De-extinction: duty or disaster?
Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should.
- Dr Ian Malcom, Jurassic Park (Universal, 1993)
The notion of bringing extinct animals back to life may seem like the fanciful exploits of science fiction, but today we are witnessing the very real possibility of it happening. Rather than long extinct dinosaurs, however, a genetic engineering company has unveiled plans to de-extinct the Woolly Mammoth and the Thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger).
The Woolly Mammoth, a hirsute relative to our iconic elephant, is thought to have become extinct about 10,000 years ago (there is debate over whether human exploitation or climate change was the main factor which led to its demise). The Thylacine, a dog-like marsupial, only became extinct in 1936 (when the last specimen in captivity, Benjamin, died). Again, a combination of factors is likely responsible for the Tasmanian Tiger's extinction, although hunting and the introduction of wild dogs by European settlers in Australia, and the concurrent extinction of prey species, are probably chief among them.
There is little doubt that human activity has led to the extinction of many species of fauna, and that it is a terrible tragedy. There are also considerable efforts being made across the world to conserve vulnerable species, including reintroducing species into areas from which they have been extirpated because of humans.
Unlike the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, then, which went extinct tens of millions of years before humans even evolved, we are talking about resurrecting animals (both mammals like us, in this case) which were alive alongside humans and are likely to have become extinct because of us.
Does that mean that it is right to de-extinct them, though? Indeed, do we have a duty to, if we can? Or are we meddling in things we shouldn't and only courting disaster?
It is virtually impossibly to predict what the consequences of reviving either animal would be. Given the causes for their extinction, it is difficult to say whether either would even survive in their original habitats today. If the purpose is simply to make them exist again, and perhaps breed and display them in captivity just so that we can see them, then we have to question whether these motives are in the interests of the animals at all...
There are many examples of what was previously considered to belong to the realms of science fiction being brought into reality, most of them technological. And although these technologies have facilitated progress and brought us benefits, they have also brought unforeseen consequences. if the Mammoth and the Thylacine were successfully de-extincted, would humanity stop there? And can we trust our own motives?