The return of dodo birds, wooly mammoths and saber tooth tigers via DNA extraction and cloning techniques seems a compelling storyline to the latest blockbuster movie a la Jurassic Park, but is, in fact, being aggressively pursued in laboratories around the world.
Called de-extinction, scientists are diligently working to sequence the genomes of various extinct animals with the hopes of one day reviving them and restoring them to their place in nature. Yet, does that place in nature even exist anymore? And if it does, have we sufficiently addressed the factors that caused the initial extinction? More importantly, perhaps, would a new emphasis on de-extinction detract from and siphon resources from the greater conservation movement?
University of Illinois Extension and Severson Dells Nature Center are bringing three expert scientists to Rockford to share their professional thoughts and opinions on the technological, conservation and ethical challenges involved in de-extinction technology. The event is called “The Ethics of De-Extinction” and it will be from 7 to 9 p.m., Friday, Nov. 15, at University of Illinois College of Medicine, 1601 Parkview Ave., Rockford.
Dr. Stanley Temple, Beers-Bascom professor emeritus in conservation at University of Wisconsin-Madison and senior fellow of the Aldo Leopold Foundation, believes de-extinction provides a completely new and exciting, but nonetheless daunting, challenge for conservation biology. Dr. Temple points out that, “whether this emerging technology should be embraced fully or is one that we should be skeptical and cautious about, de-extinction on a large scale isn’t going to happen anytime soon. We have time to consider carefully all the implications and make sure it’s done in the most appropriate way.”
Passionate about preserving the world’s biological diversity, Dr. Temple will share his ideas about how de-extinction technology could possibly benefit endangered animals and might have an appropriate role when applied to recently extinct animals.
Dr. Dennis Ruez, on the other hand, says ancient life — life in the fossil record — is unlikely to be reanimated. Dr. Ruez is a vertebrate paleontologist and assistant professor and chairman of the Environmental Studies Department at University of Illinois at Springfield. He will speak at “The Ethics of De-Extinction” about the challenges of bringing back more ancient populations of extinct animals to an altered physical and climatological landscape.
Dr. Ruez points out that “Jurassic Park was fiction. But there is a growing movement to bring back to North America long-extinct organisms — especially Ice Age mammals. I’ll explore the technology of bringing back the dead, as well as the challenges of trying to restore an entire ecosystem.”
Dr. Peter Wenz, author of Environmental Ethics Today and professor Emeritus of philosophy at University of Illinois at Springfield, thinks that attempts to use genetic engineering to rectify the situation of extinction is “doubling down on the bet that we can understand nature well enough to produce what we want in ways that don’t do more harm than good.”
Dr. Wenz will close the program by examining the ethical implications of using genetic engineering to rectify extinction versus accepting and learning from the permanent loss of species.
“We have no reason to believe that we have surmounted difficulties of unintended consequences,” Wenz said. “It may be better to accept our loss of species and learn from that loss.”
All three speakers will sit on a panel at the end of the program for audience questions.
“The Ethics of De-Extinction” costs $5 per adult and is free to students of all ages. Pre-registration is requested via the University of Illinois Extension website at web.extension.illinois.edu/jsw; walk-ins are welcome. For more information, contact Severson Dells Nature Center at (815) 335-2915 or University of Illinois Extension at (815) 986-4357.
From the Nov. 6-12, 2013, issue