De-Extinction: Shelley’s dream of regeneration becoming a reality

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:

http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/04/125-species-revival/zimmer-text

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.

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7 Responses to De-Extinction: Shelley’s dream of regeneration becoming a reality

  1. Wow I had no idea that such a thing could actually be possible! Michael Crichton and Steven Spielgberg must be clapping with glee right now.
    Your question of nature vs. nurture is, I think, an interesting one. Given the example of the mammoth, I think the question becomes whether these de-extinct animals would be able to survive in the current environment. After all, the main reasons extinction comes about is because these animals can not adapt quickly enough to changes in their environment. And the later point you raise about the dangers of de-extinction I think is related. We have no idea what the world would look like if one of these species suddenly came back to life. We don’t know the ecological ramifications of such a thing would be. If given free reign with such technology, humans could possibly be the authors of their own demise, irreparably disrupting the environment in ways we haven’t even imagined.

  2. mercerism says:

    I love this post so much. The possibility of this actually happening forcefully tears the discussion of scientific ethics out of the abstract and slams it into the practical. You’re absolutely right to wonder about the ways this technology could “be exploited for entertainment value or monetary gain.” The concern suddenly becomes much less about human hubris or “playing god” or more general discussions of parental responsibilities, and much more about who is going to be controlling this technology and to what end, impacts on ecosystems, etc.

    At the risk of turning this post into a Marxist critique (which I’m prone to do), this is a perfect example of how capitalism and the profit motive can take an ethically-neutral tool with great potential for good (genetic engineering, a factory machine) and turn it into an instrument of destruction or oppression. In terms of “maximizing shareholder value”, it would actually be irresponsible to expend the capital necessary to develop technologies like this for any reason OTHER than profit; likewise, it would be irresponsible to expend any more capital on the project after it’s been monetized (e.g. on safety). Look at GMO food, where plants that have been engineered to maximize yield, minimize shipping damage, and force farmers to rebuy seed every year (instead of, say, tasting better, being more nutritious, etc.) have been rushed to market without extensive safety testing, and in a form that allows the modified genes to spread to other “non-GMO” crops.

  3. This is a fascinating article, and applies equally well to our impending discussion of “The Time Machine.” “You are wrong to say that we cannot move about in Time,” (62) the anonymous Time Traveller declares. Through the re-creating of these extinct species, we may perhaps be able to, in a sense, move back in time. We can benefit from our increased societal development and scientific consciousness while profiting from a second chance. We can bring back the dodo bird!
    While I’m not inclined to take very seriously anything associated with Ashton Kutcher, I do feel like the “butterfly effect” does apply. The (re)introduction of any species to an established setting will wreak havoc on the ecosystems to an unimaginable extent.
    I’m also interested in H.G. Wells’ concept of degeneration, which might apply here. Would the re-created animals be exactly like their extinct ancestors, or would they be degraded, lesser organisms?

    • ahhcoffee says:

      I couldn’t think of the term that I wanted to say but you hit the nail on the head for me when you brought up the Butterfly Effect. I think that there is a temptation to change what is in the past because humans are selfish beings—we play at being god and try to make what is natural better. However, we should consider the alternative consequences that come from doing this. A lot of us have already brought up the idea of a previously extinct species bringing back diseases or affecting established species that would live in the same environmental niche. But I am very interested in your bringing up the concept of degeneration. It not only brings to mind the question if re-created animals could be degraded like you mention, but also what happens to the future evolution of species that have a relationship to one another. I’m thinking more about symbiotic relationships in this way. For example, humans have evolved Would not only that re-created species be degraded but also species closely tied such as the Morlocks and Eloi. The butterfly effect perfectly fits into this kind of situation.

  4. writinginmy says:

    You raise some interesting points such as “wow much of an organism is nature vs nurture,” and other replies have noted whether or not “re-created animals [would] be exactly like their extinct ancestors, or would they be degraded, lesser organisms?”

