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We Might Soon Resurrect Extinct Species – Is It Worth the Cost? (nytimes.com)
45 points by dnetesn on Mar 20, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 51 comments

Further and more annoying "Ship of Theseus" questions:

If I engineer an animal whose DNA matches that of an extinct species, but it's raised in captivity, or in another way such that its environment is very different from that of when the species was not extinct -- have i actually resurrected a species?

Radiolab had a bit about this w.r.t. whooping cranes. Captive raised birds, released in the wild, have no ability to raise chicks -- because there have been no tutors. The existence of adults in the wild is thus totally dependent on humans raising them in captivity -- is that "really" saving a species from extinction? http://www.radiolab.org/story/254840-operation-migration/

I get the argument from a theoretical perspective, but in practice most recently extinct species have very close relatives we could probably co-opt into teaching rearing practices if necessary.

(captive) elephants could almost certainly be used to raise cloned wolly mammoths; there are a variety of Rhino species which could be used to help raise un-extinct Rhinos.

I don't see why it's not worth trying. Maybe it will work for some species, and it won't for others, but there have been much largest amounts of money wasted on much less noble projects.

>(captive) elephants could almost certainly be used to raise cloned wolly mammoths

Their native habitats are about as totally different as you can get without being underwater. Why do you assume their behaviors will be similar?

We know enough about woolly mammoths to know that they behaved and ate in a roughly similar way to elephants. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woolly_mammoth#Palaeobiology

I'm really not convinced, especially when you add the role of environment; the epigenetic factors.

> (captive) elephants could almost certainly be used to raise cloned wolly mammoths

By that logic, bonobos could almost certainly be used to raised cloned humans. I would actually like to see the results of this experiment, particularly manner in which the person would resolve conflicts :)

> Maybe it will work for some species, and it won't for others, but there have been much largest amounts of money wasted on much less noble projects.

This is more philosophy, but this doesn't seem noble at all. Unless the animal being resurrected plays a crucial, irreplaceable role in the global ecosystem, these actions strike me as a hubris borne out of a collective/species-wide guilt for exterminating the animal in the first place.

Yes, our actions caused a species to go extinct. We should accept and make peace with that. It is cruel to bring a species back from extinction to be captive, like bringing something back from the dead so it can truly serve a sentence of life in prison.

Also, if we aren't doing anything to preserve its natural habitat, and all elements point to a more, not less, anthropocenic world, then it will just go extinct again in the wild.

The main reason to resurrect extinct species is the scientific research (and not the "guilt treatment").

> Captive raised birds, released in the wild, have no ability to raise chicks -- because there have been no tutors.

Except this can be fixed trivially by puppetry/robotics. Just because it currently is under-addressed doesn't mean its some unsolvable problem. There are probably a lot of steps from cloning to wild survival we're ignoring here, but the idea that they're insurmountable because we haven't really tried to solve them is a bit much.

I think with global warming, we more or less have a moral responsibility to try to preserve and in some cases try to resurrect the animals that will go extinct in the future due to irresponsible use of fossil fuels. I suspect this stuff is going to move from the theoretical and experimental to concrete results in our grandkid's time.

I imagine biologists of the future will be running Jurassic Park-like technology as the norm and gleefully watch old movies to point out all the technical mistakes we made, the same way we can laugh at movies about shooting men to the moon with a cannon.

That same Radiolab episode indicated that some fraction (something on the order of 1 in 20 or 50) of those cranes could raise young even though most couldn't.

It also indicated that the young reared by cranes had a much higher chance to rear their own young reasonable (something on the order of 1 in 2 or 3).

I agree it is a meaningful question if that part of bird "culture" for lack of better terminology cannot be recovered, but it seems that at least these birds are not entirely without instincts.

What will we do for species that we have no basis for deciding how to teach them to be themselves? What does a baby mammoth, smilodon or dinosaur need?

Yeah, you don't need the engineering, or even artificial selection to make this analogy. Species is just a human-invented term to categorize and only roughly matches nature.

What is a species? Organisms that can interbreed? Well we have Ligers. Percentage of similar DNA? Well what percent? Morphology? It all boils down, eventually, into what we think it is.

That is, there are no two identical animals (ignore identical twins for the moment). Attempts to resurrect/restore things as they were (for moral posterity or whathaveyou) are futile. We can only hope to restore some sort of balance that helps ourselves.

I don't see the problem here. Even if our distinctions are somewhat arbitrary they do have meaning. E.g. there is a difference between frogs and cats. If we bring back a creature from the past, like the Mammoth, who cares if it's exactly the same?

