Since its inception, this column has been about water but last month, for the first time, I addressed a subject that was not water related. I’ve been fascinated with the subject of de-extinction for a long time probably since reading science fiction when I was much younger.
So what, again, is de-extinction? It is the process of attempting to bring back to life a species that has become extinct. It could occur by using DNA collected and preserved from individual members of the species before it became extinct. Alternatively, DNA could be collected from preserved individuals of an extinct species, for example, from woolly mammoths frozen in the ice of the Siberian tundra. Using the mammoth for an example, genetically fertilized DNA from the mammoth corpse would be implanted in the egg of an elephant. If carried to full term and birthed live, the first mammoth in 3,500 years would again walk the earth.
Scientists not only believe that this possible but are working to make it happen not only with mammoths but also with other animals, birds, amphibians, even plants. The first successful de-extinction may be only a few years away.
This seems miraculous. Why should this not be done with creatures that recently became extinct? But an equally important question is, why should we want to do this?
Some scientists who favor de-extinction believe that there would be benefits in bringing species back from extinction. They argue that some extinct animals were vital to their ecosystems. Others cite the fact that important pharmaceuticals have been derived from wild plants that are vulnerable to becoming extinct. To know how to bring back certain species may be extremely important in the future.
What about the ethical question of bringing back extinct species? Those people opposed to the idea fervently believe that attempting to bring back creatures that no long erexist is playing God. This argument most certainly has merit.
However, many animals that recently became extinct became extinct for one reason alone. Humans. Humans deliberately hunted the passenger pigeon into extinction. Humans hunted the bucardo into extinction. In the article “Reviving Extinct Species”published in the April 2013 issue of National Geographic, Michael Archer, a paleontologist from the University of New South Wales in Australia, offers an opposing view, “I think we played God when we exterminated these animals.”
Suppose that scientists could de-extinct the passenger pigeon. Would it be possible in a short time to “create” enough individuals for a breeding flock? Or would there be just a few individual birds confined to zoos only to die out again? What about habitat if there were enough individuals to return to the wild? The 19th century habitat of the passenger pigeon has changed significantly in the 100 years since the species became extinct.
What do I think? As I said earlier, I’m fascinated by the idea of de-extinction. I have no ethical qualms about it. I would like to see if happen just to see ifit really is possible. After all, don’t we have humans who upon their death have their bodies frozen to see if, at some future time, they could be returned to life? Why not with other species?
But realistically, from the time the first creatures appeared on earth and in the seas, the evolutionary process has gone on. Species have come into existence, have flourished, and have disappeared, only to be replaced by other species whose fate has been similar. The process continues today, and it can be called nature. Perhaps we should just let nature take its course.
Happy holidays everyone.