Should we revive extinct species?

Personal Article

From science fiction to fact, being able to revive extinct species is becoming a reality. This begs the question, should we revive these species?

by Kiersten Ngeow

Everyone knows about Jurassic Park, the blockbuster where dinosaurs are resurrected and brought to life! But, did you know that the technology to “resurrect” extinct species is becoming a reality?

Utilizing precise genome editing (such as CRISPR) makes it possible to introduce the extinct species’ traits. But how does it work? First, we want to collect the DNA of the extinct species. This is to assemble its entire genome. However, since DNA decays over time, there may be gaps in the DNA. So, to “resurrect” the extinct species, you use precise genome editing to take out and replace the genes of a related species with the different genetic material that expresses the traits of an extinct species. Once these changes are done in the related species’ embryo, the embryo is inserted into the surrogate mother (of the same relative species). In doing so, we can potentially create a “Frankenstein” hybrid that resembles the extinct species. But should we?

This is where our trilemma is presented: should we revive extinct species, or is it too risky? And is there a neutral stance?

We should revive extinct species:

Nearly one million species are facing extinction—and a large majority of it is our fault. But what if we could get rid of extinction altogether? In doing so, we could use de-extinction as a tool to save not only animals but entire ecosystems.

There are lots of good reasons to bring back extinct animals. All animals perform important roles in the ecosystems they live in, so when lost species are returned, so too are the ‘jobs’ they once performed.”

Not only that but bringing back species that have been extinct for thousands of years could bring surprising benefits to our world today. It could even decrease global warming. According to scientist Sergey Zimov, through reintroducing the tundra to a woolly mammoth hybrid, we can encourage the growth of pastures. Thus, slowing down the melting rate of permafrost and potentially decreasing global warming.

But how is this possible? In every ecosystem, there are unique “jobs” that each species performs. So, what was the mammoth’s job? Well, believe it or not, they were gardeners! Before their extinction, mammoths would eat grass, knockdown samplings, and fertilize the ground through their nutrient-rich dung. However, with their disappearance, biodiversity has crashed, and the once lush grasslands are ruined.

But that’s not all. Through advocating for the revival of extinct species, we could inspire future generations to defend and protect all species—past and present.

So, if we live in a time of mass extinction, why not, as the Smithsonian states, “...provide populations a little bit of genomic assistance so they can survive in a world that is changing too quickly for natural evolutionary processes to keep up?”

We should not revive extinct species:

These animals went extinct in the first place for a reason: humans thought they were useful for dinner or couture, too much of a pest, eradicated their natural habitat, or suffered some other catastrophe. Have the reasons for the original extinction disappeared? If not, who’s to say that it wouldn’t just happen again?”

These are Lynn J. Rothschild’s words, an evolutionary biologist and astrobiologist who believes that we shouldn’t revive extinct species. After all, why resurrect a species to have them go extinct again.

Furthermore, the revival of an extinct species doesn’t guarantee its role in an ecosystem. To Rothschild, species of the past have no meaningful role in our present ecosystems. Not only are these “resurrected” species merely replicas or imitations, but other organisms could have also replaced their “jobs.” As she explains, “You don’t rejuvenate degraded environments by coming up with implausible jobs for genetically engineered animals whose connection with any real ecosystem either never existed or was severed thousands of years ago.”

This leads us to question. Why do we really want to bring back extinct species? Is it because we feel guilty for condemning an entire species to its death? Or perhaps, we feel indebted to these species to resurrect them to life? Regardless of these justifications, one thing remains evident: we are reviving these species for our interest. But what happens when that interest runs out? What will happen when we abandon these species?

According to Rothschild, these species will likely be malformed, malnourished, and maladjusted, leading to a second extinction.

So, why should we revive these extinct species if they’ll become extinct again?

We should focus on supporting existing species:

No matter which stance you take, whether it is to revive these extinct species or not, this fact remains: these species are already dead. Even if we tried to resurrect ancient extinct species such as the mammoth, the closest we can get is a mere hybrid.

But what about those 1 million species currently facing extinction? What can we do to help them?

A study published by Nature Ecology & Evolution was conducted to determine the hypothetical cost of sustaining de-extinct species. What they found out is that it’s better to spend money on currently struggling species instead.

With this, I believe that it’s better for us to support present species than resurrecting extinct ones. Even though the idea of bringing mammoths back to life fascinates and excites me, the cost to sustain these species when other species are currently struggling leads me to take this stance.

Instead of resuscitating species long gone, wouldn’t it be much better to help them from disappearing in the first place?