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A case for resurrecting lost species—review essay of Beth Shapiro’s, “How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-extinction”

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Abstract

The title of Beth Shapiro’s ‘How to Clone a Mammoth’ contains an implicature: it suggests that it is indeed possible to clone a mammoth, to bring extinct species back from the dead. But in fact Shapiro both denies this is possible, and denies there would be good reason to do it even if it were possible. The de-extinct ‘mammoths’ she speaks of are merely ecological proxies for mammoths—elephants re-engineered for cold-tolerance by the addition to their genomes of a few mammoth genes. Shapiro’s denial that genuine species de-extinction is possible is based on her assumption that resurrected organisms would need to be perfectly indistinguishable from the creatures that died out. In this article I use the example of an extinct New Zealand wattlebird, the huia, to argue—contra Shapiro—that there are compelling reasons to resurrect certain species if it can be done. I then argue—again, contra Shapiro—that synthetically created organisms needn’t be perfectly indistinguishable from their genetic forebears in order for species de-extinction to be successful.

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Notes

  1. Unfortunately skins were usually preserved using formalin, which damages DNA and complicates the task of reconstructing the genome. But see Lambert et al. (2009).

  2. In 2013 the official status of the South Island kokako, a very close relative of the huia, was changed from ‘extinct’ to ‘data deficient’ based on the first accepted sighting for 40 years. It is very faintly possible that huia are likewise still hiding somewhere.

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Acknowledgments

Many thanks to Paul Broady, Jack Copeland, Rosie Ibbotson, Carolyn Mason, Diane Proudfoot, Tammy Steeves, Peter Wenz and, especially, Mick Whittle, for helpful suggestions and discussions.

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Correspondence to Douglas Campbell.

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Campbell, D. A case for resurrecting lost species—review essay of Beth Shapiro’s, “How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-extinction”. Biol Philos 31, 747–759 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-016-9534-2

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