Thylacines in the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., 1906WIKIMEDIA, SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION ARCHIVESThe only ever successful de-extinction was the birth of a baby bucardo (Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica)—a type of ibex specifically adapted to the Pyrenees Mountains in Europe—in 2003, though the young animal died soon after birth because its lungs did not function properly, according to BBC News. The clone was generated using frozen cells harvested in 1999 from the last bucardo, an old female that died in 2000. Now, the BBC reports that the Centre for Research and Food Technology of Aragon (CITA) in Zaragoza, Spain, will begin a new project to examine the burcado frozen cells to determine whether de-extinction efforts ought to be resurrected.
“At this moment, we are not initiating a bucardo recovery plan,” Alberto Fernandez-Arias, the head of the Service of Hunting, Fishing and Wetlands in the Aragon government, told the BBC. “We only want to know if Celia’s cells are still alive after having been maintained frozen during 14 years in liquid nitrogen.” Fernandez-Arias told the story of the 2003 bucardo de-extinction experiment in one of 25 talks at the TEDxDeExtinction meeting held this spring (March 15) in Washington, D.C.
The meeting—organized by a group called Revive and Restore, part of the Long Now Foundation in Santa Cruz, California—brought together researchers planning or executing projects to genetically rescue endangered and extinct species, from the woolly mammoth to the passenger pigeon. In October, researcher Ben Novak announced on Revive and Restore’s blog that the complete passenger pigeon genome was being sequenced, but that’s only the first step to bringing the species back from the brink. “Of course the big goal for us is to understand the genes and the regions of DNA that evolved to make a passenger pigeon the bird that it is, and to begin recreating those elements in a living pigeon genome, the band-tailed pigeon,” Novak wrote.
Michael Archer, a professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia, also spoke at TEDxDeExtinction about his work to bring back the thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus), a marsupial with a dog-like body shape that is sometimes called the “Tasmanian tiger” and became extinct in the 1930s. He’s also using somatic cell nuclear transfer to resurrect a much more recently extinct species (1979), the southern gastric-brooding frog (Rheobatrachus silus). “If it’s clear that we exterminated these species, we not only have a moral obligation to see what we can do about it,” said Archer in his talk, “but I think we’ve got a moral imperative to try to do something if we can.”
In most cases, humans are the core perpetrators for making organisms go extinct, whether it be by tearing down their national habitat, hunting them to death, or other things. Because of this, some believe that humans have a moral obligation to bring back these organisms. They believe that if scientists have the tools to do this, they not only should take advantage of them, but they need to take advantage of them (Archer).
In addition to the debate of whether or not humans have a moral obligation towards extinct species, there is the debate of whether or not animals are being bio-objectified. Bio-objectification is the process in which living things are used for human needsthat may range “from knowledge enhancement, species conservation, and scientific discoveries to entertainment in zoos and exhibits” (Martinelli, Oksanen, and Siipi 424).While some scientists say they plan to put their revived animals back into the wild, others say they will put them into zoos for conservation or to be studied. Is either ethically permissible? This question will be explored in more detail later on.
Withregard to these two topics, they both have a significant question in common: do animals have rights? Some say that because animals feel pain and are coherent to a certain extent, they do have rights (Singer). Others say that because animals cannot make moral decisions on their own, they do not have rights (Cohen 94). This discussionwill be limited to the role of animal rights under two different spotlights: its role in regards to human’s moral obligation to bring species back as well as its role when an animal is bio-objectified.
Our Moral Obligation and Animal Rights
Michael Archer, a lead researcher in the de-extinction field, says, “If we were responsible for the extinction of the species, deliberately or inadvertently, we have a moral responsibility or imperative to undo that if we can” (Archer qtd. in Yong 5).Philosophically speaking, if humans have an obligation towards something, they do because that something has “a claim against [humans], that they have rights that [humans] have breached” (S. Cohen 169). In other words, if humans feel a need to bring justice to some wrong that they want to make right, the moral standards surrounding the wrong act are there because they have infringed upon another organism’s rights. Thereby, the rationality behind the idea that humans have a moral obligation towards extinct species can only be answered if the following question is examined: Do animals have rights? (S. Cohen 169).In this discussion, “rights” refers to “a moral or legal entitlement to have or obtain something”(Merriam-Webster).