Questioning the ethics
of de-extinction

If science was successful in resurrecting extinct species, what would be the point?

By Georges R. Dupras

In late March of 2013, scientists met at a conference in Washington DC, sponsored by the National Geographic Society, to consider ‘de-extinction’. They discussed the how, why and ethics of bringing species back from the abyss.

de-extinction dodo bird

Dodo bird – Illustration: Roelandt Savery

They have already established a preliminary list of some twenty-four species that they believe can be brought back from history. These include: the mastodon, woolly mammoth, Caribbean monk seal, great auk, Carolina parakeet, Cuban Macaw, aurochs, dodo, Dusky seaside sparrow, Labrador duck, heath hen, ivory-billed woodpecker, imperial woodpecker, moa, elephant bird, passenger pigeon, Pyrinian ibex, quagga, smilodan, baiji, thylacine (Tasmanian tiger), Stellar sea cow, hula, and maho (genus).

I believe that science has the required DNA as well as expertise to, at the very least, begin work on this rather ambitious project. The question is why? If the scientific community were to be successful in resurrecting a mastodon or woolly mammoth, what would be the point? The free ranges that these animals once counted on no longer exist. Where would we put them? If the answer is in a zoo, then I think we should discuss why we’re doing this in the first place.

The free ranges that these animals once counted on no longer exist. Where would we put them?

As for the dodo, Caribbean monk seal or the great auk, among others, are we bringing them back just to satisfy the discriminating pallets of a few self-pampered foodies? I seriously doubt that we’re doing this for the sake of atonement; so that leaves self-serving motives.

de-extinction passenger pigeons

Passenger pigeons – Illustration: Barry Kent MacKay

There are those who have serious reservations about this initiative. Many have worked against incredible odds, trying to convince the public that there are values that go well beyond profit or self-gratification in our relationship with other species. There is little doubt that frozen specimens, of now extinct animal species, lie in the depths of arctic crevasses, encased in glaciers or buried under tons of pre-historic snow. These remains represent a wealth of opportunity for the scientific community that should be developed. Genetic research has wonderful potential, particularly in the field of medical science; however, where there is a positive there is an equal or greater negative. If our ultimate objective in bringing back lost species is self-indulgence, I believe we have an ethical responsibility to open this discussion up to a wider audience.

I would be very disappointed if the scientific community moved forward in the same covert fashion they did in developing genetically modified foods, or now with species enhancement. This is a discussion that involves and impacts on all of us. A strong argument could be advanced that we don’t deserve to co-exist with species we eradicated in the first place.

‘… we have an ethical responsibility to open this discussion up to a wider audience.’

de-extinction Tasmanian Tiger

Tasmanian Tiger – Illustration: John Gould

Another consideration is who will finance this research? Will it be private interests, and will these include corporations such as Monsanto? If so, will they claim patent ownership to a genetically reproduced life form? Should any government or corporate entity own the patent on a genetically altered life form?
I fear that this new course, though not without scientific merit, will only encourage centuries of conditioning – bolstering habits fuelled by greed and rationales that have brought us to this point in the first place.

What of the sanctity of life if we can simply discard one model in favour of a new one having greater capital value?On a recent trip I was asked by a climatologist from South America, what my views were on the subject of species enhancement? He informed me that such research was being conducted in Massachusetts, using the genes of an elephant and those of a chimpanzee. This isn’t our first attempt at improving nature. We have produced the ‘Frankenfish’, a genetically modified salmon, and of course the killer bee.

‘Rather than address the problem of chemical pesticides, genetically modified foods and fertilizers, we are now trying to re-invent nature to accommodate pesticides.’

de-extinction Pyrenian Ibex

Pyrinian ibex – Illustration: Joseph Wolf

The killer bee was an effort to create a stronger and more resilient honey bee. Unfortunately, along with other miscues, this experiment went terribly wrong. We were told that work on a genetically altered bee was fashioned to allow the pollinator to fly further distances, collect more pollen and become more resistant to the elements and possibly even neonicotinoids. Since that time and because of pesticides, seven different species of bees have been placed on the endangered species list.

