Jurassic Park And The Meaning Of Life
“Resurrection biologists” are a new brand of scientists intent on resurrecting extinct organisms using a combination of husbandry, genetic engineering, and ecological manipulation. While the possibility of de-extinction has intriguing implications for conservation, de-extinction also challenges current philosophical conceptions of what constitutes a species. This is an important challenge that biologists, philosophers, and conservationists alike must confront.
This study is written as a thought experiment to consider whether three different de-extinction techniques are consistent with twenty-two species concepts. A species concept is a way in which the term “species” is defined, and involves both scientific and metaphysical approaches. The author proposes a hypothetical situation for the de-extinction of a wooly mammoth, which produces three organisms–Backbreedagus, Nucleartransferagus, and Geneditagus. The purpose of the study is to start a discussion surrounding the goals of de-extinction, namely whether it is truly possible to revive a species or whether we can produce a simple doppelganger at best.
De-extinction may be made possible through three techniques. The first is backbreeding, in which extant lineages are cross-bred to produce a phenotypically similar species to an extinct species, using artificial selection. For example, in trying to create a wooly mammoth, Asian elephant lineages may be crossed to select for specific traits until a wooly mammoth lookalike is produced.
The second technique is genetic transfer. In a genetic transfer, DNA is extracted from preserved tissue of an extinct species and implanted into a surrogate to clone the extinct organism. This method has been popularized in movies such as Jurassic Park.
A third technique for de-extinction is direct gene editing, which involves extracting DNA from an extant organism with similar genotype to the extinct organism, and editing the extant organism’s genetic code to match that of the extinct organism. The edited DNA can be implanted to create a clone of the extinct organism.
To determine whether any of these three de-extinction methods metaphysically restores an extinct species, we must first try to understand “what is a species?” The author of the study groups species concepts along two dimensions–first, trying to understand what features of an organism are necessary and sufficient to consider it a species (i.e. can we define “species” on the basis of a single individual?); and second, trying to understand whether the production of clones resurrects the species (i.e. can we define “species” on the basis of populations or lineages?).
The results of the thought experiment reveal that each of these three techniques is consistent with only a handful of species concepts. In other words, Backbreedagus, Nucleartransferagus, and Geneditagus can be thought of more as duplicated wooly mammoths, rather than revived wooly mammoths. This is due in part to the spatiotemporal gap between wooly mammoths and the de-extinction products. It is also due to the artificial conditions that produced Backbreedagus, Nucleartransferagus, and Geneditagus. The artificial means by which these de-extinction products were produced would affect their breeding capabilities and interactions with other organisms, and create ambiguities surrounding their heritage. If not wooly mammoths, then what are these “de-extinction” products? Depending on which species concept one subscribes to, they may be thought of as Asian elephant clones, monsters, or a new taxon altogether.
For resurrection biologists and animal advocates, this thought experiment lends considerable value to the argument for protecting endangered species. It demonstrates that, even if cloning is empirically possible, the full revival of a species in the metaphysical sense cannot be contrived. Thus, we must do our best to protect contemporary species that are currently in danger of extinction, for there is no back-up option to bring them back if we lose them.