Advances in biotechnology may allow for de-extinction. Potential impacts of de-extinct species remain uncertain; they may improve ecosystem function, or hinder conservation efforts and damage socio-ecological systems. To better anticipate de-extinction’s outcomes, ethical dilemmas, and governance needs, we surveyed experts from multiple disciplinary backgrounds. We applied a mixed-method approach to our analysis, integrating quantitative responses of perceived outcomes with qualitative responses, to clarify and provide context. Overall, respondents indicated deextinction was more likely to induce hazards, not benefits. Reasons for this viewpoint included a ‘moral hazard’ argument, suggesting conservation policies could be undermined if society perceives that species need less protection because they can be revived later. Pessimistic views of de-extinction were linked to concerns about unclear development paths. Experts believed the public might be skeptical about de-extinction. Our results suggest future de-extinction efforts may benefit from collaborative efforts to clarify hazards and explore salient concerns among the engaged public.The authors argue
Advances in biotechnology may allow for the de-extinction of species. De-extinction is the re-creation of extinct species using methods from synthetic biology, cloning, genetic engineering, reproduction technologies, and stem cell research. Numerous species are currently being considered as candidates for de-extinction, notably the passenger pigeon and woolly mammoth. De-extinction research on passenger pigeons includes genome sequencing (Hung et al. 2014), with plans to integrate DNA from preserved passenger pigeons into the genome of band-tailed pigeons (Novak 2013). Similarly, research on the woolly mammoth includes genome sequencing (Palkopoulou et al. 2015) with plans to gradually add mammoth genes into Asian elephant embryos, creating hybrids with progressively more mammoth traits (Devlin 2017).
Arguments in-favor of de-extinction suggest that de-extinct species will improve ecosystem function, satisfy a moral obligation to revive extinct species, and re-invigorate efforts for conserve biodiversity. The ecological benefits of reintroducing de-extinct species may be the most significant potential outcome of de-extinction (Shapiro 2015; Iacona et al. 2017; McCauley et al. 2017). Potential ecological benefits of de-extinction are purportedly similar to restoring locally extirpated species (Jørgensen 2013; Seddon, Moehrenschlager, and Ewen 2014). For example, reintroduction of musk oxen, hares, and marmots to Pleistocene Park in Siberia altered plant distributions, facilitating grassland restoration, and ultimately increasing biodiversity (Zimov 2005). Some researchers believe returning the woolly mammoth to the Siberian tundra might yield similar results (Shapiro 2015). As an act of restorative justice, reviving species driven to extinction by humans, such as the passenger pigeon, yields a moral good (Cohen 2014). This restorative act aligns with the goals of conservation biology, namely restoring ecological components and processes previously removed or damaged by human activities (Thorpe and Stanley 2011). Additionally, restoring animals like woolly mammoths may inspire great awe (Sherkow and Greely 2013) and lead to additional support for conservation. In contrast, arguments against de-extinction suggest that the process may be detrimental to conservation efforts and ecological systems, and rife with ethical dilemmas. Re-creation of extinct species may weaken conservation policies by providing a riskier alternative solution to preventing extinction (Pimm 2013). This moral hazard, or alternative solution, enables riskier behavior (Lin 2013), which is compounded by ecological change. Returning a re-created animal to its former ecosystem could be detrimental to the current, often different, ecosystem or to the de-extinct animal. For example, forests have been fragmented and degraded, and farms and urban systems have expanded in the historic passenger pigeon range (Greenberg 2014). If re-introduced, the bird may exhibit tendencies similar to invasive species (Sherkow and Greely 2013). Alternatively, a passenger pigeon may be unable to adapt to contemporary ecosystems. Would the creators of a de-extinct animal then be obligated to care for the de-extinct population in perpetuity?
Ethical questions such as these extend beyond those considered during wildlife reintroductions (McCoy and Berry 2008) and include ownership responsibilities for deextinct animals (Carlin, Wurman, and Zakim 2013). In most contexts, wildlife are considered common property until captured in some way (Blumm and Ritchie 2005), but de-extinction challenges these norms. Products of de-extinction may be eligible for patents based on their novelty or the technical processes used to create them (Carlin, Wurman, and Zakim 2013; Swedlow 2015). The potential commercial value could be derived from exclusive rights to exhibit, or by creating pet markets. Institutions that exhibit animals such as zoos typically require permitting under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, and, in the United States, most zoos are regulated by the Animal Welfare Act (Grech 2004). There is considerable uncertainty regarding whether de-extinct animals should be considered endangered, native, exotic, or native and whether they would receive the corresponding protection or management (Camacho 2015; Okuno 2017). Further, attempts to reconstitute genomes and create hybrids, may be viewed as hubristic or similar to playing god (Sandler 2014). Playing god connotes individuals transgressing fixed limits on human behavior often linked to creation, and the pejorative label has been levied at biotechnology since its inception (Dabrock 2009). Although humans have a cultural duty to maximize positive impacts and minimize negative impacts on the world, accusations of playing god may have moral weight when they refer to technologies used to alter the biology of living organisms with unacceptable or unpredictable consequences or violate duties towards moral agents (Dabrock 2009). Animal rights and welfare concerns further complicate de-extinction. Animals such as the woolly mammoth are presumably social animals (Shapiro 2015), and rearing them in isolation may be cruel.