Approximately two thirds of the food crops consumed by humans require pollinators such as bees to successfully reproduce crops. Over 80% of the honey bee colonies in France have been wiped-out. There are many factors, but an increasing body of scientific evidence points to the use of neonicotinoids as a major contributing factor. Nionicotinoids or neonics, are systematic pesticides that are absorbed into plant tissues and invade the organism. They are used on corn, soy, wheat and canola seed and can kill bees directly. Could it be that science anticipated this occurrence?

Rather than address the problem of chemical pesticides, genetically modified foods and fertilizers, we are now trying to re-invent nature to accommodate pesticides. When we try to improve on nature it might be a good idea to keep in mind that old American adage: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”

Feature image: Mesohippus fossil – Royal BC Museum

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Read also: other articles by Georges Dupras

Georges Dupras

For over fifty years Georges R. Dupras has advocated for animals. He is a member of the International Association for Bear Research and Management (IBA), a Director of the Animal Alliance of Canada (AAC), Quebec Representative of Zoocheck Canada and past Board member of the Canadian SPCA. He worked on the original Save the Seal campaign in 1966 that culminated in the founding of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) in 1969. He has published two books including Values in Conflict and the eBook Ethics, a Human Condition. Georges currently lives in Montreal, Canada.

There are 8 comments

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  1. Sinikka Crosland

    The questions raised in this excellent article by Georges Dupras need to be taken into serious consideration by the scientific community. It is pointless and irresponsible to resurrect species when we cannot deal with the widespread problems that face the planet every day – problems of our own making. Let’s learn the principles of good stewardship first and solve existing issues before creating more to contend with.

  2. Doris Potter

    Georges Dupras raises excellent points regarding the motives of humans for the proposed de-extinction or genetic altering of non-human animals. Each one of us must carefully examine our reasons (actually rationalizations) for every action we, as a species, take to pervert natural processes. Our scientific community and those with political power need to hear our collective voice that opposes such dubious research and development.

  3. Sharyl Thompson

    A thought provoking article. One would have to be very naive to not realize that the corporations would wield control of this research. Perhaps their scientists will inadvertently resurrect an ancient virus that will sweep across the planet and eradicate mankind. Fitting karma as mankind has become a deadly virus for the planet and the beings on it.

  4. Vicki Van Linden

    Writer Georges Dupras rightly asks us to consider the ethics involved in de-extinction. It’s disturbing to know that funding is being directed to such a pointless exercise. The natural world has moved on from the Dodo and the Mastodon. Their niche in the natural world has been filled by other species who now fill the space. Surely the lesson we need to learn is to protect the home-range habitats for those wild animals who struggle for existence in the present. If wild animals are not living in their native habitats, they will experience poor quality lives and suffer as wild animals in zoos do today. If they cannot participate in the interdependent relationships of their native habitats then there is no benefit to being brought back to existence. And, let’s not forget the great potential for suffering of the individuals who may come into existence. If the species is hard-wired to be a social species they will not have opportunities to fulfill those needs. For me, the ethical question is clear. De-extinction is morally wrong.

  5. tony

    ‘… we have an ethical responsibility to open this discussion up to a wider audience.’

    Could not agree more..very interesting article and well written

  6. Lia

    This issue makes me think of Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park”. The character Dr. Ian Malcolm is a mathematician who specializes in a branch of mathematics known as “Chaos Theory”. When they discuss the engineering of the dinosaurs in the Park, Dr. Malcolm says “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could they didn’t stop to think if they should”.

  7. Jean Le marquand

    I agree with Georges that more tampering with evolution will just bring us more of the same; horrific mistakes leading to more animal suffering and ultimately, send us down the path to destruction.
    Mr. Dupras’ article raises the all important question: how much are we willing to risk just to
    satisfy our own curiosity and/or material gain?

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