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​Professor Puts De-Extinction Under Microscope

Diehm, philosophy students examine ethics of bringing back species

Native to continental Australia, the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, was the largest known carnivorous marsupial of its day. A variety of human-driven events and circumstances led to the species’ extinction in the 1930s. Yet in the later stages of the 20th century, researchers announced plans to resurrect the species by reconstructing its genome, synthesizing its DNA and using cloning techniques. Similar projects have been planned and undertaken for such species as passenger pigeons and wild goats.

Sounds good, right? After all, if humans are responsible for a species’ extinction, are they not morally obligated to undo the damage if the technology to do so exists? The answer is not so simple, argues University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point philosophy professor Christian Diehm.

Diehm teaches a variety of courses focused on environmental ethics, and several semesters ago took a deeper dive into the ethics of wildlife conservation. In the process of assembling the class, he selected de-extinction as one of the subjects the class would study.

“The topic fits really well, and students gravitated to it,” he says. “Students are often drawn initially to the arguments people typically make in favor of de-extinction. The main argument people have made is if humans made a species extinct, they have an obligation to revive it. But when we start talking about it in a lot of detail some people start to question whether it makes sense, they have worries about biotechnology.”

While the general technology making de-extinction possible has existed for some time, there has not been much philosophical literature published on the subject. Diehm contributed to the body of work with his recent paper, “Should Extinction Be Forever? Restitution, Restoration and Reviving Extinct Species.” In it, he takes a stronger stance than he usually does in his writing – in this case against the notion of de-extinction.

“When you look at what the technology of de-extinction actually does, can you really call that restitution?” Diehm says. “I think it doesn’t, really. If we do somehow bring back a species, and the life we give them isn’t worth it, it’s more punishment than making amends.”

For example, Diehm cites the likelihood these re-created species would end up on display in zoos. Conversely, there is a great risk in releasing such a species into an ecosystem that has changed dramatically.
“When dealing with species that have been extinct for a period of time, you don’t know about their populations, habitats, behaviors,” he says. “It becomes speculative as to what the endgame is. You don’t know if they’ll behave how they did before; in some cases you really don’t know how they did anyway! It seems like you’re really rolling the dice.”

There is also the notion that the possibility of resurrecting species and ecosystems will encourage people to be more lax about conserving them in the first place. “Whether that comes true or not is hard to say, but it’s something to be worried about,” Diehm says.

Diehm covered the topic of de-extinction in the initial installment of the 2016-2017 Community Lecture Series. “Should Extinction Be Forever?” held Tuesday, Sept. 13, at the Portage County Public Library.

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