I recently became aware of a process called “de-extinction” – the act of bringing an extinct species back to life – through an article from national geographic:
I thought that this scientific debate on de-extinction would be interesting and relevant to our class because it grapples with a lot of concepts that we’ve been discussing throughout our lectures on Frankenstein – scientific responsibility, motivations behind scientific exploration, how much does a creation owe its creator – as well as evolutionary concepts that we read for class today.
The article dramatically declares that “de-extinction is now within reach” – scientists are steadily cultivating the ability to recreate an extinct species from fragments of DNA, which would enable them to essentially bring a vanished species back to life. While reading about this process of using DNA from dead organisms’ and aligning them with DNA from their present-day counterparts to recreate the original organism, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between de-extinction and the way Frankenstein constructed the monster. In class, we talked about how Victor wanted to piece together parts from different bodies to create the monster (instead of simply reanimating a dead body) because he wanted to create a new species that would fully owe its existence to him. It made me wonder whether an organism that is successfully “brought back to life” through de-extinction could really be considered a replica of that original species, or would the unnatural process of its recreation render it simply an engineered product that scientists can lay claim to. Could we TRULY bring back, say, a mammoth? How much of an organism is nature versus nurture – would that mammoth act the same way as its original ancestors, given that they existed in a completely different environment and time period?
Like Frankenstein, many scientists also argue that de-extinction represents scientific advancement that can be good for mankind – for example paving the way towards new discoveries that can help cure diseases, ease childbirth etc. However, the article cycles back near the end with the accusation that “for many scientists, de-extinction is a distraction from the pressing work required to stave off mass extinctions.” It also finishes with a quote from a bioethicist: “What intrigues me is just that’s really cool. A sabre toothed cat? It would be neat to see one of those,” which leads us to speculate the ways in which de-extinction could be exploited for entertainment value or monetary gain.
Even if scientists are pursuing de-extinction for altruistic reasons, does the fact that this technology has the potential to be exploited and may transform the environment in unpredictable ways mean that scientists have the responsibility to ensure that there are mechanisms to deal with these consequences? If Frankenstein had taken measures to control the monster’s actions before its animation and was ready to face the reality of its existence, would the monster have ended up being a success rather than a figure of terror? I would say that scientists should take these factors into account, however I’m not sure to what extent they realistically could.
Really, it’s amazing to me that we’ve now come to a point in our scientific advancement where Mary Shelley’s vision of regenerating life is essentially becoming a possible reality. Concepts that Shelley addresses in Frankenstein, such as scientific responsibility and the debate between altruistic vs. selfish motivations behind the pursuit of scientific knowledge, are now ethical dilemmas that scientists are struggling with – which I find both fascinating and a little terrifying.
The article also points out various potentially negative ramifications of re-introducing a regenerated species back into the habitat, for example: “Could (de-extinct) passenger pigeons become a reservoir for a virus that might wipe out another bird species?” The question of whether scientists should take responsibility for the actions of a de-extinct species is one that is similar to the issue of Victor’s claim of agency regarding the monster’s actions that we talked about in lecture, which I think is particularly interesting. Lastly, the act of recreating a vanished species and reintroducing it into a present day habitat would also completely transform the way we think about Darwinian evolution and survival of the fittest. Would these evolutionary principles still apply if we can reverse the decisions made during natural selection, or manipulate these selections ourselves? It’s an interesting debate, and I think that it ties in really well with the material we’ve been covering.