Why Efforts to Bring Extinct Species Back from the Dead Miss the Point


An editorial in Scientific American:

“We will get woolly mammoths back.” So vowed environmentalist Stewart Brand at the TED conference in Long Beach, Calif., in February in laying out his vision for reviving extinct species. The mammoth isn't the only vanished creature Brand and other proponents of “de-extinction” want to resurrect. The passenger pigeon, Caribbean monk seal and great auk are among the other candidates—all species that blinked out at least in part because of Homo sapiens. “Humans have made a huge hole in nature in the last 10,000 years,” Brand asserted. “We have the ability now—and maybe the moral obligation—to repair some of the damage.”

Just a few years ago such de-extinction was the purview of science fiction. Now it is so near at hand that in March, Brand's Long Now Foundation, along with TED and the National Geographic Society, convened an entire conference on the topic. Indeed, thanks to recent advances in cloning and the sequencing of ancient DNA, among other feats of biotechnology, researchers may soon be able to re-create any number of species once thought to be gone for good.

That does not mean that they should, however. The idea of bringing back extinct species holds obvious gee-whiz appeal and a respite from a steady stream of grim news. Yet with limited intellectual bandwidth and financial resources to go around, de-extinction threatens to divert attention from the modern biodiversity crisis.