Can We vs. Should We?
In the famous words of Doctor Ian Malcolm,“your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”It’s a great sentence from an even greater movie. Jurassic Park set new standards for science fiction films when it was released in 1993, but it also brought up good points about us as a society and the lengths we would go to oppose nature and the overall balance of things.
25 years later we are at a cross-road. With the advancements in genetic engineering, we have the capabilities to rebuild species that have long since been extinct. This could be used as a way to balance the scales and repair some of the damage humanity has caused by its actions in the past. Unfortunately, by doing this, further damage can be done to species that are currently endangered and overall biodiversity could suffer a big hit.
Preserving Remaining Spices or Reviving Extinct Ones?
The opponents of de-extinction cite limited conservation budgets as the main argument against resurrecting an extinct species. A team of researchers from the Carleton University in Canada led by Joseph Bennet has tried to calculate the exact cost of bringing back a species.
These calculations included everything except the actual cost of bringing a species back to life. The reason is that we do not have any idea how much something like that would cost. Early estimates are that it would be in the tens of millions dollar range.
The main issue is; even if you could bring a species back, their number would be so limited that you would have to allocate the same funds for their preservation as the one allocated to preserving ones currently on the endangered species list. This cost would have to be handled by either the government or by private institutions willing to invest in something like this. But at this stage, the point becomes moot. Why not use that money to save already existing species?
Countries like New Zealand are already keeping detailed records and calculations on what the cost to conserve their endangered species are. Bennet and his team used these records to calculate how much a similar project for a resurrected species might cost. They compared the endangered Chatham Island warbler with the extinct Chatham bellbird. The estimated cost for the conservation of the Chatham Island warbleris somewhere in the ballpark of $400,000 US. Way less than de-extincting the bellbird.
Furthermore, they created multiple estimates, and each of those scenarios returned the same grim result. For every species that is brought back, another one would go extinct. The reason is that all the species would compete for financing and a selection would have to be made. In all of the scenarios they tested out, only one came with a positive net result – the resurrection of the extinct Forbes’ snipe. Bringing back this species overlaps with approximately 40 other conservation efforts, and this, in turn, could massively benefit biodiversity.
What’s the Consensus?
Put simply, to resurrect New Zealand’s 11 extinct species, three times as many endangered species would go extinct. Another study took a look at the cost to bring back five extinct species from New South Wales. For the same amount of funding, they could conserve 42 living species.
Bennet goes on further to explain that it might be even more expensive to conserve the de-extinct species because of habitat loss and natural predators.
An additional cost that must be factored in is the captive breeding and re-introduction into the wild, something that is not necessary for the endangered species.
This does not mean that scientist should give up on this completely, but some precautions have to be taken before any new progress is made.
Are We Even Close to Being Able to De-extinct a Species?
Well, the debate is opened here as well. While many scientists believe that we are dozens of years away from being able to completely resurrect an extinct species, there are some that claim it can be done today. The newest development in gene insertion and cloning techniques definitely open the doors of repopulating the Earth with some of the most amazing creatures that existed. In the latest research papers published, the number of successful tests regarding gene insertions has significantly risen in both frequency and success rate. This doesn’t mean that we are getting really close, but it does mean that we are trying. Some experts estimate that within 20-30 years, we can expect a significant progress in the field and first successful lab tests on a single subject.
What Are the Benefits?
Being able to de-extinct a species certainly carries a lot of benefits. Scientists say that the process could naturally start by resurrecting species that have died out recently. Their habitat is still around, their natural food sources as well. And of course, their natural predators, many of which are the humans themselves. For example, Western Black rhinoceros has only died out recently and it’s mostly due to humans getting involved in their habitat or simply killing them for their horns. Same can be argued for Tasmanian wolf, Thylacine, a species extinct since 1986. We could and should bring back this interesting species that went instinct as a direct result of our meddling with their natural habitat.
This is a debate that sparks many controversies and there are pros and cons that hang in the balance. But the time where a decision has to be made whether we should or shouldn’t de-extinct a species, or a number of them, is drawing near. In fact, many scientists believe that we are closer to being capable of doing it than actually having a consensus on the matter. For what is worth, human race has been known to be irresponsible regarding even the bigger things that could significantly influence the life on the planet, so hopefully, we learned a lesson or two and this matter gets settled in the right way.