The ethics of resurrecting extinct species

Apr 08, 2013 by Thomas Sumner & Bjorn Carey
Within a few decades, scientists may be able to bring back the dodo bird from extinction, a possibility that raises a host of ethical questions, says Stanford law Professor Hank Greely.

(Phys.org) —At some point, scientists may be able to bring back extinct animals, and perhaps early humans, raising questions of ethics and environmental disruption.

Twenty years after the release of Jurassic Park, the dream of bringing back the dinosaurs remains science fiction. But scientists predict that within 15 years they will be able to revive some more recently extinct species, such as the dodo or the passenger pigeon, raising the question of whether or not they should – just because they can.

In the April 5 issue of Science, Stanford Hank Greely identifies the ethical landmines of this new concept of de-extinction.

"I view this piece as the first framing of the issues," said Greely, director of the Stanford Center for Law and the Biosciences. "I don't think it's the end of the story, rather I think it's the start of a discussion about how we should deal with de-extinction."

In "What If Extinction Is Not Forever?" Greely lays out potential benefits of de-extinction, from creating new to restoring lost ecosystems. But the biggest benefit, Greely believes, is the "wonder" factor.

"It would certainly be cool to see a living saber-toothed cat," Greely said. "'Wonder' may not seem like a substantive benefit, but a lot of science – such as the Mars rover – is done because of it."

Greely became interested in the ethics of de-extinction in 1999 when one of his students wrote a paper on the implications of bringing back wooly mammoths.

"He didn't have his science right – which wasn't his fault because approaches on how to do this have changed in the last 13 years – but it made me realize this was a really interesting topic," Greely said.

Scientists are currently working on three different approaches to restore lost . In cloning, scientists use from the extinct species to create an exact modern copy. tries to give a closely-related modern species the characteristics of its extinct relative. With genetic engineering, the DNA of a modern species is edited until it closely matches the .

All of these techniques would bring back only the physical animal or plant.

"If we bring the back, there's no reason to believe it will act the same way as it did in 1850," said co-author Jacob Sherkow, a fellow at the Stanford Center for Law and the Biosciences. "Many traits are culturally learned. Migration patterns change when not taught from generation to generation."

Many newly revived species could cause unexpected problems if brought into the modern world. A reintroduced species could become a carrier for a deadly disease or an unintentional threat to a nearby ecosystem, Greely says.

"It's a little odd to consider these things 'alien' species because they were here before we were," he said. "But the 'here' they were in is very different than it is now. They could turn out to be pests in this new environment."

When asked whether government policies are keeping up with the new threat, Greely answers "no."

"But that's neither surprising nor particularly concerning," he said. "It will be a while before any revised species is going to be present and able to be released into the environment."

Greely and Sherkow recommend that the government leave de-extinction research to private companies and focus on drafting new regulations. Sherkow says the biggest legal and ethical challenge of de-extinction concerns our own long-lost ancestors.

"Bringing back a hominid raises the question, 'Is it a person?' If we bring back a mammoth or pigeon, there's a very good existing ethical and legal framework for how to treat research animals. We don't have very good ethical considerations of creating and keeping a person in a lab," said Sherkow. "That's a far cry from the type of de-extinction programs going on now, but it highlights the slippery slope problem that ethicists are famous for considering."

Explore further: Study reveals drivers of Western consumers' readiness to eat insects

More information: 'What If Extinction Is Not Forever?' Science. dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1236965

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grondilu
5 / 5 (7) Apr 08, 2013
Can't they just do it first and think about ethical issues afterwards? Bioethics is such a fun-breaker.
I mean: let's say they start with the dodo. No matter how much I think of it, I can't see how reviving the dodo would be catastrophic in any way. It's not like dodo would conquest the World and exterminate the human race, or anything.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.2 / 5 (13) Apr 08, 2013
Many newly revived species could cause unexpected problems if brought into the modern world. A reintroduced species could become a carrier for a deadly disease or an unintentional threat to a nearby ecosystem, Greely says
-Like kudzu down south or Asian carp in the great lakes? Like stink bugs or starlings? Invasive species are everywhere. The world needs to be managed like a park already.
"It would certainly be cool to see a living saber-toothed cat," Greely said. "'Wonder' may not seem like a substantive benefit
No but profit is. I would pay good money to see a terror bird. Besides its as good as done.
http://en.wikiped...a_River)

