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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  • Apr 9 2013: Not sure if this is a redundant comment, but there are three reasons I doubt it's beneficial:

    A species in decent numbers was a component part of a larger ecosystem when it thrived. The ecosystem adapts when a component species becomes extinct, so there's no way to re-introduce a species the the literal sense once enough time has passed. At best they would be a disruption to the ecosystem they are introduced back into, and definitely not a repair to it.

    From what I understand, any attempt at recreating an extinct creature is still just an approximation, DNA-wise, because of the influence of the hosts involved. Even if you could revive a "perfect" male and female from separate source stock, re-establishing enough numbers to maintain viability in the wild would involve so much inbreeding that the resulting gene pool would be compromised anyway.

    Higher-order mammals like mammoths may have had behaviors that were taught, not carried by instinct, and without the learned traits that characterized the species at its peak, what would we be restoring but a template without the proper instructions?

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