I have a short Viewpoint piece out in this month’s Bioscience about the potential link between reintroduction (bringing a species back to an area where it was formerly) and de-extinction (bringing a species back to life through fancy genetic means after it has been declared extinct). I suggest that reintroduction experience and standards should be a guide for de-extinction projects that attempt to bring back formerly extinct species.
Now I want to make it perfectly clear that the article does not say we should be going around de-extincting species. What it says is that we will be – and that’s not entirely the same thing. I think, like animal cloning, that this will take off as a scholarly pursuit, whether or not it is the right thing to do. I mention in the paper that humanities scholars in particular need to be mobilised in discussions about whether or not a species should be brought back. Philosophers and historians should have important things to contribute in the debate, and so far, they have been relatively silent. There were no professional philosophers or historians represented at the TEDxDeExtinction event, for example. My article doesn’t go into the details what humanities scholars should be saying, although it does suggest that we need to learn from history–the history of reintroduction–before moving forward with de-extinction.
I think that if geneticists and molecular biologists go to all the trouble of re-creating a species (whether or not it is truly the same doesn’t actually matter), the plan should be to eventually have that species in the wild. And if that is the goal, then reintroduction is an appropriate guide. So my article talks about some of the guidance out there and how it might be useful.
The article also offers a few ‘words of wisdom’ about learning from past reintroduction experiences, focusing on potential conflicts that could arise. One example is the thylacine. Although scientists have argued that thylacines could not physically have killed sheep because of their jaw configuration, rural residents might still object to them coming back just as wolf reintroductions have met with resistance.
While everyone seems to be advocating rewilding these days, are average people really going to want to have mammoths wondering around the nearby woods? I envision that mammoths will be brought back through de-extinction techniques within the next 20 years and they’ll be put in subarctic national park type areas, like Pleistocene Park in Russia which was established in 1996 specifically with the intent of having mammoths there some day. When the mammoths stray too far out of bounds, they’ll have to be captured and taken back home or killed. Since this is precisely what is done currently with reintroduced animals like the muskox in Norway, it seems to me that those examples should be studied more closely.
If anything, I hope that the short piece provides some food for thought for the scientific community. Instead of always thinking a new technological development changes everything, it might be wiser to reflect on the ways that everything stays the same.