Bringing Them Back To Life
Professor Hank Greely spoke with The National Geographic's Carl Zimmer about de-extinction and why he thinks people should "embrace" the concept instead of shunning it.
On July 30, 2003, a team of Spanish and French scientists reversed time. They brought an animal back from extinction, if only to watch it become extinct again. The animal they revived was a kind of wild goat known as a bucardo, or Pyrenean ibex. The bucardo (Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica) was a large, handsome creature, reaching up to 220 pounds and sporting long, gently curved horns. For thousands of years it lived high in the Pyrenees, the mountain range that divides France from Spain, where it clambered along cliffs, nibbling on leaves and stems and enduring harsh winters.
Then came the guns. Hunters drove down the bucardo population over several centuries. In 1989 Spanish scientists did a survey and concluded that there were only a dozen or so individuals left. Ten years later a single bucardo remained: a female nicknamed Celia. A team from the Ordesa and Monte Perdido National Park, led by wildlife veterinarian Alberto Fernández-Arias, caught the animal in a trap, clipped a radio collar around her neck, and released her back into the wild. Nine months later the radio collar let out a long, steady beep: the signal that Celia had died. They found her crushed beneath a fallen tree. With her death, the bucardo became officially extinct.
De-extinction advocates are pondering these questions, and most believe they need to be resolved before any major project moves forward. Hank Greely, a leading bioethicist at Stanford University, has taken a keen interest in investigating the ethical and legal implications of de-extinction. And yet for Greely, as for many others, the very fact that science has advanced to the point that such a spectacular feat is possible is a compelling reason to embrace de-extinction, not to shun it.
"What intrigues me is just that it’s really cool," Greely says. "A saber-toothed cat? It would be neat to see one of those."