At some point, scientists may be able to bring back extinct animals, and perhaps early humans, raising questions of ethics and environmental disruption.
Twenty years after the release of Jurassic Park, the dream of bringing back the dinosaurs remains science fiction. But scientists predict that within 15 years they will be able to revive some more recently extinct species, such as the dodo or the passenger pigeon, raising the question of whether or not they should – just because they can. In the April 5 issue of Science, Stanford law Professor Hank Greely identifies the ethical landmines of this new concept of de-extinction.
“I view this piece as the first framing of the issues,” said Greely, director of the Stanford Center for Law and the Biosciences. “I don’t think it’s the end of the story, rather I think it’s the start of a discussion about how we should deal with de-extinction.”
In “What If Extinction Is Not Forever?” Greely lays out potential benefits of de-extinction, from creating new scientific knowledge to restoring lost ecosystems. But the biggest benefit, Greely believes, is the “wonder” factor.
“It would certainly be cool to see a living saber-toothed cat,” Greely said. “‘Wonder’ may not seem like a substantive benefit, but a lot of science – such as the Mars rover – is done because of it.” Greely became interested in the ethics of de-extinction in 1999 when one of his students wrote a paper on the implications of bringing back wooly mammoths. “He didn’t have his science right – which wasn’t his fault because approaches on how to do this have changed in the last 13 years – but it made me realize this was a really interesting topic,” Greely said.
Scientists are currently working on three different approaches to restore lost plants and animals. In cloning, scientists use genetic material from the extinct species to create an exact modern copy. Selective breeding tries to give a closely-related modern species the characteristics of its extinct relative. With genetic engineering, the DNA of a modern species is edited until it closely matches the extinct species.
More here The ethics of resurrecting extinct species.