The False Promise Of Resurrection Biology
Scientists have the technology to bring extinct species back to life, give or take a few missing DNA strands. But should they?
BUENOS AIRES — About a quarter of the world's 80,000 known animal and plant species are endangered, and of these, approximately 5,200 are perilously close to extinction. Some may even slip into the abyss as you read this article.
Why is this happening? Because of what we humans are doing to the environment. What does human-mediated extinction mean? It means the gradual killing off — directly or indirectly — of all representatives of a life form, down to the very last member. Through environmental destruction across five continents and overfishing in the oceans, our species is displacing numerous other species and pushing them toward annihilation.
Is this extinction at the hands of humans a moral problem? Basic principles deem it immoral to treat humans as a means to an end. And yet, our lifestyle depends on doing just that. Who can doubt that something strange, peculiar and unacceptable is happening when a bird, a frog or an insect ceases to exist? Still, there are some people who justify those losses with a classic cost-benefits argument: It's us or them.
The world needs to develop, they tell us. Too many people are poor, they say. Certainly. But to remedy this evil, nature is being shut out and restricted to ever narrower confines, or annihilated through the relentless extraction of resources. Why not slam the door instead on the world's 60 richest individuals, who have been amassing the wealth of fellow earthlings and capital worth tens of billions of dollars? It must be easier to ask the natural world to pay up.
Amid the confusion of values, some people are proposing a "solution" they call "de-extinction." The idea is to engineer the resurrection of creatures using genetic techniques, resuscitating species, in other words, by creating laboratory individuals very similar to those previously pushed over the cliff of existence.
By trying to fix the harm done — rather than take real measures to prevent it — we're confusing things even more.
Which mystical sect is pushing for this solution? A very reputable one apparently: science.
Without wanting to offend anyone, it sounds an awful lot like more familiar scriptural narratives about the conception, birth, death and resurrection of our own Jesus Christ. Here, DNA is extracted from the corpse of a member of an extinct species to create a "code book." If the book has pages missing, it can be completed with pages from a similar, live species. The imperfections are corrected and the code installed in a cell, which begins to multiply. If the creature is a mammal, the information is implanted in a surrogate mother's uterus, and if an embryo develops and is born, the species is considered de-extinct. If it dies, it has become extinct twice.
It's bad enough that we fail to understand the implications of pushing a life form toward its disappearance. Now, by trying to fix the harm done — rather than take real measures to prevent it — we're confusing things even more. It's a Greek tragedy without an ending.
Ecological and ethical doubts
De-extinction isn't happening yet. It's still just talk. But whether it moves forward or not, it will never be a useful tool in conservation. The doubts around it are ecological and ethical. What if the creature's original environment no longer exists? Even if it were reasonable to apply de-extinction to particular cases, these would be exceptional. And before that were ever done, one would have to meet the needs of thousands of still-living species facing extermination because of humans — among them the 5,200 now in precipitous decline.
I am hearing things like, if we were the cause, we must make amends for the wrong we have done. My conclusion here is precisely about language and its use. Those who favor the "miracle of science" justify themselves by saying this is just a manner of speaking. We're not literally talking old-fashioned "miracles," they say.
Great scientists are molecular engineers who create and activate futures
But as scientists keep repeating their spiel, they hammer home the notion of extinction as a temporary condition. That is how language works. It sets the scene for thoughts to become performance. It generates a public. And it earns applause.
Today, the great scientists are molecular engineers who create and activate futures. These are the same practical minds who in the past put stone, fire and atomic energy to use. They are intelligent and well-meaning, but will push the limits like capricious divinities.
What, in the meantime, are philosophers doing — aside from being dazzled by science? They'd be better off sketching out some much-needed ethical guidelines, because without that, the concept of nature that philosophers presently cherish will disappear.