-And knowledge is worth it. We lose every time a species goes extinct. We need to bring back as many as possible.
Achille
4 / 5 (2) Apr 08, 2013
I'd love to see a living sabertooth squirrel, even though it isn't clear yet if they can conquer the world.
PJS
2.5 / 5 (8) Apr 08, 2013
if you're going to introduce them into the wild, fine. if you're just going to stick them in a cage at a zoo, not fine. we don't need any more slave animals for entertainment
ian_j_allen
2.7 / 5 (10) Apr 08, 2013
We killed the dodo; an act that was entirely unethical and inexcusable despite our ignorance at the time.

Bringing them back and reintroducing them to the limited island range they once called home is only returning balance to the system.

Velociraptors, on the other hand, were clearly meant to die before we got here.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1.8 / 5 (12) Apr 08, 2013
We killed the dodo; an act that was entirely unethical and inexcusable despite our ignorance at the time
Ethics had nothing to do with that, human hater. Most all the species that ever existed have gone extinct for one reason or another. Wolves extincted the terror birds, does that make them evil?
Velociraptors, on the other hand, were clearly meant to die before we got here
'Meant to die.' Meant by whom? Meant by what? GOD??

DNA degrades over time. The best way of preserving it indefinitely may be within resurrected animals.
ian_j_allen
3.9 / 5 (8) Apr 08, 2013
Who ever said I hate humans? Oh, you did. Just like you shoved a GOD argument down my throat as if it were me mentioning these things, and not you. Pretty weak debate stance, there. In your haste, the joke on velociraptors went right over your head, as well as the fact that I was clearly in favor bringing of using this technology.

At any rate, you would be hard pressed to argue the ethical justification of destroying an entire species simply because it was an easy food supply. Even in the light of pure human superiority, preservation of said supply outweighs its short-sighted destruction.
ian_j_allen
1.8 / 5 (6) Apr 08, 2013
Or maybe in line with your wolf analogy you would argue that, ethically, human beings should act no different than animals, and abandon our reason to the dogs? Sounds that way to me.
BSD
2.5 / 5 (11) Apr 08, 2013
We killed the dodo; an act that was entirely unethical and inexcusable despite our ignorance at the time.

Bringing them back and reintroducing them to the limited island range they once called home is only returning balance to the system.

Velociraptors, on the other hand, were clearly meant to die before we got here.


Exactly, there are no ethics in extinction. Add to the Dodo, our Thylacine (Tasmanian tiger), mercilessly hunted down by farmers, erroneously blamed for stock losses. Another bird is the Great Auk, mindlessly slaughtered throughout the Atlantic. I would like to think we as a species have evolved as well, but Japanese whaling is a glaring example that we haven't.
Modernmystic
1.2 / 5 (5) Apr 08, 2013
I would like to think we as a species have evolved as well, but Japanese whaling is a glaring example that we haven't.


We've evolved to the point where we can kill enormous sea creatures with impunity...that's a lot of evolution.

What exactly did you mean beyond that? Were you making a moral or ethical statement? Because, you see you said you don't have morals...
TheKnowItAll
1 / 5 (4) Apr 08, 2013
Bringing the species that went extent due to mal adaptation back and releasing them to the wild is just foolish hope and potentially dangerous. If they want to bring anything back (including dinosaurs) for research purposes than I find that acceptable only if it be kept in a cleanroom and studied for years before even considering letting them breath the same air as we do. Anyone that thinks this is immoral then I ask you how many animals in your life did you help bring to life only to turn around and have them killed for food? I think that giving life to an extinct animal for research is perfectly moral, that's my opinion. The hominid on the other hand lies on a totally different set of ethics and needs a lot more consideration. I vote no on that one for now.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1.5 / 5 (8) Apr 08, 2013
At any rate, you would be hard pressed to argue the ethical justification of destroying an entire species simply because it was an easy food supply. Even in the light of pure human superiority, preservation of said supply outweighs its short-sighted destruction
"...archaeological investigations have found scant evidence of human predation...but they introduced other animals, including dogs, pigs, cats, rats, and crab-eating macaques, which plundered Dodo nests and competed for the limited food resources."

