Earlier today I wrote about the possible de-extinction of the wooly mammoth. A quote that I used and that most people who wrote about the story used, bothered me but in the context of a news story I couldn't really get into that.
Professor Alex Greenwood, an ancient DNA expert from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research said, originally I think, to the the Telegraph
"We face the potential extinction of African and Asian elephants. Why bring back another elephantid from extinction when we cannot even keep the ones that are not extinct around? What is the message? We can be as irresponsible with the environment as we want. Then we'll just clone things back?"
Before I get into why the quote is troublesome, I need to throw in a few disclaimers. First, today's announcement was just a tiny step toward reviving a wooly mammoth. I don't know if it is possible to bring it back, or whether it is possible to use DNA to bring back any extinct species, neither do the researchers working on the project - not for sure.
I'm also not that interesting in bringing back an animal that has been extinct for 4,000 years. There are plenty of endangered and recently extinct species and the wooly mammoth wouldn't be at or near the top of my list.
With that out of the way, I'm not sure that anyone thinks that "We can be as irresponsible with the environment as we want. Then we'll just clone things back?" is the message of de-extinction. If it is possible to do at all, using DNA to bring a species back from the dead is a fairly extreme measure.
If it is possible, however, and we don't do it then the message becomes 'we can bring animals back from extinction, but we won't just to make sure that everyone feels properly guilty about it.' That message would be both immature and needlessly spiteful.
To me there is no ethical question at all. It isn't an either, or thing and to imply that it is suggests a deep level of bitterness.
There is no doubt that, environmentally, humanity has dug itself a deep hole over the last few centuries. The last several decades, however, have also made it clear that conservation alone isn't going to solve the problem. Despite current efforts to protect species, to set up preserves and ban certain products (ivory for example), species become extinct every day and some of our best known species decline in numbers year after year.
If we are going to find our way back from where we are now, our science and technology are going to have to play a large role just as they played a role in causing many of the problems.
If it is possible to use DNA to bring back extinct species, then there isn't an ethical reason not to. We can't and probably shouldn't bring back everything but saying 'we can't bring it back for ethical reasons' is the equivalent of saying 'I shouldn't have killed that person, but it would be unethical to bring him back to life.'
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