The tangle of resurrection

I ended my first blog post by asking what the point of reviving (or trying to) extinct species might be. Here, I want to take this question up and puzzle over it some more.

It makes intuitive sense that, in the age of massive human-induced extinctions, the idea of reviving those already gone is gaining ground. There is an undeniable righting-a-wrong ethic at work; the clearer it becomes just how involved humans are in reshaping the planet, the stronger the call for retribution will get. So the most immediate reason for reviving extinct species seems to be the need to set things straight again, to make up for past sins, as it were.

This decidedly ethical view on reviving extinct species does not seem to me very solid. The appeal to set things straight depends on a guilty conscious which I find problematic and counterproductive. Instead of feeling guilty for past transgressions (see, the terms themselves are steeped in guilt), I side with Latour and would rather feel responsible for whatever we have created. The issue of guilt is also slightly disingenuous. If indeed it were the case that we should revive, in an ideal world, all species that went extinct because of human action, then lots of things that we are better off without would have to come back. Obviously, nobody argues for the return of smallpox. Indeed, the argument for bringing things back usually centers around charismatic animals. In other words, we tend to want to bring back species we like, or that we think we would like to still have around. And if indeed an important element in the call to bring species back is aesthetic preference, then I would rather purge it of the guilt and leave it at that. We can discuss aesthetic preferences, and surely we can agree on the validity of some over others. Motivating people based on guilt obviates discussion by giving the repentant party the moral high ground.

If you are interested in the debate around the ethical argument for bringing species back, take a look at these papers from philosopher Christian Diehm and Karim Jebari. But besides the underlying appeal to some form of repentance, and its theological underpinnings, I also find problematic the idea that we should replace the exact same thing that disappeared. One example of this is the passenger pigeon. This bird was famously numerous in the United States, until it wasn’t. Turns out that no number is insurance enough against extinction. The Long Now foundation aims to revive the pigeon, and would ideally like to get a bird that is the same in all important respects. This identity criterion raises some interesting questions. What exactly was a passenger pigeon? If we were able to have exact genetic replicas of extinct individuals, would they then know how to be ‘passenger pigeons’? Would we rather have a genetically faithful passenger pigeon that behaves differently than its historic forebears did, or another kind of pigeon that behaves just like passenger pigeons used to?

These kinds of questions point towards the complicated business of assigning species identity. This is so because a passenger pigeon, or anything else for that matter, is neither a collection or genes, nor a set of behaviors. Rather, it is both, in ways that defy exact definitions. This being the case, the question of why we would want to bring animals back necessarily passes through the question of what animal, exactly, we wish to bring back. Another way of putting this question is asking what balance of behavior and genetic makeup we are aiming for. Let’s take the aurochs as an example here. This project of recreation aims to bring back an animal that looks and acts like the aurochs once used to. I have already discussed the difficulty in knowing exactly what that is. Here, I want to point out that in the effort to bring an animal back, some measure of balance must be struck between essentialism and functionalism. Essentialism here would mean thinking that the identity of the animal is primarily tied to its genes, and functionalism would be reviving species for their ecological role. Usually, it is argued that the genetic makeup of an animal has a lot to do with its role in the environment.

So in the case of the aurochs, the argument is that a particular genetic makeup corresponds with certain desirable behaviors. So basically remaking the aurochs genetically would all but ensure that it behaves in ways that we find useful. What ways? Well, on the strength of the theory of natural grazing, the aurochs would be desirable for its ability to maintain open habitats where, in its absence, the forrest would grow back. Particularly in areas of land abandonment, the argument goes, without something like the aurochs constantly grazing, the landscape would change towards closed canopy forrest, and this change would spell doom for a number of European species that live in open grassland. In this argument, the phenotype and the function are seen as welded holistically. However, as far as I can tell, there is nothing the aurochs would do differently than plenty of cow breeds already do. So instead of spending resources of all sorts on bringing it back, it would be far easier to maintain already existing primitive breeds, and set them loose on pastures we want to maintain as pastures. The fact that, behaviorally, the aurochs is not that special, points towards the actual importance of essentialism in arguments for bringing species back. It is not enough, in other words, to have a herd of primitive cattle roam around; we want wild ones.

In the immense effort of bringing animals back from the dead, I can discern the ethical justification talked about before, but also a supposedly technical one, which insists that phenotype and function are both desirable features to be resurrected. At least in cases where the function could be performed by a proxy animal, the issue of phenotype reveals itself to have little to do with either ecology, or ethics. Instead, there is an undeniable aesthetic argument: we want that animal, and by ‘that’ is meant one that looks like an aurochs, a Tasmanian tiger, a mammoth, or a passenger pigeon. As far as I can tell, there are no conclusive ecological reasons for this, and neither are there ethical ones. Given that, I would really like de-extinction advocates to make an aesthetic argument. It would go something like this: there is no real necessity for a passenger pigeon, and in any case we probably will never be able to bring back the same animal; nature is too dynamic for that; instead, we want to create an animal that looks like a passenger pigeon, because we find it a real shame it went extinct; it was also our fault, and we feel like having a look-alike would be some kind of moral retribution; however that may be, we’d really like to look at live passenger pigeons again – we think there is value in that.

The benefit of the above kind of hypothetical argument is that it untangles de-extinction from dubious ethical claims, and sets it on a more veridical ground. This new ground then makes possible two very important things: acknowledging that extinction is forever, and allowing for certain projects of revival to continue, because of people’s aesthetic preferences. Claiming that we can literally revive the same animal, and that we do so out of moral duty, obscures both the underlying impetus for resurrection, and suggests that bringing animals back from the dead is merely a technical feat. Besides moral hazard, the danger with this argument is that it removes animal recreation from the public discussion that should inform it. Just like extinction was a social phenomenon, so should resurrection. Lastly, presenting de-extinction in ecological terms also risks removing it from public scrutiny, by appealing to a supposed natural need. Instead, arguments for bringing species back should be part of land-use policy. It is entirely legitimate to decide that we would rather have big cows with a white stripe on their back instead of Pajuna cattle, and that in order to do that we are ready to spend millions. But at the very least it should be a public decision, and not a supposed duty, whether ethical or ecological, bravely carried by a few. Resurrection conceived of as a social practice informed by aesthetic values would in fact not be bringing anything back. Instead, it would create new animals that can stand in for old ones. We can decide to keep the language of revival, because we might find that illusion important. That’s fine; there are plenty of linguistic practices that are useful without being correct.

So why bring animals back? Because we’d really like that – if, indeed, we would.

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