NZCHAS - De-Extinction



Mendel's Ark: Biotechnology and the Future of Extinction
by Amy Fletcher 2014, VIII, 99 p. 10 illus.

Does extinction have to be forever?  As the global extinction crisis accelerates, conservationists and policy-makers increasingly use advanced biotechnologies such as reproductive cloning, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and bioinformatics in the urgent effort to save species. 

Mendel's Ark considers the ethical, cultural and social implications of using these tools for wildlife conservation. Drawing upon sources ranging from science to science fiction, it focuses on the stories we tell about extinction and the meanings we ascribe to nature and technology. 

The use of biotechnology in conservation is redrawing the boundaries between animals and machines, nature and artifacts, and life and death.  The new rhetoric and practice of de-extinction will thus have significant repercussions for wilderness and for society. The degree to which we engage collectively with both the prosaic and the fantastic aspects of biotechnological conservation will shape the boundaries and ethics of our desire to restore lost worlds.


PHILOSOPHY RESEARCH PROJECT (funded by UC College of Arts):
The Ethics of De-extinction in New Zealand

Researchers: Douglas Campbell, Carolyn Mason, Michael-John Turp, Mick Whittle

Twenty years ago, when Jurassic Park hit the movie screens, the technologies of de-extinction were the stuff of science-fiction. A mere ten years later, in 2003, scientists managed to create a living specimen of the extinct Pyrenean ibex (albeit the newborn ibex died in minutes from breathing problems). The technologies of cloning and genetic engineering have since progressed in leaps and bounds, and it now appears certain that scientists will have the technical ability to resurrect a wide variety of extinct species within decades at most, rather than centuries. The question this project will focus on is whether, when we acquire this technology, we should use it.

The ethics of de-extinction are highly controversial. A recent (May 2013) Scientific American editorial came out strongly against any programme to restore extinct species. In a similar vein, the bioethicist Ronald Sandler has argued that de-extinction “does not address any pressing ecological or social problems, and it does not make up for past harms or wrongs” (2013, p. 359). The issue lately made the headlines in New Zealand when Labour MP, Trevor Mallard, promoted the idea of resurrecting the moa, and was roundly ridiculed for his trouble.

The aim of this "Ethics of De-extinction" project is to assess the arguments against de-extinction, by weighing how well they stack up in a New Zealand context. We will focus on the examples of the moa, the laughing owl, and in particular, the huia. The huia was, by any measure, an extraordinary bird. We no longer know what its song was like, there being no recordings, only that it was very beautiful. (It is rather as if the symphony orchestra of the New Zealand dawn chorus has lost all its cellos.) The males and females had bills of markedly different shapes and sizes, specialised for gathering different types of food – the most extreme sexual dimorphism of any bird in the world. Apparently males and females bonded for life, and fed each other. The birds were bold and unafraid of people, and could be easily lured into arms-reach by imitating their calls. They were the most tapu of all creatures to the Māori, and their striking tail feathers could be worn only by the highest chiefs. The story of their extinction could barely be more tragic. After a huia tail feather was presented to the visiting Duke of Edinburgh by a Māori chief, it became fashionable to wear the feathers in hats, and the huia were quickly hunted to extinction for their feathers and their skins (many of which are now in museums: see below).

 If technology permitted it, should we resurrect the huia? Our initial suspicion, based on a preliminary assessment of the arguments used by opponents of de-extinction, is that these arguments don’t withstand scrutiny where the huia, and similar species, are concerned. For example, it is commonly argued that restoring extinct species can be of no conservation value, since the resulting organisms would not be part of a natural ecology. However this simply does not apply to huia, which could be reintroduced straight back into the New Zealand bush (on predator-free islands, to begin with). It is also often argued that de-extinction is incapable of restoring a genetically diverse species, but in the case of the huia there are hundreds of feather and skin samples stored in museums around the world, and therefore ample scope for a genetically healthy population to be recreated. (The huia could potentially be put in a much better position, genetically, than, say, the Chatham Island black robin, which are all descended from one matriarch.)

Little has been published on the ethics of de-extinction in New Zealand, which – given the peculiarities of the New Zealand context (the very recent extinction of many iconic bird species, widespread bitter regret that this happened, reverence for the remaining species, and intensive, expensive and pioneering efforts to save those still threatened) – is an anomaly crying out to be addressed. Our intention is to systematically assess the arguments against de-extinction, one by one, using the example of huia, and also other extinct New Zealand birds, as test cases, to see whether the arguments are applicable in the context of New Zealand conservation. Based on these test cases, we will then draw general lessons about when it is, and is not, ethical to resurrect an extinct species. 

This research will contribute original, and we think important, ideas to a new field of bio-ethics. It will be of practical significance if and when technologies of de-extinction come of age. We expect it to stimulate considerable community interest and engagement.