (livestock, crops, pets, parasites) has come at great cost to other species. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the Anthropocene is the sixth mass extinction event, one that is shaping up to be on the order of the End-Cretaceous event that took out the non-avian dinosaurs. Our list of victims includes almost all of the non-dinosaur poster species for extinction: Wooly Mammoths*, Tasmanian “Tigers” (really marsupials), Dodos, Passenger Pigeons, maybe even our close cousins the Neanderthals*. And despite our conservation efforts and good intentions, the Anthopocene extinction event goes on, fueled by human population growth, our monopolization of natural resources (land, plant productivity, fisheries, etc.), and increasingly, anthropogenic climate change.
This is tragic, but understandable. Earth is finite, the vanishingly thin skin of its Biosphere even more so. As we take more and more, there is less and less to go around. At a very coarse level, the math is remarkably simple, and sad.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could bring them back; if through human ingenuity, hard-won technical know-how, and forward-thinking venture capital investment, we could revivify extinct species? Imagine the crowds of conservationists, dabbing tears from their eyes as the first new flock of Passenger Pigeons is released. Imagine yourself on a Siberian safari, trekking over the remnants of soggy, melting tundra to observe a newly established herd of Wooly Mammoths. Wouldn’t that be great?
That is the vision of “deextinction,” and it is not science fiction. It is a very real endeavor being pursued by a collection of scientists and conservationists. The biotech basics of the process have already been worked out and several projects are up and running, including goals of producing a viable cloned Wooly Mammoth and a new Passenger Pigeon. Last week’s TEDxDeextinction Event was a debutante ball for the project. For a taste, you can watch Stewart Brand’s talk, entitled “The dawn of deextinction: are you ready?”
It may surprise you to know that as an ecologist I would say, emphatically, NO (and I am not alone). Don’t get me wrong, I would LOVE to see a flock of passenger pigeons or a herd of mammoths as much as the next nature geek. And I marvel at the scientific insights and creativity that go into the deextinction project. These people are visionary, brilliant. But Brand’s title asks the wrong question. It does not matter whether we, as individuals, are ready. Instead, I would argue that what really matters is that we, collectively, as the stumbling architects of a new geological epoch, are not ready for this responsibility. Moreover, Earth and its Biosphere are not ready. Developing my argument would go well beyond a blog post, but the summary is rather simple.
Every species is part of a larger ecosystem. This is the fundamental fact of ecology. Many, perhaps even most extinct species belonged to ecosystems that were either coopted by humans, or have changed irreversibly in their absence. The forest/grassland mosaic that was home to the Aurochs (another deextinction target) across Europe is now home to some of the densest human populations on Earth. The world of the Aurochs is gone. The glaciated home of the Mammoth is gone, and we are marching in the opposite direction, climate-wise. The world is not ready for them to come back. Every revived species would need to have a place, and yet, we cannot even seem to make room for the species that are still here. If we cannot responsibly manage the extant species, do we really want to take on reviving extinct ones? I argue that we are simply not ready, not competent enough as a species to handle this task.
I have no illusions. Some form of deextinction will occur, with sad solitary animals, maybe even small populations consigned to zoos and reserves. And I have no doubt that the projects that lead to these breakthroughs will yield tremendous insights, both technical and conceptual. Some of those insights might even help rescue extant threatened species.
And that would be great.
But my fear is that news of these big ideas, of this optimistic, technologically advanced project will be interpreted as a solution to the biodiversity crisis. No need to worry about Tarzan’s Chameleon, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, the Pygmy Three-toed Sloth, or any of the other 100 most threatened species. Just freeze some DNA, and we’ll bring them back later.
Species need space and food, a functioning ecosystem, not just a genome and a zoo. Perhaps the visionaries of deextinction have fallen prey to the most common form of hubris in science, solving the problem of how they can do it without thinking deeply enough about the questions of why or whether they should do it.
What do you think?
*The role of humans in the extinction of Pleistocene megafauna and the nature of our interactions with Neanderthals are still subject to investigation. But while correlation is certainly not causation, extinction, particularly of large vertebrates, does seem to have followed in the wake of the migrations of evolutionarily modern humans, whether in Eurasia, Australia, Oceania, or the Americas.