    But we already sort of do that today, in a way. Look at our zoos. Would you say that the elephants we have today are any more like their ancestors before zoos were a commonplace thing? They live in human-controlled environments, and even though I’m sure the zoos attempt to simulate the ‘wild’ and ‘nature’ as best understood for the animals, they are still human-controlled. Suffice to say, if we were to bring any of these extinct animals back to life, I’m sure there’d be a push from the scientific world to recreate as natural an environment for them as we can (I don’t agree with the idea, though. We’re going far beyond our place here.)

    As far as dealing with evolution, you ask “Would these evolutionary principles still apply if we can reverse the decisions made during natural selection, or manipulate these selections ourselves?” Again, we see this today in our selective breeding of animals (farm, for aesthetics, etc.), rehabilitation in zoos, selectively breeding animals that are becoming extinct, etc. I would almost say that the question of evolution is beyond the radar at this point.

  5. teithabess says:

    As a Michael Crichton fan, I feel inclined to tackle this issue via Jurassic Park . I couldn’t say how exactly Crichton himself would respond, Jurassic Park and his, I argue, less successful book Next , definitely indicate that he had a fair bit of trepidation regarding the consequences of messing with the genome. The article’s description of splicing passenger pigeon DNA into rock pigeon DNA of course made me think of Crichton’s dinosaurs — dinosaurs which were not fully dinosaurs, but were also made up of frog DNA. This minor detail supports the argument that these dinosaurs were not real dinosaurs, for real female dinosaurs (as far as we know, of course) could not change into males in an all-female environment. The park descends into chaos (haha) because of outside influences, yet even if a storm hadn’t hit and an employee didn’t shut off the power, John Hammond still would have had to eventually face the imminent danger of the park becoming overrun with dinosaurs. I would be curious to know if interbreeding the part-passenger pigeons would be capable of completely ridding the offspring of the rock pigeon DNA. The article’s description of each generation of offspring as being “more and more like the vanished species” makes me doubt whether it is possible.

    And as “mercerism” points out, the potential dangers of the market infringing on these developments are significant. The push for profit will do no one any good, as Crichton illustrates, more specifically in Next , if you’re curious, though also in Jurassic Park : why didn’t Hammond create just a few female Hypsilophodons, or at most small stegosaurs, for a couple of years of observation? In reality, why doesn’t Monsanto spend enough time testing its products to satisfy consumer health groups? We all know what atrocities can happen when money is at stake.

    When the question of why Frankenstein didn’t think about the consequences of his creation before he completed it comes to mind, it occurs to me that the three examples further illustrate both an overblown sense of confidence and a need for speedy results. Us humans need to realize that we are not gods, in the sense that we just don’t know everything. We want results quickly, and so prioritize getting any result over the best result, sometimes because of money, which can further exacerbate the overly-confident, “the quick result is good enough” mindset. I wouldn’t mind eating genetically-modified food fifty years from now if no problems have arisen in people who have been eating them that long, for science takes time. The scientists in the article seem aware of this, but I do worry that gene modification could be further manipulated by people who don’t appreciate that fact.

    Side note: Has anyone seen the movie “Splice”? I’ve been wanting to see it, and it seems like its message could be relevant!

  6. kristy0715 says:

    Thank you for bringing up such an interesting article! Never would I have assumed that something like this would be possible. This situation ties in both Frankenstein and The Time Machine in the way that this scientific advance allows us to reintroduce species back into the population, a process that can be beneficial and may have unintended consequences- we are unsure of what is going to happen when we introduce species that have been extinct for so long, into a new time period and environment. In a way these organisms would be like the Time Traveler, traveling through time except that they are not given the option of wanting to travel or not. I think it’s great that introducing these extinct species would possibly wipe out these preservation group’s effort because simply put: why have something if we no longer have any use for it? Except my only qualms is that I usually feel that nature happens for a reason and to go against nature, such as in Frankenstein, may hold many unforeseen consequences.

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