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CLARIN

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?

Northern muriqui, critically endangered of extinction
Northern muriqui, critically endangered of extinction
Claudio Campagna

-Op-Ed-

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.

De-extinction

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.

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Society

In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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