Pausing in her grazing, a mother mammoth casts a wary eye for signs of danger to herself and her offspring. Hidden from her view, a saber-toothed cat assesses his chances of getting a meal…or getting stomped. The cat is startled by movement behind it and whirls about to confront a vehicle full of people. Digital photos are snapped, then uploaded to Facebook. “Damn tourists”, thinks the cat, as it saunters away.
While this scene is not yet a reality, there are people who hope to make it so through de-extinction. De-extinction is the restoration of a species that has been lost to extinction. The most famous fictional example is Jurassic Park: dinosaurs are restored and made the central focus of an amusement park. There have been real-life attempts at restoring lost species, but these have focused on species that went extinct far more recently than the dinosaurs.
There are various ways in which a species can be restored. The best known (thanks to the movies) is genetic restoration: the genes of the species are recovered and used to recreate the species. For example, recovered mastodon DNA could be implanted into an “emptied” elephant egg and the egg could then be implanted into a female elephant. If the process succeeded, the surrogate mother would give birth to an actual mastodon.
A somewhat less known method is “trait” or “appearance” restoration. In this method, an extinct species is recreated by selectively modifying an existing species until it looks like the extinct species. For example, an extinct species of pigeons could be “restored” in this manner. One rather obvious question about this method is whether or not such a restoration should be considered an actual de-extinction. To use the obvious analogy, if after my death someone is modified to look like me, then I have not been restored to life. Likewise, creating a species that looks (and acts) like the extinct species does not seem to really restore the species. Rather, a rather clever imposter has been created.
In additional to the practical concerns of the science and technology of de-extinction, there are also moral concerns. Not surprisingly, many of these concerns involve he potential consequences of de-extinction.
One matter of concern is that the de-extinction of a species could actually have negative consequences for other species or the environment. A restored species could become an invasive and harmful species (directly or indirectly), which would be rather bad and has been shown by existing invasive species that have been transported by humans into new environments. In the case of de-extinction, humans would be re-created rather than transporting-but the effect could be quite similar.
It can be replied that the impact of a species could be sorted out ahead of time, especially if the species went extinct fairly recently. The counter to this reply is to point out that people have made rather serious mistakes when importing species and that it is not unreasonable to believe that people could make comparable mistakes.
Another matter of concern that a species could be restored despite there not being a viable habitat for it. This sort of irresponsible de-extinction might occur for a variety of reasons, perhaps to provide a novelty attraction for a zoo or park. This sort of treatment of an animal would certainly seem to be wrong because of the exploitation of the species. The reply to this is the same that is given when species that are close to extinction are kept in zoos or parks: such an existence is better than no existence. This does have a certain appeal, but it could be contended that restoring an animal to keep it in a zoo is relevantly different from endeavoring to preserve an existing species. It could also be contended that the zoo preservation of endangered species is wrong, hence the restoration of an extinct species to serve as a zoo exhibit would also be wrong.
One common argument against re-extinction is that it would be expensive and it would thus take money away from conservation efforts that would yield more results for the money. While I cannot predict the exact cost of restoring a mastodon, it seems safe to predict that it would be extremely expensive. This money could, one might argue, be better spent in protecting elephants.
While such cost arguments have considerable appeal, they often suffer from an obvious defect. This defect is that the argument fails to take into account the fact that there is not just one pool of money that is allocated to this matter. That is, money spent on restoring a species need not come from the money that would otherwise be spent on preserving existing species.
While it could be argued that money spent on de-extinction would be better spent elsewhere, it could very well be the case that the money spent on de-extinction would not, in fact, be spent on anything better. To use an obvious example, a wealthy celebrity might not care much about the plight of the snail darter, but he might be willing to spend millions of dollars to get a saber-toothed cat. To use another example, an investor might not be interested in spending money to save elephants, but she might be very interested in funding a Mammoth Park featuring restored mammoths and other charismatic but extinct species that people would pay to see. Interestingly, this sort of funding could itself raise moral concerns. That is, bringing back the mammoths so some investors can make a fortune on Mammoth Park might strike some as morally dubious.
Laying aside the moral concerns connected to why we should not engage in de-extinction, there is also to matter of why we should (morally) do this. In the case of natural extinctions, it would seem that we would not have a moral reason to restore a species. After all, humans were not responsible for its demise. Naturally, we might have pragmatic (to create Mammoth Park) or scientific reasons to restore such a species.
In the case of human caused extinctions, a case can be made that we should undo the (alleged) wrong that we did. This line of reasoning has the most appeal. After all, if we were responsible for the death of a species and we could restore this species, then it would seem that we should do so. To use the obvious analogy, if I kill someone (by accident or by intent) and then I get the means to restore the person, then I should do so (unless, of course, killing the person was the right thing to do).
In any case, I am waiting for my dire wolf-husky crossbreed.