Editor's note: Stuart Pimm is the Doris Duke Chair of Conservation Ecology at Duke University, and the 2006 laureate of the Dr. A. H. Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences awarded by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Check out our coverage on species revival, the topic of a Friday TEDx talk at National Geographic.
In the movie Jurassic Park, a tree extinct for millions of years delights the paleobotanist. Then a sauropod eats its leaves. This movie later shows us how to re-create the dinosaur but not how to grow the tree, which at that size would be perhaps a hundred or more years old, or how to do so metaphorically overnight. To sustain even a single dinosaur, one would need thousands of trees, probably of many species, as well as their pollinators and perhaps their essential symbiotic fungi.
Video: Should We Resurrect Extinct Species?
De-extinction intends to resurrect single, charismatic species, yet millions of species are at risk of extinction. De-extinction can only be an infinitesimal part of solving the crisis that now sees species of animals (some large but most tiny), plants, fungi, and microbes going extinct at a thousand times their natural rates. (Related: Photos of Nearly Extinct Species.)
"But wait"—claim de-extinction's proponents. "We want to resurrect passenger pigeons and Pyrenean ibex, not dinosaurs. Surely, the plants on which these animals depend still survive, so there is no need to resurrect them as well!" Indeed, botanic gardens worldwide have living collections of an impressively large fraction of the world's plants, some extinct in the wild, others soon to be so. Their absence from the wild is more easily fixed than the absence of animals, for which de-extinction is usually touted.
Perhaps so, but other practical problems abound: A resurrected Pyrenean ibex will need a safe home, not just its food plants. Those of us who attempt to reintroduce zoo-bred species that have gone extinct in the wild have one question at the top of our list: Where do we put them? Hunters ate this wild goat to extinction. Reintroduce a resurrected ibex to the area where it belongs and it will become the most expensive cabrito ever eaten. If this seems cynical, then consider the cautionary tale of the Arabian oryx, returned to Oman from a captive breeding program. Their numbers have declined so much that their home, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, was summarily removed from the register. (Pictures: Extinct Species That Could Be Brought Back.)
Yes, the set of plants alive a century or so ago when the passenger pigeon went extinct are probably still here. Is the pigeon's habitat intact? Surely not: The land use changes since then have been far too extensive.
In every case, without an answer to "where do we put them?"—and to the further question, "what changed in their original habitat that may have contributed to their extinction in the first place?"—efforts to bring back species are a colossal waste.
De-extinction is much worse than a waste: By setting up the expectation that biotechnology can repair the damage we're doing to the planet's biodiversity, it's extremely harmful for two kinds of political reasons.
Fantasies of reclaiming extinct species are always seductive. It is a fantasy that real scientists—those wearing white lab coats—are using fancy machines with knobs and digital readouts to save the planet from humanity's excesses. In this fantasy, there is none of the messy interaction with people, politics, and economics that characterizes my world. There is nothing involving the real-world realities of habitat destruction, of the inherent conflict between growing human populations and wildlife survival. Why worry about endangered species? We can simply keep their DNA and put them back in the wild later.
When I testify before Congress on endangered species, I'm always asked, "Can't we safely reduce the spotted owl to small numbers, keeping some in captivity as insurance?" The meaning is clear: "Let's log out almost all of western North America's old-growth forests because, if we can save species with high-tech solutions, the forest doesn't matter."
Or I'm asked, "Can't we breed in captivity the Cape Sable seaside sparrow?"—an obscure little bird whose survival requires the water in Everglades National Park to be the right amount in the right place at the right time. "Let's accommodate the sugar growers and damage large areas of the Everglades. Let's tolerate a high risk of extinction because our white-lab-coated science rock stars can save the day!"
The second political problem involves research priorities. I work with very poor people in Africa, Brazil, and Madagascar. Rich only in the diversity of life amid which they eke out their living, they generate no money for my university. Too many other universities equate excellence with funds generated, not with societal needs met. Over my career, molecular biologists flourished as university administrators drooled over their large grants and their expensive labs. Field-based biology withered. Many otherwise prominent universities have no schools of the environment, no ecology departments, no professors of conservation. It was all too easy to equate "biology" with molecules and strip faculty positions and facilities from those who worked in the field. De-extinction efforts can only perpetuate that trend.
Video: Recipe for Resurrection
Conservation is about the ecosystems that species define and on which they depend. Conservation is about finding alternative, sustainable futures for peoples, for forests, and for wetlands. Molecular gimmickry simply does not address these core problems. At worst, it seduces granting agencies and university deans into thinking they are saving the world. It gives unscrupulous developers a veil to hide their rapaciousness, with promises to fix things later. It distracts us from guaranteeing our planet's biodiversity for future generations.