This paper offers a paleobiological perspective on the debate concerning the possible use of biotechnology to bring back extinct species. One lesson from paleobiology is that extinction selectivity matters in addition to extinction rates and extinction magnitude. Combining some of Darwin’s insights about artificial selection with the theory of species selection that paleobiologists developed in the 1970s and 1980s provides a useful context for thinking about de-extinction. Using recent work on the prioritization of candidate species for de-extinction as a test case, the paper argues that de-extinction would be a form of artificial species selection in which humans influence which species persist vs. go extinct. This points to a serious gap in our ethical theory: Much work has been done to clarify the value(s) of biological diversity, but we also need theoretical guidance for decisions that amount to species sorting, and that will shape the macroevolutionary future.
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Sepkoski (2012) provides a useful context for understanding the emergence of the theory of species selection during what might be called a revolutionary episode in paleontology.
Siipi (2014) explores the role that our intuitions about authenticity might play here.
For convenience, I am loosely equating biodiversity loss with species loss. However, most scientists and philosophers would agree that species richness is just one component of biodiversity. For a clear and wide-ranging discussion of the meaning of “biodiversity,” see MacLaurin and Sterelny (2008).
This way of thinking about macroevolution derives from the work of the MBL group in the early 1970s (Raup et al. 1973). They developed one of the first computer simulations of macroevolution, and their simulation, known as the MBL model, treated it as an unbiased process.
See, for example, Gould (1993). And in the context of his discussion of contingency, Gould (1989, p. 48) writes that “perhaps the grim reaper of anatomical designs is only Lady Luck in disguise.” Turner (2010) argues that the stochasticity of macroevolutionary sorting processes is part of what Gould meant by “contingency.”
This idea that body size increases extinction risk has a long history in paleontology. It’s closely related to the “Lilliput effect,” which is an observable pattern in the fossil record (Harries and Knorr 2009). The fauna that show up in the fossil record after mass extinction events tend to have smaller body sizes than those that lived just prior to the mass extinction.
Sterrett (2002) argues that the two types of artificial selection in Darwin’s work—methodical vs. unconscious—closely parallel his distinction between natural selection based on the principle of divergence vs. the principle of extinction. In her view, the analogy between artificial and natural selection has more structure than many realize. This is a plausible reading of Darwin. I’d argue that it’s also important that all natural selection is unconscious, so that in pointing out that some artificial selection is unconscious, Darwin is eroding the difference between the two.
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This issue of intent might matter for ethical reasons, even if we don’t think intent is necessary for selection to be artificial. As one anonymous referee pointed out, there could be cases where people foresee that their activities will increase the risk of extinction, but do not intend for the extinction to happen. In such cases, the principle of double effect might apply.
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An earlier version of this paper was presented at the ISHPSSB meeting in Montreal, Canada, in July 2015. I am very grateful to colleagues at that meeting (especially Leonard Finkelman, Markku Oksanen, and Helena Siipi) for their ideas and critical feedback. The paper has also benefitted from helpful comments from Russell Powell, as well as two anonymous referees for this journal.
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Turner, D.D. De-extinction as Artificial Species Selection. Philos. Technol. 30, 395–411 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13347-016-0232-4
- Artificial selection
- Conservation paleobiology
- Extinction selectivity
- Resurrection biology
- Species selection