In May 1930, a Tasmanian farmer named Wilfred Batty shot at a thylacine. The thylacine, commonly known as a Tasmanian tiger, was wrecking havoc in the henhouse and was dead within 20 minutes. Soon afterwards, a photo was taken showing Batty, the stiffened carcass, a young man’s pride and a floppy hat.
We cannot begrudge Batty for removing the threat and placing himself in the position of local hero to his chickens, however, he wouldn’t have known, and couldn’t have known that he had just documented the last kill of a wild thylacine, ever. In the next six years, the largest marsupial carnivore would also be extinct in captivity.
The thylacine is just one of 795 extinct species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List. An endangered species is like a critically ill person, desperately in need of help. An extinct species is like a dead person, beyond hope or beyond help. Until now?
Humans, a species who have spent their existence sending those 795 species onto the extinct list, are now poised to bring some of them back.
Last year a group of scientists and conservationists met at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C. to discuss the viability of the science, as well as the ethical arguement surrounding the “de-extinction.” Top scientists will meet again on March 15 to discuss the bringing back of these species.
People have long been fantasizing the idea of bringing extinct species back to life. However, “de-extinction” is highly problematic in the many questions that it faces: Is it really possible? And if so, should it be done? Do humans have an obligation to revive these life forms?
The first question does seem to have a straightforward answer. Scientific developments in cloning technologies, and new advanced methods of not only being able to read DNA, but writing it as well, make de-extinction a definite possibility. A genetic approximation can be conducted of an extinct animal, as long as DNA can be extracted from a preserved specimen.
It gets complicated from the perspective of trying to decipher what it really means to revive a species. Is a genetically engineered specimen, although alike in every respect, really the same thing as the species that would have roamed the earth decades, or even centuries ago?
If a mammoth is born from an elephant, could it truly qualify as the species of Mammuthus primigenius? Does it qualify as part of the species when it survives for more than a few minutes, or when it is introduced to another of its kind and is able to reproduce, or can it only be truly de-extinct when it is reintroduced to its natural habitat? Also, mammoths have not been around for more than 10 000 years, would their natural environment even be the same?
The weightier question is whether or not it should be done. Arguments in favour of de-extinction state that we should do it because we can do it, and that we should not obstruct the progress of science, when unknown benefits could arise at a later stage. They also argue that we have an obligation to do it, as if to correct the wrong of driving these species off the earth in the first place.
On the other side, some conservationists argue that we should not consider de-extinction when we do not have a clear notion of how to introduce them into natural ecosystems, and that there are already plenty of living species already endangered. Why waste time and money trying to raise the dead, when we could be helping out the dying.
The issue of de-extinction does tend to lend itself to questions of humans wanting to play God. What makes the concept so intrinsically exciting? Perhaps it gives us a chance to travel back in time; to admire spectacular creatures from a by-gone era. Perhaps there is a thrill and invincibility in being able to cheat death. Death has always been final, ultimate, permanent. And yet, humans are about to reverse the irreversible.
This video, courtesy of National Geographic, shows top scientists and questions surrounding the de-extinction debate: