De-extinction: Reinventing the wheel?

The April 2013 cover of National Geographic.

—Carrie Friese

De-extinction has recently emerged as a hot topic in the press, with prominent figures like Stuart Brand giving TED talks on reviving extinct species earlier this year, National Geographic’s recent cover story, and academic conferences on the topic being held with greater than usual press coverage. The debates over de-extinction are largely represented as entirely novel and new. However, what is striking is the extent to which these debates parallel and map on to the debates over using assisted reproductive technologies ranging from in vitro fertilization (IVF) and cloning with endangered animals. Indeed, many key actors – such as Robert Lanza from Advanced Cell Technology – have been involved in and acted as spokespersons for both ventures.

The debates on cloning both endangered and extinct animals have focused on the problems of technological hype for conservation, the practical limits of technology where wild animals are concerned, the ontology of ‘wild’ animals made by humans through technological means, and the quality of the lives these animals are made to live. Participants in de-extinction could therefore learn much by looking at the lessons learned by those involved in cloning endangered animals, where many of these debates have already been addressed.

In particular, de-extinction advocates could learn a lot by looking at how scientists involved in cloning endangered animals have responded to the politics of their work. In my book Cloning Wild Life, I note that some scientists responded to concerns about cloning endangered animals by changing their scientific practices. Different kinds of animals and cells were used in order to make cloned endangered animals fit the concerns of a wider range of actors involved in species preservation. This represents an important difference between de-extinction and cloning endangered animals.

Locating the debates over de-extinction between optimistic scientists seeking to intervene in nature and depressed environmentalists seeking to preserve nature relies upon staid and unproductive clichés. Cloning endangered animals shows that it is far more productive to engage with one’s critics and their concerns, and can even result in a better science.

Carrie Friese is Lecturer in Sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is the author of Cloning Wild Life: Zoos, Captivity and the Future of Endangered Animals (NYU Press, 2013). She is currently writing on de-extinction with Claire Marris.

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