Is De-Exctintion a Misnomer?

Alexi Barnstone - Philosophy & Culture


In 2015 Elizabeth Kolbert won a Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction. Her book, The Sixth Extinction:An Unnatural History, argued that we are in the midst of a manmade sixth extinction. In the book she claims that by the end of the 21st century between twenty and fifty percent of all the living species on earth. 

Kolbert presents a morbid, confronting account of reality in the anthropocene. That contemporary society, in its present form, flourishes at the expense of nature. 

A  2019 UN reportstated that the rate of extinction is accelerating, with around a million plant and animal species now under threat. Losing a million species would amount to losing roughly an eighth of global biodiversity. An unequivocal catastrophe…. assuming we cannot correct for the loss. 

The irony of technological advancement is in its dialecticalism.  While it destroys it simultaneously creates. Industry pollutes the world, warming the planet, rendering biomes uninhabitable, and driving species to extinction. But recent advancements in genetic engineering offer a way to bring back lost species. Emergent scientific technologies such as CRISPR, a method for cutting out and editing genetic code, make a near-future where we recreate lost species conceivable. 

De-extinction has moral implications for society. Should we allow for de-extinction technology to alleviate the anguish of species loss? And consequently not worry about taking action to prevent it?

To answer these questions a more fundamental, metaphysical question that is still actively debated within environmental philosophy must be addressed.  Is re-creating a species actually de-extinction, or the creation of a new species with a similar genetic code? Loose and variant definitions of what constitutes a member of species contribute to the ambivalence around this question. And resolving the metaphysics proceeds any sentimentality, moral or otherwise, that we may develop around extinction. Before we decide how de-extinction technology influences our beliefs and actions, we must figure out what de-extinction actually means, and more specifically, whether it is a misnomer. The future may bring us the science to recreate genetically engineered members of an extinct species, but the metaphysical ambiguity around what makes something a member of a species means we cannot be sure we have actually resurrected that species. Without metaphysical certainty, future technology should have no moral implications toward our efforts to save the species of today. 

One of the contemporary understandings of what makes something a member of a species is that it shares intrinsic essences that are fundamental components to members of a specific species. Cats all have genetic codes that are only found in cats, for example. This understanding of species in metaphysics is called the ‘natural kind’ argument. On this definition, if we had the technology to engineer genetic code, we could make species de-extinct. But there is a problem here. Namely, that the theory of natural kind over estimates the homogeneity of members of any given species. There is significant genetic variation amongst any set of members of a given species. Hence, to assert that there is some natural essence that we could engineer to make an iteration of an extinct species is to pervert our understanding of the complexity of genetic code. The natural kind argument, in other words, falls short of metaphysical certainty. 

Another objection to de-extinction is found in spatiotemporal conceptions of species. Many philosophers of science maintain that species have to be connected on a time continuum, and that it is consequently impossible for any recreation to be a member of a species once a time gap between that creature and the last of its natural species dies. De-extinction as a concept is yet again threatened by our own understanding of what makes a member of a species. 

Finding the answers to these hard metaphysical questions precedes any shift we may make in how we address climate change because of technological advancement. Before we say “it is ok if some animals go extinct, we can recreate them in the future” we need to know, with absolute certainty, that recreating replicas actually are iterations of that species. 

The metaphysical uncertainty around de-extinction will not abate anytime soon, and consequently, neither should our drive to save the million animals and plants threatened by the anthropocene. 

Written by Alexander Barnstone

Alexi Barnstone is a current Honours student at the University of Sydney studying political philosophy.  Having graduated majoring in psychology and philosophy, his fascination with climate change centres around how the human condition and government will be altered in the years to come.

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