Is the cloning of extinct species, or de-extinction, simply a fascinating exercise in futility? Or perhaps you consider it blasphemous – a bunch of modern-day Doctor Frankensteins “playing God”. On the other hand maybe could it lead to something truly exciting and monumental – a doable Jurassic Park where the visitors don’t get eaten?

There are, of course, a host of potential issues that pop up as is the case with any experimental technology. Genetically engineered hoards of revived passenger pigeons could spread disease. And do we want billions to be spent on reintroducing species only to have them die off from the same pollution, sickness and human interference that killed them off in the first place?

I think we’d all like to see a live herd of woolly mammoths traipsing across the tundra or a Thylacine – a sort of striped marsupial wolf once native to Australia and New Guinea – bounding through the outback, but there would be less fanfare (and tourist dollars) when it came to reintroducing Australian frogs or passenger pigeons. And not to take the wind out of your sail, but it’s an Australian frog which is closest to being “de-extincted” at the moment.

Tasmanian “Zebra Wolf” Thylacinus in Washington D.C. National Zoo, c. 1904 (public domain)

There are, however, reasons for de-extinction that go beyond the “coolness” factor, or even the argument that since humans drove a species to extinction, we should bring them back.

From a piece in National Geographic:

Biological diversity is a storehouse of natural invention. Most pharmaceutical drugs, for example, were not invented from scratch—they were derived from natural compounds found in wild plant species, which are also vulnerable to extinction. Some extinct animals also performed vital services in their ecosystems, which might benefit from their return. Siberia, for example, was home 12,000 years ago to mammoths and other big grazing mammals. Back then, the landscape was not moss-dominated tundra but grassy steppes. Sergey Zimov, a Russian ecologist and director of the Northeast Science Station in Cherskiy in the Republic of Sakha, has long argued that this was no coincidence: The mammoths and numerous herbivores maintained the grassland by breaking up the soil and fertilizing it with their manure. Once they were gone, moss took over and transformed the grassland into less productive tundra.

Of course that “we” implies a collective responsibility that some might not feel comfortable with. I mean, I personally had nothing to do with the sabre tooth cats dying out. Ditto the auroch, dodo, mammoth and giant sloth. I may share some culpability with the Chinese in the vanishing of their river dolphins since I have bought plenty of their pollution-producing products, however. On the other hand I won’t really be involved in cloning any of these animals either, save if my taxes are used to fund it, in which case I’ll either a) join the Tea Party b) gleefully await the first television broadcast of a trumpeting baby woolly mammoth or c) in the realization that I don’t have very much influence one way or the other, just let the powers that be get on with it.

It should be noted that so-called background extinction is always going on with or without the help of people. In the fullness of time, something like 90-99% of all species that ever existed are now extinct. We just speed it up. A lot. It is estimated that the rate of extinction is increased by mankind by a factor of 100-11,000 times. We really are a bunch of dicks, aren’t we?

Maybe we should focus on not doing that instead of the tricky de-extinction of bunch of previous victims.

For a balanced take on extinction, check out this op-ed by BBC Science editor David Shukman.

Woolly mammoth restoration at the Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria, British Columbia, pic: WolfmanSF (Wikimedia Commons)