TED Conversations

David Johnson

Remote Emergency Medical Responder, Eric Whitacre Virtual Choir

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Science is developing the tools towards de-extinction of species on the planet that have become extinct. The question becomes; Should we?

Stewart Brand and his colleagues are at the biotech precipice of reviving extinct species. The Revive and Restore project plans to not only bring species back but restore them to the wild, as well as protect currently endangered species.

I don't think any of us will have a problem with the latter, this discussion is focused on the primary goal; reintroduction of extinct species. We are not talking about dinosaurs here, but the Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet, Heath Hen, European Aurochs, Bucardo, The Taz Tiger, etc.

Up for debate here: Should we?

Where we can all appreciate the science being developed, we must discuss the implications of initiating projects like this. I submit we need to discuss this on behalf of the existing species that we have, as well as for the animals that are lost.

Some questions to consider:

Do we value the argument that we should 'undo the harm' that humans have caused in the past, due to over-hunting or destruction of habitat? Should we rewrite or undo history?

Many of these species have not been in the natural environment for 100 years. It is fair to say that the natural predators or prey of these species, the plants or insect life they feed on, the environments they roam through ... have altered in their absence. Has the cycle of the earth, moved on without them?

We have a long history of experiencing what can happen when biodiversity is altered by introducing a species not indigenous to the area in question. Cane Toads in Australia, Grey Squirrel in Europe or the Gypsy Moth.

Is this project actually an introduction of a species back into an environment that may not be able to sustain it as it once did?

Even though we can grieve the lost of the Dodo, should we bring it back at all costs?

Or as Daniel Chan asks below;

how can we effectively simulate the effects of introducing pre-existing species to the environment before actually doing so?

What other Questions should we ask?


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    Mar 14 2013: In the natural science world, one would consider extinction as a natural process to evolution. Man has had much influence on the world and could be the direct result of the annihilation of many species to come.

    To have the ability to create what has not yet been created is what motivates and drives our very existence. To recreate, that is quite different. For science to know that we have the ability to recreate a "sustained" life would be, by far, a great achievement. However, in my opinion, to actually do this, is not necessary to the benefit of mankind or for the extinction of the species given.

    In a most desperate move to provide nourishment or to assist in sustaining humans by medical means, the use of recreation would benefit our very existence. I could then foresee that there would be wider acceptance of the processes.

    As we overpopulate our planet, pollute it, abuse it etc., in generations to come, it may be the only way of survival for our own species. It truly is a matter of great importance to ponder upon. ~ Leslie
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      Mar 15 2013: Thank you Leslie. You write with clarity and eloquence.

      In my blundering simplicity I would say "today a bird ... tomorrow grandma"
      You remind us that these two acts are certainly related.

      The question takes on a greater importance considering the possible future implications.

      Should we allow this?
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        Mar 15 2013: This is a concern to a point, however I tend to shy away from these arguments. This is known as the "slippery slope" argument.

        If you allow people to drink, then they will smoke then they will do harder drugs and eventually become cocaine addicts. OR if you allow people to drink they will all become alcoholics.

        Should we allow grandmas to be cloned. Perhaps not, but we do a decent job or reigning in the extremes and while people can point to the extremes. eg. A gun owner that shoots children, That does not necessitate that owning a gun will eventually a person will shoot children.

        Actually, this is a better example of the slippery slope argument.


        With my current ideals I believe that whatever path we take should be monitored and agreed to by a majority of our moral codes and ethics of the time, coupled with the current scientific understanding of the era. With that said, If scientists announced tomorrow that anyone could have their grandma cloned for $10,000 a majority of the planet would say "NO!" And then pass laws to prevent it.
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          Mar 15 2013: Your final paragraph, very nicely said.
        • Mar 15 2013: Well there is a difference between the slippery slope argument in a debate, and actual science. I mean we definitely have a better idea on how alcoholism can affect a person's life than how introducing this newly developed species into the wild has on it. I think the argument above is more justified through the "precautionary principle" of environment science and can be easily mistaken as a bad argument.
          In situations like this we really need to consider the worse, worse case scenario and be prepared to react to it accordingly.
    • Mar 15 2013: I cannot agree more with your point of acceptance based upon need. Although cold, humans are often motivated by their own best interest. If there is no benefit for the human race I too see no reason why the majority would support the research and funding in order to recreate. Your worst-case scenario tackles this need for self interest.

      Personally I view this situation as a catch-22. Without developing the technology now because we do not need it, the science might not be perfected by the time we actually do need and want it.
      • Mar 15 2013: There is a potential business interest in here though, since if species can be recreated from genetic leftover material, this technology can definitely be used to replenish endangered species as well. With that you create the possibility to "grow" things like ivory and skins in a lab or "controlled ecosystem" that is virtually impossible to distinguish from the natural ones.
        I think this is enough for the investors to be interested in this technology, especially those that are worried about the "ops, we just killed the last one" scenarios.

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