The thylacine, passenger pigeon and great auk, three de-extinction candidates.

The thylacine, passenger pigeon and great auk, three de-extinction candidates.

Examining the Troublesome Ethics Surrounding the Controversial Attempt at Genetically Resurrecting Species From Extinction

Note: This is the abridged version of an essay I wrote that was a semi-finalist in the Professional and Moral Reasoning Essay Contest at the University of Southern California’s Undergraduate Writers’ Conference.

Part 1. De-Extinction

On July 30th, 2003, scientists from Spain and France brought a species of wild goat called the bucardo back from extinction. Ten minutes later, the scientists watched the bucardo become extinct again.

For thousands of years, the bucardo inhabited the soaring cliffs of the Pyrenees that divide Spain from France. But once hunters began to hunt the bucardo, it only took a couple centuries to drive them to extinction in 1999, a barrier once thought irreversible. But using the cells of the last known bucardo survivor, a female named Celia, a team of reproductive scientists injected nuclei from her cells into the eggs of goat surrogate mothers. It took 57 implantations to make seven of the goats pregnant and from those seven only one gave birth to an actual animal. The clone, produced from a hybrid between a Spanish ibex and a goat, was doomed from the start as it had a severely deformed lung. But this was a huge breakthrough in scientific history: had extinction finally been reversed? 

The answer is not quite yet. The bucardo was as close as scientists have gotten to de-extinction, but the clone was not viable. Science has made strides in the 15 years since that bucardo desperately gasped for breath, and many believe that producing a woolly mammoth or passenger pigeon is years away instead of decades. But only certain species can be brought back. The limit for finding useful genetic material is probably in the last million years (unfortunately, no dinosaurs for Jurassic Park fans), and many of the species being talked about as possible de-extinction candidates, such as the great auk, thylacine, and stellar’s sea cow, all died within the last few hundred years. Unfortunately, many of their deaths are directly due to humans altering their habitats or hunting them to extinction.

But is de-extinction a worthwhile investment of valuable funds and resources at a time when our planet is in the midst of a man-made mass extinction? The fact that this science has progressed to the doorstep of what was once thought science fiction is incredible, but de-extinction raises some very uncomfortable questions about nature and our place in it. Where would these animals from bygone eras go in a rapidly changing world? If these animals were produced in the lab would they even be animals? Are we playing god?

In this article I will highlight the difficult ethics behind this potentially incredible scientific breakthrough. Although seeing a thylacine or a woolly mammoth or even a passenger pigeon in real life would be amazing, de-extinction is ultimately a misguided, and possibly destructive, alternative conservation pathway.

Those who could be brought back: Image 1: thylacine at the Melbourne Museum, Image 2: Dodo at the Oxford Museum of Natural History and Image 3: Steller’s sea cow at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

Part 2. In Favor of De-Extinction

Two centuries ago, the passenger pigeon seemingly would have been the species least likely to go extinct. As recent as 1880, the pigeon was the most populous vertebrate on the North American continent. A single passenger pigeon nesting ground once occupied the space of 37 Manhattans, or 850 square miles. The bird’s massive flocks could blotch out the sun for days while they flew overhead. Their seemingly impenetrable size led people to hunt them for sport and their meat to be sold by the ton. They went extinct in the wild in 1900, a cruel testament to humans’ ability to affect nature. The last of the species, known as Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

Stories like that of the passenger pigeon are all too common over the past few centuries as humans have dominated and subjugated nature. Thylacines were exterminated from Tasmania because of the misguided belief that they hunted livestock. The last one died in captivity in 1936. Great auks were first killed by hunters navigating the North Atlantic waters that surrounded their island homes simply for food as they crossed the ocean. Soon their feathers became a commodity, making the birds so rare that they were killed just for museum collections toward the end of their run. The last two great auks were clubbed to death in 1844 for a collector. There are thousands of species that share these creature’s tragic fates of extinction at the hands of humans. De-extinction’s greatest attribute in most eyes is granting us the opportunity to undo the gravest sin we have done to nature: wiping these creatures out.

Many people and scientists think we have a duty to bring these species back, if possible. These include the scientists at Revive and Restore, a bio-genetics lab currently working on de-extinction efforts for mammoths and passenger pigeons. Revive & Restore hopes to create a passenger pigeon by 2020, although they acknowledge that 2025 is the more likely date. First they would have to sequence the passenger pigeon genome and genetically engineer it into a similar living species, such as the banded-rock pigeon. But this is still years, and a couple scientific breakthroughs, away.

But Revive and Restore also offers an interesting additional reason for bringing back the passenger pigeon besides the fact that it is simply “morally” right. They claim that the pigeon played valuable ecological roles that current birds can’t replicate. They knocked dead branches off of trees when their huge flocks would land and excreted tons of fertilizer that benefitted the growth of their deciduous forest home. For species whose ecosystems have not been drastically changed, this argument is an actual justifiable one (but this would be an incredibly rare occurrence for ecosystems to not drastically change).

