Bring back the dead or save the living?

No, I’m not talking about zombies.

This post considers two stories in the news last week.  The first, is a new study in Science Advances by Ripple et al. finally spotlighting what we’ve known for a while: herbivores around the world are collapsing, particularly the large charismatic ones. This is bad news not just because they’re iconic species that people love to love, but because they are major components of ecosystems and their disappearance would have widespread cascading effects.

Columbian Mammoth in the George C. Page museum, Los Angeles

The second is an interview on NPR with Dr. Beth Shapiro at UC Santa Cruz on her new book How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction.  It leads with the question “If science could clone a mammoth, could it save an elephant?”

There is a lot of hype about the prospect of bringing back extinct species, and several labs around the world are enthusiastically pursuing it. It is suggested that these species would happily take up the roles they formerly played in their ecosystems, setting right something that has been amiss. Let’s leave a side for a moment the question of whether we should bring back a species like the mammoth which is beautifully adapted for a world which no longer exists (and is in fact actively growing more inhospitable to it in terms of climate). Let’s also leave aside the question of where we would put them (Siberia, apparently is ready and waiting). Let’s even leave aside the fact that we haven’t the faintest idea how to recreate behaviorally normal individuals that would live and breed correctly (witness the trouble zoos have with breeding LIVING species) and whether human beings would ultimately want to live alongside them. Given that present-day species are in danger of going the way of the mammoth, might this technology help to save them?

The proponents of de-extinction seem to think so.  There are at least two arguments that could be made. The first, optimistically put forth by Dr. Shapiro in her interview, is that one might be able to take attributes of extinct species (such as woolly mammoths) and enhance the genetic make-up of living species (elephants) to make them somehow more resilient and better adapted – e.g. with the ability to tolerate colder climates and thereby expand the types of habitats they might occupy. Let’s call this the ‘Enhancement’ argument. The second, is that if one could rescue an already extinct species, then it could serve as an insurance policy in case of more extinctions. Let’s call this the ‘Insurance’ argument.

I beg to differ.

The enhancement idea seems to originate from a complete lack of understanding about why species are being driven extinct in the first place and what it would take for them to persist in any meaningful, ecologically functional populations. The problem to a large extent is not in their genetic make-up. It’s with the unrelenting pressure humans are placing on them by either hunting them to death or obliterating the landscapes they rely on. It’s true that some species might succumb to disease or inbreeding due to small population sizes – and genetic enhancements might help there. But would gene fragments from long-gone extinct relatives actually provide those miraculous enhancements? Doubtful.

The Insurance argument is attractive, and I’m all in favor of saving genetic material from living species that are clinging to the edge of existence due to human activities such as poaching. But saving the genomes of living species is much more straightforward than trying to reconstruct those that are long dead.  Let’s be clear: these are two distinct research programs, not to be confused with one another. The former involves freezing reproductive material or other tissues, from which complete genomes might later be cloned. The latter involves splicing together bits of DNA fragments, with the incomplete bits filled-in by using material from existing species (in the case of the mammoth – Asian elephants, themselves highly endangered). It would appear the living species are rescuing the dead ones, not the other way around.

But the greatest irony lies in the way that money is allocated. Let’s be blunt – reconstructing extinct genomes is a multi-million dollar enterprise, a game to be played by academic researchers in rich countries adept at spinning exciting hypotheticals. Genomic research is all the rage, and there are certainly willing investors. Conservation on the ground, on the other hand, is messy. It involves grappling with social, economic and bureaucratic forces far from the orderly sterility of labs, working in sometimes inhospitable conditions, often for very little pay or acknowledgement, with the occasional outbreak of war and pestilence. There are the rich players there too, but most are chronically underfunded. Whereas there may be a few major labs involved in the dazzling work of genome resurrection, there are thousands of individual researchers and organizations scrambling for the resources to save the biodiversity we still have.  The funds spent to conduct the de-extinction research could probably run several field research projects for several generations.

I suspect though, that the two endeavors are not competing for the same pots of money at all – it is not a question of whether funds spent on de-extinction research would be better spent on conservation on the ground. In my opinion, they undoubtedly would be but this is likely a false choice. I would guess that the sponsors of de-extinction research would not fund practical conservation research or related activities at all because the sad reality is that it’s much more complicated to solve problems in the real world. But until we can address why species are vanishing in the first place, let us not delude ourselves with wishful fantasies.

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