All This Talk About De-Extinction Is Endangering the Whole Idea

Before we get preoccupied with what we should do, let's consider what we actually can do—and table the de-extinction debate.

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Mar 26 2014, 9:09pm
Image: Wikimedia Commons

De-extinction has become one of science’s big ideas, but the fact that we’re all talking about it all the time might be dragging down the whole thing.

In the last year or so, de-extinction has been the subject of TEDx conferences, has been on the cover of National Geographic, and has been the subject of a little-known series of documentaries called Jurassic Park.  

All that attention has led scientists to start talking about doing crazy things like bringing Neanderthals and woolly mammoths back from the dead, all in the name of becoming well-known and cutting edge. Grand promises of a world where Neanderthals roam amongst us then start all manner of ethical debates, public outcry, and religious-types getting super pissed. Those debates are probably necessary at some point or another, but right now, the science just ain’t there and it’s a waste of hot air, Carrie Friese, a sociologist at the London School of Economics and Political Science argues in a new commentary published in PLOS One.

De-extinction illustrates a more general trend toward promissory communication, where scientists promote their work by talking about things that have not happened yet, and may never happen,” she argues. “Discussions detached from what is actually realizable today or in any near future stimulate ‘speculative ethics.’ Proponents and critics alike end up devoting a considerable amount of time and effort to debating the consequences of a science that is yet to be realized.”

Yes, de-extinction is a great thought experiment—what happens when you have “invasive species from the past?” Can we reintroduce them into the wild? Can you teach a Neanderthal how to play Candy Crush? Do woolly mammoths taste good? Can the NSA wiretap a passenger pigeon? But right now, it is, by and large, just that—a thought experiment.

It’s true that we have the technology to de-extinct certain animals, and it has been done, at least once: a Spanish bucardo goat that died seconds after it was born. But much of this is still purely theoretical.

For a good allegory, Friese suggests we should look at what happened with cloning. Dolly the Sheep was cloned almost 18 years ago, and we still don’t have armies of cloned sheep to make me blankets to deal with this horrible winter. 

“After 20 years of research in assisted reproduction, even ‘simple’ techniques like artificial insemination continue to be difficult to use routinely in ex situ species preservation practices,” she writes. “The concern here is that funding will move from tried-and-tested preservation strategies to technologies that are represented as a magic bullet but that are still in the infancy stage, and are thus uncertain.”

Since de-extinction has supplanted regular ol’ cloning at a topic of hot debate, the debate about run-of-the-mill cloning to preserve existing endangered species have become "more conventional, largely occurring in the context of professional conferences, within zoological organizations, and in journal commentaries.” De-extinction, Friese says, needs to become similarly mundane for it to ever become A Thing. 

It’s true that the public has to decide if it wants this, and that debate will need to be had at some point. But it’s probably preferable to let the scientists figure out how this would even work before we have a capital-N, capital-C National Conversation about the whole thing.

“In contrast to speculative ethics, we propose a social science approach based upon the current realities of cloning, genetic engineering, back breeding, and species preservation today. Seemingly mundane questions about matters like husbandry and everyday lab practices are prioritized here, and could be useful to address as de-extinction moves forward,” Friese wrote. 

This isn’t the first time someone has suggested that de-extinction is a stupid idea. In a smart commentary last year in Scientific American, Hannah Waters argued that the whole thing is an exercise in human narcissism. It’s one of the reasons you hear scientists talking about resurrecting the “cool” animals like saber-toothed tigers and woolly mammoths, and not, say some lame prehistoric mouse. De-extinctionists, Waters wrote, say that it’s worth doing to “restore the balance of nature that we have upset.”

Ecosystems change constantly. Animals migrate. Weather kills off local populations and allows others to thrive. Disease strikes. And, yes, animals go extinct. Most of the time, ecosystems continue on as they were, with organisms making slight changes to their behavior to compensate for the loss,” she wrote. “So not only are we trying to restore nature to a balance that doesn’t seem to exist, but we’ve picked a rather arbitrary point in time to return it to: The moment when people first started paying attention.”

Maybe de-extinction has a future, maybe it doesn't. But if you cue the public outcry and collective freakout now, you're not doing anyone any good.