You assumed humans killed off the dodo but that was your prejudice speaking. I suppose their extinction could only have been averted if the conservationists had gotten there first.
Who ever said I hate humans?
Well you did. Human haters use words like 'unethical', 'inexcusable', 'mindlessly slaughtered', butchery of innocents', 'kill with impunity', etc. And sorry there was no way to tell that that was a joke.

I hate human haters.
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.3 / 5 (8) Apr 08, 2013
Again, the Thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) was close to extinction by the time euros got there. But the dingo and other introduced species probably finished them off.
Great Auk, mindlessly slaughtered
The megafauna on the north american continent were mercilously and mindlessly slaughtered to extinction and beyond by bloodthirsty pleistoceners. Do you hate them too, or only xian euros with their frilly shirts who also had families to feed?
We've evolved to the point where we can kill enormous sea creatures with impunity...that's a lot of evolution
We stopped evolving back when we began using technology and living in tribes. The tribal dynamic began to unnaturally select humans who were better able to communicate, cooperate, and take orders. This is rather domestication and not evolution.
Moebius
2.1 / 5 (7) Apr 08, 2013
I hate child philosophers. The little girl in Jurassic Park was asked what she thought, as if the opinion of 12 year old mattered, about resurrecting dinosaurs and she said she thought that it would be wrong.

The only thing wrong with Jurassic Park was that they cloned carnivores. Which they had to do or there wouldn't be a story. I see nothing wrong with cloned extinct animals as long as the species isn't going to create problems.

And for that matter, I think we can handle a T Rex or 2. We would probably have more to fear from something small rather than big.

Cloning proto-humans would be a big mistake. Look at the problems we have with the 2 existing intelligent species, men and women.
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.7 / 5 (7) Apr 08, 2013
I hate child philosophers. The little girl in Jurassic Park was asked what she thought, as if the opinion of 12 year old mattered, about resurrecting dinosaurs and she said she thought that it would be wrong
She was reading script written by liberal arts-educated pseudo-religious hollywood propagandists who think that humans are too corrupted to 'play god'.

If you asked the actress herself or any kid for that matter who wasnt a baptist, they would probably be pretty enthusiastic.
geokstr
1.6 / 5 (7) Apr 08, 2013
Can't they just do it first and think about ethical issues afterwards? Bioethics is such a fun-breaker.
I mean: let's say they start with the dodo. No matter how much I think of it, I can't see how reviving the dodo would be catastrophic in any way. It's not like dodo would conquest the World and exterminate the human race, or anything.

And they might be tasty - with some fava beans and a nice chianti.
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.3 / 5 (9) Apr 08, 2013
Cloning proto-humans would be a big mistake. Look at the problems we have with the 2 existing intelligent species, men and women
Neanderthals had probably lived long enough outside the tropics that their reproduction had become seasonal, like most other species, and were only urged to reproduce a month or so out of the year.

What a revelation this would be, to meet people who werent constantly preoccupied at a very primal and subconscious level, with reproduction. Their brains were bigger. They were probably very wise and less prone to overconsumption. They may have been the source of the nephelim legend in the bible.

Bring them back lets vote them into office.
PoppaJ
2 / 5 (4) Apr 08, 2013
Not only should we bring into existence the extinct. It would be socially criminal if we did not. The potential benefits of doing so makes it a requirement. We have already seen that many existing plants and animals are important for producing medications that we can learn to produce. We have selectively bread animals into completely different species. Based on our history we will not only do this but we will do both good and bad things with it.
dan42day
1.7 / 5 (6) Apr 08, 2013
The people that see an ethical dilemma in this are the same people that worry about whether they should deficate or hold it in for ever.