Other proponents for de-extinction include the wealth of knowledge that could be attained from living animals as opposed to taxidermy, as well as the fact that the process could lead to genetic breakthroughs that could help secure current endangered populations. My personal favorite argument for de-extinction is the wonder factor. There is no arguing that people, including myself, would be blown away to see a living saber-toothed cat or a woolly mammoth. Even seeing the resurrection of an Australian gastric-brooding frog (a frog that births from its mouth) would be incredible to witness in real life. But unfortunately, life and death on our planet is not that simple.

Part 3: De-Extinction is Ethically Wrong

Right now, as negative human impact on the environment rapidly increases, no matter which way you look at it, the negatives of de-extinction outweigh the positive. First off, where are we going to put these animals if we could ever bring them back? The woolly mammoth’s old stomping grounds in Siberia have greatly changed from grassy steppes to moss-dominated tundra since the mammoth died out at the end of the Pleistocene period, also known as the Ice Age. It is one of the areas of the globe most ravaged by climate change. Scientists argue that the return of the mammoth would actually help halt the rapid melting of the permafrost (and the release of heavy amounts of carbon into the atmosphere with it) because they compact the snow when they stomp around, keeping it cool. But to make any negligible difference would require a huge amount of woolly mammoths who are not equipped to live in those areas now. The simple fact is that the ecosystems they left behind have evolved without them. Climate change is making these ecosystems change faster than ever before, especially as it relates to the mammoth’s melting habitat.

The second is the fact that it takes funding away from current conservation of endangered species. At its worst, it even has the potential to severely damage all wildlife conservation efforts by taking the finality out of extinction, the force that drives all of these efforts. If we can bring extinct animals back, what is the urgency to protect them in the first place?

De-extinction is also still unproven, with only a doomed infant bucardo to show for it so far. The science is rapidly evolving and the processes for de-extinction are beginning to be fleshed out, like the work that Revive and Restore is doing to place an intact mammoth nucleus into an Asian elephant egg or sequencing the passenger pigeon genome. But these are still unproven and years away from being tested. Endangered animals are quickly tumbling down into the black hole of extinction as we speak. Urgency is of the utmost importance and valuable resources are being shifted to science vanity projects like resurrecting extinct species. Many scientists would argue that the genetic breakthroughs used to try and clone a mammoth would be much better spent trying to save the Northern white rhino, a species teetering on the edge of extinction with only two female members left. Between taking the bite out of extinction and shifting funds and scientific ingenuity away from actual wildlife conservation efforts, de-extinction can be incredibly damaging.

Finally (and there are many more reasons), de-extinction is a very grey area in terms of ethics. Many argue that de-extinction is playing god, but I do not think that is a good argument. The sailors who clubbed the last two great auks to death on Edley rock in 1844 were playing god when they wiped out a species. But say we produce another great auk, would that really be a great auk, or even an animal?

Great auk specimen, Natural History Museum, London.

Great auk specimen, Natural History Museum, London.

It would need to be carried by a surrogate mother, which raises animal cruelty issues. Think of the 57 goats that were forcefully had bucardo genetic information transplanted into their eggs. The animal would still have genetic information of a different species, which would be bred out over subsequent generations. The subsequent breeding would be problematic for thylacines who were already experiencing low genetic diversity in the population before extinction. Being inbred even more would be disastrous. Even by breeding it with other great auk clones, it would never quite be the same as the great auk that once was. It would have to be made in a lab, questioning its existence as an animal at all.

In an article for the Stanford Environmental Law Journal, environmental lawyer Norman F. Carlin concludes that re-engineered species would technically be products of human ingenuity and not animals, more similar to a vaccine or an invention than to a living creature. A similar parallel is genetically modified organisms (GMO) like GMO crops, whose use has caused widespread debate over the past few decades. If people are weary of GMO corn, a GMO saber-tooth cat may spark some controversy.

Smilodon fatalis at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Smilodon fatalis at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

As amazing as seeing these creatures in real life would be, and as much as it would make us feel better about the past travesties we have brought upon nature, de-extinction is the wrong course of action. These species, from the great woolly mammoth to the ivory-billed woodpecker, should be seen as tragic examples of what we could lose as more species are pushed to the brink. Saving the endangered species of today and charting a new, more environmentally conscious path should be our sole focus instead of trying to right the wrongs of the past by chasing ghosts.

All artwork and pictures by Jack Tamisiea.

Related Article:


Rich, Nathaniel. “The Mammoth Cometh.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 27 Feb. 2014

Sherkow, Jacob S., and Henry T. Greely. “What If Extinction Is Not Forever?” Science, American 

Association for the Advancement of Science, 5 Apr. 2013.

Shultz, David. “Bringing Extinct Species Back from the Dead Could Hurt-Not Help-Conservation 

Efforts.” Science, AAAS, 27 Feb. 2017.

Zimmer, Carl. “Bringing Them Back to Life.” National Geographic, National Geographic, Apr.