Editor’s Note
April 2013
These scientists involved in de-extinction efforts gathered for the first time at National Geographic Society headquarters this past October. Along with ethicists and conservationists, they brought the issue before the public at a March 15 TEDx conference, also at National Geographic. Hear what they have to say in our digital editions.
Scientists: Michael Archer, Insung Hwang, Hank Greely (top row); Stewart Brand, Marilyn Renfree, Michael McGrew (middle); Ben Novak, George Church (bottom). Photos: Spencer Millsap

The idea of “de-extinction,” of bringing back a long-gone species like, say, a woolly mammoth, might seem the stuff of science fiction. But it’s almost real, explains author Carl Zimmer in this month’s story “Bringing Them Back to Life.” The cool factor of such a zoological restoration is off the charts, but de-extinction also raises some interesting questions about human beings and our impact on the world. Many extinctions occur because of our thoughtlessness or carelessness. We want a better life. We want to make the unhabitable habitable. We want to fill our stomachs. Sometimes what gets caught in the cross fire of our wants is a species. You could say an extinct species is the collateral damage of human existence. Just because we might be able to bring an extinct species back to life, though, doesn’t mean we should. There’s always the law of unintended consequences to contend with. One example: An errant virus harbored in one of these creatures might wipe out the population of a related species. On the other hand, bringing back a species might put an ailing ecosystem on a healthier footing. It could right an ecological wrong.

So what’s the answer? Is the restoration of an extinct species a moral obligation, a payback for our thoughtless obliteration of species? Or is it playing God? As Ross MacPhee, a curator of mammalogy at New York City’s American Museum of Natural History, said: “What we really need to think about is why we would want to do this in the first place.”

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