Other potential de-extinction efforts (e.g. gastric-breeding frog or the Xerces butterfly) may require fewer physical accommodations (Seddon, Moehrenschlager, and Ewen 2014), but would still require navigating issues of public support and outdated biotechnology policies (Kuzma and Tanji 2010; Kuzma 2016). In the United States, federal regulation of biotechnology has not adapted to advancing biotechnological methods and novel products; for example, a de-extinct animal may be regulated following protocol originally intended for animal drugs (FDA 2009). Guiding principles have been suggested for selecting deextinction candidates, by considering efficiency and feasibility (IUCN SSC 2016) and incorporating the 2013 IUCN Guidelines for Reintroduction and Other Conservation Translocations (Seddon, Moehrenschlager, and Ewen 2014). While these guidelines address many of the ecological risks involved in wildlife reintroduction efforts, such as ecological and socioeconomic impacts, disease risk, and feasibility, they assume opposition based on ethical principles will not matter, and that conservation policy will not inhibit deextinction efforts. Further, these guidelines do not fully address issues associated with unique biotechnologies, higher uncertainty related to environmental risks, and more conflict between stakeholder groups compared to decision-making groups in traditional wildlife reintroduction efforts.
A more systematic assessment of de-extinction seems necessary to anticipate risk and improve governance. In situations of high complexity and uncertainty, like de-extinction, it is especially important to anticipate risks so that appropriate governance systems are in place before technological deployment (Karinen and Guston 2009). Anticipatory governance suggests building capacities in foresight, engagement, and integration between experts (natural scientists, social scientists, and humanities scholars) and organizations (government agencies, technology developers, publics) may lead to better decisions and increased public good (Barben et al. 2007). In the absence of data on risks and benefits, expert elicitation provides a method for engaging the mental models of experts (Morgan, Henrion, and Small 1990) in order to begin the process of identifying potential risks and responding to them upstream in innovation and governance systems (Stilgoe, Owen, and Macnaghten 2013; Barben et al. 2007).
As a first step in anticipatory governance, this paper presents the first analysis of the potential environmental impacts of de-extinction, ethical dilemmas, and governance needs by eliciting experts’ opinions from multiple disciplines. We surveyed experts in the natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities, who have been involved in technologies and policies associated with genetic engineering and synthetic biology. Experts on biotechnology issues are well suited to assess potential de-extinction impacts, dilemmas, and governance needs because of their experiences with biotechnology development and governance. The science of biotechnology continues to develop, but at least in the United States, biotechnology policy has not explicitly addressed new genetic engineering technologies like gene editing, gene drives, or de-extinction (Kuzma 2016). International frameworks may cover genetically engineered animals, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, but these have not been ratified by all nations with active de-extinction research programs (Vàzquez-Salat et al. 2012; Kuzma 2016). Public opposition to genetically engineered foods is highly political, varies internationally, and is potentially becoming more controversial over time (Frewer et al. 2013). Controversies also brew within the biotechnology field as some products and companies fail to live up to their own hype (Borup et al. 2006). Biotechnology experts working within these contexts have unique experiences and can provide valuable assessments for the nascent field of de-extinction. To better anticipate the environmental impacts, ethical dilemmas, and governance needs for de-extinction, we applied a mixedmethod approach to analyze quantitative responses regarding perceived risks and benefits with qualitative responses used to clarify and provide context. We compare participants’ perceptions of potential risks and benefits, highlight salient environmental and societal concerns, identify research and risk assessment needs for managing potential risks, and provide recommendations for de-extinction governance. This is the first study to our knowledge formally eliciting expert opinions about the governance of de-extinction. By conducting this study before viable, self-reproducing de-extinct species are developed, we hope to provide guidance to innovation and governance, promote environmental stewardship, and minimize unintended consequences