A few weeks ago, the New York Times Magazine ran a fascinating piece titled “The Mammoth Cometh,” which tells the story of a growing number of scientists around the world who are working on projects of “de-extinction.” Significant progress has been made, and some scientists estimate that we will be able to revive certain species, such as the dodo or the passenger pigeon, within 10-15 years.
But is reviving species from extinction a good thing to do? The way in which this normative question is treated in the NYT article is interesting. While some of the key dangers of reviving extinct species are identified and discussed, the underlying narrative seems to accept that if these dangers could be avoided, de-extinction would be a good thing. What its value is, however, is never spelled out in particularly clear terms.
The primary value identified by many advocates of de-extinction is the environmental value of “conservation.” Steward Brand, for example, states that de-extinction could provide “a beacon of hope for conservation.” But two different conceptions of conservation appear to be at work in the entangled arguments about the value of reviving extinct species.
The first argument is that de-extinction will help achieve broad conservation goals. For example, Brand suggests that the goal of bringing back the wooly mammoth is to “restore the steppe in the Arctic.” The idea here is that “the grazing habits of mammoths might encourage the growth of a variety of grasses, which could help to protect the Arctic permafrost from melting — a benefit with global significance, as the Arctic permafrost contains two to three times as much carbon as the world’s rain forests.” But note that on this logic, de-extinction does not have inherent value. Rather, it is good only insofar as it contributes to the protection of the permafrost (or some other intermediary goal), which is good only insofar as it contributes to a reduction in global warming (or some other ultimate goal). When seen in this light, the good of de-extinction becomes quite attenuated and contingent. It turns on the empirical question of whether it is the best way of achieving whatever ultimate goal has been identified, which I imagine will often be quite unlikely.
The second argument from “conservation” is that de-extinction is a good in and of itself on the grounds that species have inherent value, which is reintroduced to the world through their revival. This claim avoids the contingency problems that undermine the instrumental justification for de-extinction discussed above. But in doing so, it runs into another problem of contingency—one that Darwin recognized in the Origin of Species, when he wrote: “Hereafter we shall be compelled to acknowledge that the only distinction between species and well-marked varieties is, that the latter are known, or believed, to be connected at the present day by intermediate gradations, whereas species were formerly thus connected . . . In short, we shall have to treat species in the same manner as those naturalists treat genera, who admit that genera are merely artificial combinations made for convenience.” The basic problem identified here is that because species are categories that are imposed on the world for our convenience, it implausible—if not unintelligible—to claim that their existence has inherent value.
In sum, disentangling the conceptions of “conservation” the underlie claims about the value of de-extinction reveals contingencies that weaken their normative force, leaving us with the question of whether there is other value in reviving extinct species. In a thought-provoking article in Science published last year, Hank Greely and Jacob Sherkow answered this question with the suggestion that “the biggest attraction, and possibly the biggest benefit, of de-extinction” may be that it “would surely be very cool to see a living wooly mammoth.” I agree with them that this may be best of the reasons for de-extinction. I am not sure, however, that it is a good one.