Suppose that scientists outdoors bring back extinct species like woolly mammoths or passenger pigeons. Should they?
The idea of bringing back an extinct species might seem like science fiction, but the possibility is very real, according to Britt Wray, author of Rise of the Necrofauna: The Science, Ethics, and Risks of De-Extinction.
In this book, she explores the science behind bringing extinct species back to life while also asking questions about whether the process is something that scientists should even consider.
As the author explains, various factors have to be in place before scientists would be able to revive an extinct species, and even then, the animals would likely not be exactly the same as in the past.
For example, at least some soft tissue with usable DNA is necessary in the process, making it highly unlikely that dinosaurs or the many fossilized sea creatures could ever be revived.
According to the author, a further limitation on reviving extinct species is the need for living surrogate mothers. With wooly mammoths likely being mixed with a modern species of elephant and passenger pigeon DNA being mixed with other birds, the resulting animals would not be the same as their predecessors, but would instead be similar.
With so many living animals currently under threat, why bother to revive long-gone species?
One of the reasons could be to restore the balance of nature that people have badly disrupted with pollution, environmental degradation, overhunting, and other activities that have put the planet in jeopardy.
Some animals disappeared long before humans had any particular effect on their existence, but others, like the passenger pigeon, have died out because of human negligence, overhunting, or indifference to the needs of the environment.
If people’s thoughtless use of the world around them has caused many of the extinctions, do they have a responsibility also to help restore these animals and to bring back their role in preserving the environment?
Every animal has a role in the world, whether that is clearing the leaves off of overhanging branches to allow for new growth or trampling the Siberian soil to release built-up gases. Many of the environmental problems that the world now faces have come from the loss of important species that were integral to the natural systems that kept the earth functioning well.
Even then, the science of de-extinction is not a straightforward matter. In her chapter entitled “Is Some Knowledge Too Dangerous?” Britt Wray discusses some of the implications of the science, asking whether the process of reviving these animals would be a kind of Frankenstein’s monster, “dangerous knowledge” that does little good but “reveals our own hubris” (p. 230).
This book raises many questions that people should be asking about scientific discoveries in general and de-extinction in particular. Although some sections are somewhat technical, the book is generally well written and easy to understand. For anyone who has an interest in the future of the world’s animals, this is an important book to read.