Extinction, Resurrection and Moral Responsibility

I’m sorry to say that I’m somewhat behind the times when it comes to new discoveries in biology, so it was only today that I read about this: a laboratory in Australia successfully growing embryos of an extinct species of frog.

The team from the aptly named Lazarus project inserted the dead genetic material of the extinct amphibian into the donor eggs of another species of living frog, a process similar to the technique used to create the cloned sheep Dolly. The eggs continued to grow into three-day-old embryos, known as blastulas.

“This is the first time this technique has been achieved for an extinct species,” said one of the project scientists, conservation biologist Michael Mahony.

While the development is exciting scientifically, it is unfortunately impossible to mention reviving extinct species without most commentators likening it back to Jurassic Park, and the “cautionary tale” that it provided against doing this very thing. Now, leaving aside the silliness of taking cautionary advice from a work of fiction written by a man who thought that dinosaurs and grey goo nanites were clear and present dangers to Human civilization¬†but that anthropogenic global warming was not, the question of whether we should restore extinct populations is an interesting one.

I am tentatively inclined to answer yes for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that almost all of those animals which we, as Humans, have even a mild chance of reviving are ones that were personally killed by us within the past few centuries. Now, in general I am opposed to systems of “geo-engineering” as a means of reducing environmental damage, as I think that the consequences are unforeseeable and potentially catastrophic*, but in my (admittedly inexpert) opinion, questions of bio-diversity are fundamentally different from questions of climate, because biodiversity takes millions of years to recover. And, as we Humans are responsible for these extinctions in the first place, and for the disruptions that they have caused, I think that we have a moral (and practical) responsibility to do what we can to correct this damage.


*And also, to a lesser extent, that they are a means of avoiding acknowledgment of the fundamental problems with consumerism.



About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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3 Responses to Extinction, Resurrection and Moral Responsibility

  1. Rob F says:

    I still remain skeptical that this sort of deextinction would ever result in any beyond “zoo specimens”. Basically, in most cases, I don’t see how this would result in enough genetic diversity to recreate any wild population. The example in the article is merely the cloning of a frozen specimen – in effect creating what are its late developed “twins”.

    I will concede that the above approach is likely easier with plants – since many plants (especially eudicots) are easily capable of vegetative reproduction, it seems substantially easier to create a substantial population. I have no idea if there is any substantial deextinction effort for plants, however.

  2. Lindsay says:

    I’m with Rob F — I can’t see a clear path from a few cloned individuals (possibly only a single individual, cloned multiple times — I don’t know how many different individuals’ DNA has been preserved, but I would be astonished if it was more than one, two, or maybe a handful of individual specimens making up all we have from any species) to a viable population.

    Also, cloning can produce very unhealthy individuals. Here is an FDA page describing everything that can go wrong with cloning cattle, goats, swine and sheep (which have all had quite a few attempts): lots of them die before they’re born (this varies a lot; pigs have a very high rate of live births, sheep have a very low one — looking at the figures for sheep cloning you wonder if the first successful cloned animal might’ve come about much easier if they hadn’t used a sheep); and cattle and sheep have this developmental syndrome, Large Offspring Syndrome (named for its most obvious symptom, not its only one — it can cause serious problems, despite its funny name) that happens a lot more frequently among cloned animals than in their normally-conceived counterparts, and that usually seems to kill a quarter of the live-born animals that have it.

    (Some cloned animals have grown up to be perfectly healthy, as far as anyone can tell: there’s Dewey the deer, who is ten years old and whose caretaker says that his example shows that cloned animals can have long lives, develop normally and reproduce normally; and there’s CC the cat, also ten years old, who has also reproduced — she had four live kittens and one stillbirth. The four surviving kittens are all normal. But I’m not sure if anyone knows how or why some cloned organisms are healthy when others have such horrible developmental problems.)

    Finally, I would say that before we have any notions about reintroducing extinct species (assuming we could wave a wand and make all the above-listed technical problems disappear), we should ensure that we would not just drive them to extinction again.

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