Stewart Brand (above), the creator of the famed Whole Earth Catalog and a native of our town, ARGUES in the current issue of National Geographic News that the human race should avail itself of the opportunity to revive certain extinct species of animals:
Many extinct species—from the passenger pigeon to the woolly mammoth—might now be reclassified as “bodily, but not genetically, extinct.” They’re dead, but their DNA is recoverable from museum specimens and fossils, even those up to 200,000 years old.
Thanks to new developments in genetic technology, that DNA may eventually bring the animals back to life. Only species whose DNA is too old to be recovered, such as dinosaurs, are the ones to consider totally extinct, bodily and genetically.
But why bring vanished creatures back to life? It will be expensive and difficult. It will take decades. It won’t always succeed. Why even try?
Why do we take enormous trouble to protect endangered species? The same reasons will apply to species brought back from extinction: to preserve biodiversity, to restore diminished ecosystems, to advance the science of preventing extinctions, and to undo harm that humans have caused in the past.
Furthermore, the prospect of de-extinction is profound news. That something as irreversible and final as extinction might be reversed is a stunning realization. The imagination soars. Just the thought of mammoths and passenger pigeons alive again invokes the awe and wonder that drives all conservation at its deepest level.
Then, there’s the power of good news. The International Union for Conservation of Nature is adding to its famous “Red List” of endangered species a pair of “Green Lists.”
One will describe species that are doing fine as well as species that were in trouble and are now doing better, thanks to effective efforts to help them. The other list will describe protected wild lands in the world that are particularly well managed.
Conservationists are learning the benefits of building hope and building on hope. Species brought back from extinction will be beacons of hope.
Useful science will also emerge. Close examination of the genomes of extinct species can tell us much about what made them vulnerable in the first place. Were they in a bottleneck with too little genetic variability? How were they different from close relatives that survived? Living specimens will reveal even more.
Techniques being developed for de-extinction will also be directly applicable to living species that are close to extinction. Tiny populations can have their genetic variability restored. A species with a genetic Achilles’ heel might be totally cured with an adjustment introduced through cloning.