by Zachary Lehmann
In June of 1996 the world’s popular view of extinction changed. The blockbuster hit, Jurassic Park, (a 3D version is out now), captivated the world’s attention with the idea of cloning species from preserved DNA and reversing extinction. Despite advances in cloning technology, we still don’t have the ability to bring a T-Rex back to life. But that has less to do with the technology and more to do with finding viable DNA samples from our long lost dino “friends.” However, even today some scientists say that it is theoretically possible to successfully clone species that have been extinct for a few tens of thousands of years given the proper tissue sample. (G. Kolata, March 18, 2013).
Technology is always advancing; Japan claims to be only a few years away from bringing the first wooly mammoth back to life. But as the labs grind away developing the ability to re-create extinct species, a growing number of scientists are starting to sound an awful lot like Jeff Goldblum’s character, Dr. Malcolm.
Dr. Malcolm: “…your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
You should be prepared for Jurassic Park quotes, there are likely to be a few...
Some downsides of cloning extinct animals may seem pretty obvious. I’m in no rush to see velociraptors or saber-toothed tigers roaming the wild again. Fly fishing is hard enough without being actively hunted by overgrown lizards and cats in need of a great dental plan. But other adverse effects of cloning extinct species are more subtle. Take for example the passenger pigeon. As recently as 200 years ago billions of passenger pigeons were found in North America, however due to human intervention they were hunted to extinction. It makes sense that if we as a species are responsible for a creature’s absolute destruction, we are obligated to right that wrong. But introducing a new species into the current ecosystem could have devastating effects on existing bird populations and distributions.
The fact of the matter is that most of these animals lived in a world that no longer exists. Who doesn’t want to see a wooly mammoth in a zoo? I know I do, but how can we justify bringing one of these beasts back from the dead when every journal in my mail box is covered in charts about global warming and melting polar caps? We struggle as it is to keep the present day majestic species, like polar bears, alive, why would we bring more animals into the equation?
Dr. Malcolm: “This isn’t some species that was obliterated by deforestation, or the building of a dam. Dinosaurs had their shot, and nature selected them for extinction.”
Another crucial consideration is animal welfare. Cloning is not the simple act of creating life. Although the media might make it seem otherwise, cloning isn’t as simple as the push of a button. These re-created animals are reared artificially by harvesting their DNA which is then implanted into living hosts who birth the clone. Furthermore, these critters usually have a number of severe health issues. Many of the sheep celebrated a few years ago as the first cloned organisms died. Upon further examination many had severely irregular internal organs which lead to mortality. It is hard to learn much from an animal that only survives for ten minutes.
But consider everything we could learn from cloned species. What did a wooly mammoth really sound like? What were their metabolic rates? How did the Tasmanian tiger hunt? The information we can gain from studying such specimens would be priceless, and that is precisely why the technology is still researched at such a high rate.
Dr. Grant: “They’re moving in herds. They really do move in herds.”
One of the biggest problems of cloning extinct species is also one of the most subtle. Up until now, one of the most powerful arguments for wildlife conservation and preservation of wildlife habitat is the finality of extinction. The argument is always at the forefront of conservation efforts, if we don’t properly conserve and manage wildlife habitat, we will lose these animals forever. If cloning of extinct species becomes plausible, what’s to stop us from destroying even more habitat? What justification is there for not hunting?
My career is based around the ideas of conservation and mitigation. I believe it would only be a matter of time before entities looking to impact the habitats of endangered species will simply be able to buy the species genetic material as a way to mitigate those impacts in the future. As exciting as this technology is, there are very serious consequences that must be considered, and in classic human fashion, we likely won’t realize our mistake until it’s too late.
Dr. Grant: “Mr. Hammond, after careful consideration, I’ve decided not to endorse your park.”
John Hammond: “So have I.”
For more information on de-extinction, check out the April National Geographic’s featured article,
Kolata, Gina. So You’re Extinct? Scientists Have Gleam in Eye. New York Times. March 18, 2013.