Sunday, July 21, 2013

De-Extinction, on the Radio and in the Blogosphere

Today, NPR's Studio 360 featured a story on de-extinction, the "resurrection" of extinct animals using cloning or, in attempts to "revive" the recently extinct wild forebears of domesticated animals, back breeding.

Last month, "Just Alison" wrote an excellent article about the ethics of de-extinction on her indispensible Biodiversity Revolution blog. She concentrates on the "de-extinction" of the wooly mammoth, which has been proposed (mammoth DNA would be implanted in the ova of extant elephants). In their wonderful book Carnivorous Nights: On the Trail of the Tasmanian Tiger my friends Margaret and Michael (I swear, I'm not being biased, the book is great) touched on efforts to revive the thylacine by implanting DNA into the ova of Tasmanian devils.

I am somewhat torn on the issue of de-extinction. While it would be cool to have passenger pigeons or Carolina parakeets back, any "resurrected" species would be mere simulacra of the extinct species whose DNA (probably "repaired" in the lab due to degradation of the DNA in preserved specimens) their somatic cells bear (never mind the fact that they would have mitochondrial DNA from the ova of another species. More importantly, the factors that led to the extinction of these species (loss of habitat, competition from invasive species, harmful human activity) have not been rectified. Any "resurrected" species would probably be limited to a few "hothouse flowers" (and not the good kind) languishing in zoos or the private reserves of the wealthy (I could well imagine Dick Cheney paying some serious cash just so he could shoot a wooly mammoth). As Alison, and many others, have noted, efforts at de-extinction would consume resources better spent on conservation, on preventing the extinction of species that we are in danger of losing.

As nice as it would be to have some of the "charismatic fauna", mega or otherwise, be brought back from oblivion, you don't just get to call a mulligan on extinction. Atrocities and screw-ups happened, we have to own up to that fact and decide to become better stewards of the planet. Our own survival may very well hinge on it.


mikey said...

you don't just get to call a mulligan on extinction.

But why not? Maybe you do get to call a mulligan.

People did stupid things when they didn't understand the world and their footprint in it.

Now, we have science. We're not talking about resurrecting the influenza virus, we're talking about bringing back some version of ruminants and birds.

Somebody's going to have to give me a pretty compelling reason NOT to do this, or even dinosaurs if we can find working DNA, before I do anything but cheerlead from the sidelines...

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

But why not? Maybe you do get to call a mulligan.

Any "resurrected" animals wouldn't be the real deal, but simulacra of the extinct organism, and to develop breeding populations would probably be impossible to pull off. The end result would most likely be a handful of sickly specimens languishing in captivity.

Believe me, I'm torn about it... it would be extremely cool to see glyptodonts or phorusrhacids in a zoo.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

I'll bet M.B., for one, would like us to bring back T. Rex and the velociraptors.

Helmut Monotreme said...

I think we need to bring back Smilodon Fatalis. To control the population of resurrected woolly mammoths of course.
Also, Moas and Dodos need a do-over.

Shakezula said...

But just think of the new opportunities for horrid SciFi horror movies.


In Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series, cloning has reached the point that dodos can be created at home and feral dodos roam about.

But the duck has been extinct for so long it is featured in a show called Walking with Ducks.

(And that's all I can say about Fforde on cloning without being a spoiled spoiler.)

My thought is this: If it becomes possible to bring animals back, the kind of people who'd like to knock the South American rain forest flat would say there's no need for conservation efforts.

They'd probably quite nicely volunteer to capture genetic material of any critters they come across as they're slashing and burning, and to create habitats for any animals that are regrettably wiped out in the pursuit of profit.

Or to paraphrase two other authors, people need to learn that if they kill a whale, what they get is a dead whale.

Syrbal/Labrys said...

I'd be a lot more impressed with heroic efforts to stop the ongoing extinctions to be.

Vixen Strangely said...

Mammothnados!Probably more like "mammothalanche"--I picture a calving glacier letting loose a torrent of zombie trogontherii...tumbling into a nearby town and seeking varied grazing lands unmolested by vehicle traffic. It would be more of a colorful nuisance than a horror show unless someone got kind of stepped on.

I read something about rhino incest being encouraged by zoos today (I think on Jezebel.) I understand it has worked for certain royal families in short term, but I would vastly prefer they adopt some kind of careful exogamous insemination regime to just try not to have badly inbred and dysfunctional animals. I'm too sentimental to be okay with their extinction--especially when humans are pretty much a singularly sinister species-snuffer.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Raptornado? TREXNADO!!!