January 01, 2011
Revive Extinct Species?

DNA from several extinct species has been found in good enough condition to enable sequencing. Some of those samples (e.g. for Neanderthal) are undergoing sequencing. So for a likely increasing number of species we will soon have DNA sequences essential to efforts to revive extinct species. Some day the biotechnology will be developed to enable the conversion of DNA sequences into living instances of lost species. Then what?

Once it becomes technologically possible will species revival be done? Think about it from a legal perspective. The world has about 200 sovereign countries. It only takes one country to allow species revival for this to happen. My guess is that at least one government will see an advantage from revival of extinction species. For example, the revived species would draw in tourists, especially if the species had unusual characteristics. Species revival will enable scientists to study the behavior and capabilities of now extinct species. So species revival can be justified on scientific grounds as well.

So what's available for eventual revival? Turns out egg shells retain DNA for a long time. Fossil eggshells from 19,000 year old extinct emus, the 880 lb elephant bird Aepyornis, moas, and other species have been recovered. Since some of these species were likely driven extinct by humans in the first place one justification for their revival would be to right an ancient wrong. Now, not everyone will see species driven to extinction by humans a few tens of thousands of years ago as a wrong in the first place. But some will find that a compelling argument.

Hominid competitors to humans have also been sequenced including Neanderthals and Denisovans (which Greg Cochran thinks might have been late surviving homo erectus). Did we humans drive these other hominds to extinction? Possibly.

What about more recent extinctions? The passenger pigeon, the last of which died in 1914, as recently as the early 19th century numbered in the billions. Should we bring it back once we have the ability to do so?

Numerous other species are headed for extinction. We should collect many DNA samples from them so that if the human population ever reduces its footprint on the Earth these species could be reintroduced.

What about downsides to species revival? Depends on the species. We do not have to worry about ecological disturbances from any species we bring back that can be easily wiped out again. So, for example, the 880 lb Aepyornis will not pose a problem. The biggest threat from a species is most likely that it could spread so successfully that it would wipe out other species. We already face that problem from large numbers of invasive species that humans are moving between continents and islands and even between bodies of water (e.g. Asian carp in the Mississippi River system). Smaller species that are not airborne are probably most potentially problematic.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2011 January 01 11:34 PM  Trends Extinction


Comments
Brett Bellmore said at January 2, 2011 5:00 AM:

I think you've left out mention of what's likely to be a driving consideration:

Are they yummy?

Engineer-Poet said at January 2, 2011 10:14 AM:

Good point.  How much meat is on an Aepyornis?  Would it be profitable to herd them, or moas, or dodos?

Animals with no instinctual fear of predators might be really easy to domesticate.

xd said at January 2, 2011 10:56 AM:

Too funny. Both of you thought exactly what I thought.
My guess is this: if we ate them to extinction the first time then YES they're probably pretty tasty.

I want me some Moa Burger

Captain Jack Aubrey said at January 2, 2011 1:16 PM:

Should they be revived? Yes! Is that really a hard question to answer?

It's often said that we don't do anything big or adventurous anymore. Reviving a few deceased species would be BIG.

I want mammoths back. I want smilodon back. Neanderthals and Denisovans might present complicated legal issues in the West, but not in certain other countries. Would they be property, like pets, or human beings with rights? The latter, I suspect, though I'd also guess that if they turned out to be as dumb and/or violent as we sometimes imagine them that our current infrastructure for dealing with the violent and mentally incompetent would be more or less adequate.

But it might also be interesting to revive not just extinct species, but earlier versions of own own, like Otzi and Cheddar Man, to find out just how different we were 5,000 and 9,000 years ago.

Brett Bellmore said at January 2, 2011 5:51 PM:

"My guess is this: if we ate them to extinction the first time then YES they're probably pretty tasty."

That's what I was thinking, too: There's a reason we drove Passenger pigeons, and not crows, into extinction.

I agree that it would be a great achievement, just from the perspective of adventure, to bring back some extinct species. OTOH, I don't think the issues with bringing back Neanderthals and Denisovans are just legal, they're moral, too. If we want to create morons, we can create human morons with a lot less work; Why don't we? Because deliberately making somebody less than they could be is wrong.

FF said at January 3, 2011 11:47 PM:

Perhaps farming some tasty endangered birds would be a sure way of saving the species?

BioBob said at January 4, 2011 1:16 PM:

Let me know when they revive the first extinct species!

Then they can get started on the other 99% of life. /sarc

Jay said at June 16, 2011 12:51 AM:

I want all of the above plus the kauai oo bird and the Ivory Bill woodpecker.

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