No problem, just a thought experiment.

> If we bring back a creature from the past, like the Mammoth, who cares if it's exactly the same?

And that's what I would say.

I was thinking along the same lines -- for example, say if scientists do bring back a huge group of passenger pigeons. Would these passenger pigeons know which route to fly, which parts of the habitat to utilize, etc. similar to those of their extinct ancestors?

It's almost like the scientists would then need to 'bootstrap' the de-extinct animal's brain to give it it's previous identity and knowledge.

Whooping cranes taught to migrate over a 15 year period by using ultralight airplanes to lead them:


More recently they've stopped because it's unclear if it's working.

Yes. Because we could teach them this skill


We're engineering new species, not resurrecting extinct ones. I remember either seeing a documentary or reading somewhere that cloning extinct species is pretty much impossible. Even the Woolly Mammoth "clone" would end up being a cross between an elephant and a mammoth. Similarly, a T-Rex "clone" would be engineered out of modern chicken DNA until it starts producing something that resembles the extinct dinosaur.

That depends on how you describe a species. The problem is that the recreated mammoth would probably made from modified elephant DNA, therefore having most of the time the gene order of elephants (while having mammoth gene sequences). It would therefore almost certainly be impossible to cross them with the original mammoth. Nevertheless, aside from chromosome arcituctual influences that we do not yet understand would you have a mammoth that is phenotypically identical to the original (and not be a cross between elephant and mammoth). If there should be a successfull genome writing program, it would be possible to recreate the original genome and you would get the original species. The T-Rex clone is different as we do not know (and almost certainly will never know) its genome.

>We're engineering new species, not resurrecting extinct ones.

I think this is way more honest.

I've never thought about the Ship of Theseus in those terms.

I always thought it was more of a "Are you still you even though all the cells in your body eventually get replaced; so except for many of your brain and nerve cells, you have little to none of what you were born with." or "Is it still that computer I build in 2005 even though I've literally replaced everything in it and the case, except for this old DVD drive?"

I don't think Ship of Theseus really applies here. The thought experiment asks, 'is it the same ship?' - not, 'is it a ship at all?'. It is considering identity, not classification.

If I kill you and then use your DNA to clone you ten years later, have I somehow not killed you? No, for the reasons GP puts forward (OK, philosophers might disagree, but I will leave that to them). But I have undeniably created a human, just not (necessarily) the same human I killed before.

We have a stable definition of "species", and if we create a genetically correct woollen mammoth, it is a mammoth, by definition, even if it's natural habitat is gone. Just like an elephant in a zoo is still uncontroversially an elephant, even if it has no capacity to survive in the wild.

Also known as "Trigger's Broom" in the UK.

From Wikipedia: In the episode "Heroes and Villains", Trigger wins an award for having owned the same broom for 20 years. He reveals that it has had 17 new heads and 14 new handles, but insists it is still the same broom.


I wish we could do stuff not "to save" or "make things better", but just because it's awesome (also greatness cannot be planned, so we don't know what a challenge like quasi-resurrecting exinct animals could teach us).

I know it's brought up in the article, but assuming that the money going toward reviving extinct species would otherwise go toward protecting endangered species is silly. I would have no ethical qualms donating money to bringing back mammoths and would be justifiably angry if that money instead went to saving the elephants.

Edit: That sounds like I irrationally hate elephants, which isn't the case. I just value pushing cool new science forward more.

Yes. I'd pay thousands for a pet dodo!

I think this post does not deserve to be down voted. Objectively, making them pet is a viable commercial approach.

And viable commerical approaches are enormously more likely to work than forced efforts, in environmental and many other fields.

Well sure, but that prioritizes the "well-being" of the species at the expense of the individuals that make it up - a mindset I've never understood.

I'm not sure about that. Unlike GMO crops, you (probably) can't patent the dodo… so after a company spends a large amount of money upfront on genetic engineering, as soon as the first batch of birds goes out, anyone can start breeding them and undercut them on price.

Maybe they could find something in their specific breed of not-actually-a-dodo that's patentable.

Or they could only distribute one sex of bird to the public, at least initially.

> you (probably) can't patent the dodo

You definitely can't patent a corgi, but they're still quite expensive. Considering that dodo breeding is probably nontrivial, they could potentially make a profit. Depends on how the genetic engineering is funded, I suppose, and how well the work they do on the dodo applies to other animals. (If it's too dodo-specific it might not be worth it, but if work can be reused then it makes their next extinct pet even more profitable per unit)

That's non trivial if you sterilize before sale. Also, if it's a fad then having a X year head start before sale means you can ramp up much faster than any competitors.

