28 February 2014

De-extinction and the Technological Sublime

Last year I noted several items (here and here) on increasingly fashionable plans for de-extinction, e.g. using molecular genetics to engineer the Dodo, Great Auk, Carolina Parakeet, Tasmanian Tiger or the Mammoth.

The New York Times, in a somewhat breathless piece about revival of the Passenger Pigeon and Mammoth, notes the vision by cyber-utopisan Stewart Brand that resurrection of the Mammoth would be good for the environment -
 Just as the loss of a species decreases the richness of an ecosystem, the addition of new animals could achieve the opposite effect. The grazing habits of mammoths, for instance, might encourage the growth of a variety of grasses, which could help to protect the Arctic permafrost from melting — a benefit with global significance, as the Arctic permafrost contains two to three times as much carbon as the world’s rain forests. “We’ve framed it in terms of conservation,” Brand told me. “We’re bringing back the mammoth to restore the steppe in the Arctic. One or two mammoths is not a success. 100,000 mammoths is a success.” 
Resurrection of the Pigeon project would supposedly provide “a beacon of hope for conservation”, although in my opinion it might have the opposite effect - blithely disregard environmental problems in the here and now because the geeks at Pleistocene Park Inc can bring the defunct species back from the grave whenever they want.

The NYT goes on to state that
A less scientific, if more persuasive, argument was advanced by the ethicist Hank Greely and the law professor Jacob Sherkow, both of Stanford. De-extinction should be pursued, they argued in a paper published in Science, because it would be really cool. “This may be the biggest attraction and possibly the biggest benefit of de-extinction. It would surely be very cool to see a living woolly mammoth.” 
Ah, cool. Cool in the same way that gigantic explosions would be cool - the technological sublime where bigness and badness is best?

With apologies to Richard Barbrook, in the future the right people will be rich, hip, Californian and cool … with a private Sabre tooth, Dodo, Mammoth or other retroDNA-ware!

'What If Extinction Is Not Forever?' by Jacob S. Sherkow and  Henry T. Greeley in (2013) 340(6128) Science 32-33 argues that -
Objections to bringing back extinct animals fall into five categories: animal welfare, health, environment, political, and moral. 
Animals created in the de-extinction process could end up suffering, either as a result of the processes used or because of their particular genomic variations. We know, for example, that SCNT can lead to high levels of deformity and early death. The Animal Welfare Act and its institutional animal care and use committees limit precisely this kind of suffering. Beyond physical suffering, some animal advocates might oppose de-extinction as they oppose zoos—on the grounds that they exploit animals for unimportant human purposes, like entertainment. Newly de-extinct creatures might prove excellent vectors for pathogens. An extinct animal's genome could also conceivably harbor unrecognized, harmful endogenous retroviruses. 
If the species either is released or escapes into the general environment, it might do substantial damage. Even extinct species that were not pests in their past environments could be today. For example, less than 200 years ago, billions of passenger pigeons migrated each year between the eastern United States and Canada. Today, those regions have far more humans, far larger urban centers, very different agriculture, and largely transformed ecosystems. The American chestnut, a main food source for the passenger pigeon, is now nearly extinct in the wild. Even in the same location, the passenger pigeon would today be an alien, and potentially invasive, species—perhaps another starling or even an avian kudzu. 
The political risks are considerable, too. Current protection of endangered and threatened species owes much to the argument of irreversibility. If extinctions—particularly extinctions where tissue samples are readily available—are not forever, preservation of today's species may not seem as important. Also, genetics and, more broadly, modern bioscience, could face a backlash if citizens perceive public investments in bioscience as being used to revive species rather than cure human disease. 
Finally, some people will complain that, whatever its consequences, de-extinction is just wrong—it is “playing god,” “reversing natural selection,” or an act of hubris. Others may argue that we cannot know enough about the consequences to re-introduce a species. But neither do we know the full consequences of its extinction or its continuing nonexistence.
The supposed benefits are
 Like the risks or objections to de-extinction, we see the benefits falling into five categories: scientific knowledge, technological advancement, concrete environmental benefits, justice, and “wonder.” These benefits are quite similar to the arguments made for preserving currently endangered or threatened species. 
De-extinction could allow scientists the unique opportunity to study living members of previously extinct species (or, at least, close approximations to those species), providing insights into their functioning and evolution. Some revived species may be translated into useful products; for example, it is conceivable that new drugs may be derived from extinct plants. 
De-extinction could lead to technological advances. The most likely would be improvements in genetic engineering, such as the targeted replacement of large stretches of genomic DNA. 
Some researchers argue that “re-wilding” with existing species, locally extinct in particular habitats, can help restore extinct or threatened ecosystems. The same can be argued about the restoration of extinct species. The revival of the wooly mammoth as a major grazing animal in the Arctic, for example, might provide substantial benefits by helping restore an arctic steppe in the place of the less ecologically rich tundra. 
Justice is a viscerally attractive argument for de-extinction, at least for species that humans drove to extinction: We killed them. We have the power to revive them. We have a duty to do so. But to whom or what do we owe that duty? Would it apply to all species in whose extinction humans played the sole, the leading, or a substantial role? 
The last benefit might be called “wonder,” or, more colloquially “coolness.” This may be the biggest attraction, and possibly the biggest benefit, of de-extinction. It would surely be very cool to see a living wooly mammoth. And while this is rarely viewed as a substantial benefit, much of what we do as individuals—even many aspects of science—we do because it's “cool.”
 They go on to comment -
The answer to the question—What to do about de-extinction?—depends in part on closely defining the question. Consider three different “bottom-line” questions. 
First, should de-extinction be publicly funded? This answer seems, to us, “largely no.” The potential tangible benefits from de-extinction are too small and the potential objections are too serious to justify substantial government expenditure. One might argue that governments fund science projects with similarly small practical relevance, but those “cool” projects, like the Mars rovers, present fewer risks and objections. 
Second, should de-extinction be categorically banned? Here the answer seems a fairly clear “no.” The risks look fairly small and probably manageable. If people want to devote their own time, money, and efforts to the endeavor, the risks to the world do not seem to justify complete prohibition. 
Third, should de-extinction be regulated? Here, we think the answer is “Yes—somewhat.” The animal welfare and environmental concerns are real. They could be mitigated by protective action but only if the law requires it. Bringing all de-extinction efforts under something like the Animal Welfare Act and requiring careful environmental assessments before any planned releases (as well as approved precautions against inadvertent release) do seem appropriate. Whether other kinds of regulation are needed is less clear, although there may be some cases, like any attempted revival of extinct hominid species, where special controls, or bans, would be appropriate.