De-extinction is about as sensible as de-death

Dead as a … extinct species should stay extinct, and we should focus on saving the ones still living. Jebulon

On Friday, March 15 in Washington DC, National Geographic and TEDx are hosting a day-long conference on species-revival science and ethics. In other words, they will be debating whether we can, and should, attempt to bring extinct animals back to life - a concept some call “de-extinction”.

The debate has an interesting line-up of ecologists, geneticists, palaeontologists (including Australia’s own Mike Archer), developmental biologists, journalists, lawyers, ethicists and even artists. I have no doubt it will be very entertaining.

But let’s not mistake entertainment for reality. It disappoints me, a conservation scientist, that this tired fantasy still manages to generate serious interest. I have little doubt what the ecologists at the debate will conclude.

Once again, it’s important to discuss the principal flaws in such proposals.

Put aside for the moment the astounding inefficiency, the lack of success to date and the welfare issues of bringing something into existence only to suffer a short and likely painful life. The principal reason we should not even consider the technology from a conservation perspective is that it does not address the real problem – mainly, the reason for extinction in the first place.

Even if we could solve all the other problems, if there is no place to put these new individuals, the effort and money expended is a complete waste of time and money. Habitat loss is the principal driver of species extinction and endangerment. If we don’t stop and reverse this now, all other avenues are effectively closed. Cloning will not create new forests or coral reefs, for example.

The flaws do not end with a lack of space in a natural world shrinking as a result of over 26 million new humans per year. The loss of genetic diversity leading to inbreeding depression is a major issue that cloning cannot even begin to address. Without sufficient genetic variability, a population is almost certainly more susceptible to disease, reductions in fitness, weather extremes and over-exploitation. Studies show convincingly that genetic diversity is lower in threatened than in comparable non-threatened species, and there is growing evidence on how serious inbreeding effects are in determining extinction risk. Populations need to number in the hundreds or thousands of genetically distinct individuals to have any chance of persisting. To postulate, even for a moment, that cloning can artificially recreate genetic diversity essential for population persistence is therefore arrogant and irresponsible.

Cloning is also an expensive business – it can cost upwards of tens of thousands to several millions of dollars to clone a single animal. Like the costs associated with most captive breeding programmes, this is a nonsensical waste of finite funds.

Think of what we could do with that money for real conservation and restoration efforts, such as buying conservation easements, conservation land acquisition and restoring ecosystems. Even if the costs come down over time, cloning will always be more expensive than the equivalent investment in habitat restoration and protection.

The de-extinction debate was also covered earlier by Discover Magazine where they echoed many of these points. It truly is a fantasy most likely spawned by Hollywood-like impressions of white-coated, mad scientists mixing concoctions of DNA from frozen stores to create islands of long-lost species (what I call the Crichton syndrome). Society cannot even handle ideas about redistributing existing “megafauna” like elephants to solve existing ecological problems, let alone fathom the concept of regenerating viable populations of woolly mammoths, even if it were feasible.

De-extinction is therefore about as realistic as de-death; I for one am not in favour of sharing the neighbourhood with re-animated zombies.

So if you have the time, enjoy the show, but do not waste too much brain function (or money) on the idea.