But there is also a nontrivial difference between having living stem cells then and having 100+ year dead feathers now. Plus, Dodos would possible be breeded by transplanting stem cells into eggs which you might be able to ramp up quite easily.

Only if they can be domesticated (breed in captivity, eat generic food, tame).

You might like Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series. I thought they kind of went downhill after the third book, but they're fun quick reads which feature both genetically-engineered dodo pets and woolly mammoths.

Also, while it may be very expensive to clone a mammoth or a dodo today, you gotta figure that it will also contribute to figuring out how to do this sort of thing more cheaply at scale, which we might need considering the ongoing mass extinction of the Anthropocene.

I'd like a pet one, but I'd also like to eat one.

//edit// But only after they become as ubiquitous as chickens or similar. I'm not a monster.

Well, get a turkey. I would not be astonished if they where nothing like in the movies in real life. I mean, describtions by sailors have often been found not that reliable...

I was hoping the article would at least mention Pleistocene Park, an effort to mitigate climate change that depends on the recently extinct wooly mammoth. If it had, the question in the title would be better stated: "Can We Afford To Not?"

Some solid info on the project is here: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/04/pleisto...

I just watched the Sustainable documentary on Netflix talking about the very topic. It's fascinating!

On this subject, I can't recommend this piece strongly enough: The Narcissism of De-Extinction https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/culturing-science/deext...

>What if that dream came at the expense of today’s Asian and African elephants, whose numbers are quickly dwindling because of habitat loss and poaching?

Humans only had a partial role in the demise of the mammoth. When it comes to the dodo or the thylacine, I suspect morally it won't matter if that means less pigeons and dingos in the wild. They're removal from our ecosystem was artificial and by human hands and the culling of animals that took their place probably won't raise too many objections.

On a more sci-fi front, I wonder about our future extinction. I wonder if aliens would later find Earth and try to revive us. Maybe this has happened, maybe its has happened more than once.

When humanity eventually goes extinct, there will most likely be a reemergence of life and growth (if we don't take them out with us).

Dr. Zaius it's up to you to revive humanity!

Life, uh, finds a way.

> should society devote its limited resources to reversing past wrongs, or on preventing future extinctions?

This needs to be called out as the idiotic fallacy that it is. Not sure if "straw man" quite covers it, but it's close.

Take any two things and posit a zero-sum game between them -- nothing good ever comes out of this kind of analysis. "Given society's limited resources, should we be educating our children, or feeding them? A careful analysis doesn't favor the former."

Oh, sod off. We can do both. If you're going to frame your argument as a zero sum, then you need to have a very valid reason why it's actually zero-sum. Otherwise that's just a manipulative way of doing a terrible analysis.

Even funnier: If this wasn't a dumb fallacy and we grant them that it's zero sum. Just how many man-hours will be wasted by people reading this NYT article as opposed to say curing cancer, or actually reviving mammoths?

>Just how many man-hours will be wasted by people reading this NYT article as opposed to say curing cancer, or actually reviving mammoths?

That's irrelevant, not only because the majority of those readers are not the same people that would be curing cancer or reviving mammoths, but also because the resources it talks about are more about budgets, organizational priorities, etc, and not about missed hours.

There's no point being upset by this kind of idiocy.... its endemic to humanity as a whole. It is frankly, the tip of a giant iceberg which is in the process of sinking us.

“The release of atomic power has changed everything except our way of thinking ... the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker." (Einstein, 1945)

>"Given society's limited resources, should we be educating our children, or feeding them? A careful analysis doesn't favor the former." Oh, sod off. We can do both.

I thought you were against strawmen. This is a contrived example where we actually can do both.

This is not the case for everything.

And even if it was, there's opportunity cost -- in this case the cost of devoting fewer resources to one action because you are splitting them into two actions.

When one of the things is more important than the other it makes total sense to consider this case.

Even your contrived for the US example, is very real elsewhere. Parents for example, the world over, often do have to make the choice between educating their children and feeding them. A classic example is the "can't send the kids to school, they need to stay at the farm to help the family make a living" -- and this affects hundreds of millions.

Maybe we can invent a word for this like, say, zeroneous.

Well, given how many species we're already driving extinct, we had better be bloody-well prepared to resurrect some of them!

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