Nature is running countless trillions of genetic experiments as we ponder this without giving the consequences a second, or even first thought. There are many benefits to running experiments of this kind, and the risks are very few.

Perhaps we will create a creature that is not fit to live and will be doomed to a misearable existance. We do that by the millions whenever we breed animals, in fish hatcheries for example. If the few animals we create are not successfull, we will move on.

As I said, nature has been running these experiments for eons without any thought what so ever. It's crowning achievement is that it has finally created an entity that can intelligently continue it's work, us. We need to learn how.
toffah
4 / 5 (2) Apr 09, 2013
"There is a legend," he said. "That one day will come a species who achieves the impossible. Beings who notice and wisely evade all traps and pitfalls, yet do so while moving forward. A race that soberly studies the art of survival, the craft of maturity, and the science of compassion.
"It is said this will be a new dawn. That long-awaited civilization will set forth to rescue all promising new races, teaching them the skills to make it and survive. And they will lift up those who tumbled earlier." - Existence, David Brin
BSD
1 / 5 (6) Apr 09, 2013

What exactly did you mean beyond that? Were you making a moral or ethical statement? Because, you see you said you don't have morals...


It's an evolutionary statement. Something you failed to grasp. Japanese blood lust stems from their medieval past like Christians and Muslims, your a 'ModernMystic' surely you understand that?
I advocate the destruction of Japanese whaling vessels by any force necessary, I have no problem with that. You speak to violent people with violence, that is all they understand.
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.1 / 5 (7) Apr 09, 2013
Perhaps we will create a creature that is not fit to live and will be doomed to a misearable existance. We do that by the millions whenever we breed animals, in fish hatcheries for example. If the few animals we create are not successfull, we will move on
We do this whenever we allow women to expose their unborn fetuses to drugs, alcohol, or tobacco. Moralists should direct their attention to the lives of misery caused by damage done to humans in the womb by selfish, ignorant women who have no business having children, let alone raising them.

And if theyre so concerned about animals, they should require ALL pets to be neutered, and new ones only produced by licensed breeders.

But I suppose they would complain about depriving their pets the joys of unrestricted reproduction, even if most were condemned to starve or to be put down at the ASPCA.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1.7 / 5 (6) Apr 09, 2013
"There is a legend," he said. "That one day will come a species who achieves the impossible. Beings who notice and wisely evade all traps and pitfalls, yet do so while moving forward. A race that soberly studies the art of survival, the craft of maturity, and the science of compassion.
"It is said this will be a new dawn. That long-awaited civilization will set forth to rescue all promising new races, teaching them the skills to make it and survive. And they will lift up those who tumbled earlier." - Existence, David Brin
I am sure brin knows full well that we are in the process of creating them, our machine successors. Perhaps this is what he was implying?
Modernmystic
1 / 5 (3) Apr 11, 2013
It's an evolutionary statement. Something you failed to grasp.


No, you failed to grasp that it's NOT a statement about biology or evolution. It's LOADED with human created values. Try again.

Biology doesn't give people the automatic ability to evaluate their behavior or pass judgement on the behaviors of others. You have to use philosophy, introspection, and value sets for that...

I advocate the destruction of Japanese whaling vessels by any force necessary, I have no problem with that. You speak to violent people with violence, that is all they understand.


That would be a moral value judgement, you don't have them by your own admission. So what EXACTLY do you base that statement on?
Sinister1811
2.3 / 5 (6) Apr 13, 2013
I see nothing (morally is subjective) "wrong" or "bad" about bringing back species from extinction. But it's the media's constant comparisons to Jurassic Park and "creating Frankenstein", which are serving to frighten the public and continuing to undermine scientific efforts in this area. It was the same thing with the building of the LHC, which protesters kept saying would cause a black hole. Compared to the other screwed up things we do the planet, and the tests we run on animals in labs around the world, why is this such a big deal for the public? Since when have we not "played God" and why should we suddenly give up our curiosity to explore because luddites say that it's "wrong"?