Recently, scientists working on the Lazarus Project succeeded in creating live embryos from the DNA of an extinct species of frog. What’s more, they feel sure that they are only a few tries away from making eggs and hatching the frog itself, thereby de-extinctifying the species. This is so cool that the English language does not have real words to describe it yet.
This news has created a distinct hullabaloo on the internets about the possibility, promise, and potential-to-give-us-dinosaurs-as-pets that is “de-extinction.” And of course everyone is excited: Some extinct animals have the same status in our minds as mythical beasts. Being told that we are a few generations away from hanging out with wooly mammoths is like being told that unicorns have just been hiding for the last few centuries. It’s awe-inspiring.
It also feels, instinctively, right. Humans can’t seem to stop wiping increasing numbers of species off the face of the earth, but now, with de-extinction on the horizon, we might be able to right our wrongs! Might “de-extinction” even be an ethical imperative? Is it not our duty to bring back what we ourselves snuffed out?
Look, I get it. We are all so guilt-ridden when it comes to the environment, and even the word, “de-extinction,” implies erasure of past wrongs. It is appealing to think that science, that thing that humans are best at, might give us a do-over with nature, that thing that we pretty much suck at more than any other species. What a relief a second chance would be.
Unfortunately, this is a siren song. One simple scientific process, no matter how astounding, could never give us a second chance. Assuming that we are able to de-extinctify enough fertile frogs to form a viable population, where would they live? In the forests where they once roamed, which are now logged wastelands or private resorts? Or perhaps in different but similar forests, where they might drive to extinction the frogs or snakes or salamanders that currently fill the same niche? How exciting to have a herd of mammoths roaming free, but how devastating to the animals, plants and human communities that have evolved to replace them in the last few hundred years.
Something that conservationists often overlook is that “nature” is a moving target. John Muir helped instill in us the concept of a perfect time when nature was pure and unspoiled by man, and the belief that any changes since then are offensive artificialities. If we could only put everything back in its place and erase the cruel footprint of mankind!
The thing is, we can’t, and the argument for why we should is pretty shaky. During our time on Earth, some species have gone extinct; some have developed new adaptations. New species have emerged. The climate everywhere has changed; the very chemistry of the air and soil is different. Mammoths and gastric birthing frogs and dodo birds simply don’t belong here anymore. Evolution has kept on chugging since they bowed out, and the ecosystems that still exist have adjusted to their absence. What exists now is just as beautiful and inspiring as what existed then, but it is different, and we have to accept that.
I’m not saying that there is nothing good about the possibility of de-extinction – for one thing, the amount of knowledge that we could gain from studying a live extinct animal is staggering. I merely fear what might be done with our new-found power. De-extinction offers an easy-to-understand, superficial way to make us feel better about ourselves, and that offer may be too appealing for us to resist.