We are currently in the midst of the sixth great mass extinction event in our planet's history. The die-off of species is occurring at 100 to 1000 times the natural background rate and is largely due to human activities. At the current rate 1 in 4 mammal species (and numerous other animal groups) will be gone in thirty years.
The journal Nature recently unveiled its special edition entitled
The viewpoint expressed by these authors supports the notion that scientific know-how will allow us to skirt the issue of vanishing species under the false confidence that we can bring them back into the world when we deem it worthwhile to do so. This peculiar form of ”conservation” manifests itself in cloning efforts like the one above but also in efforts to collect, preserve and store DNA and viable cells from animals in danger of extinction such as The Frozen Ark Project by the University of Nottingham, Natural History Museum, Zoological Society of London. Moreover, zoos and aquaria have squarely situated themselves in the middle of this effort by branding themselves as bastions of protection and preservation for the animals they hold captive. Through their captive breeding programs they claim to be in the business of safe-keeping those species who are bound for extinction in the natural setting.
How realistic are these efforts? More importantly, what do they tell us about our regard for members of other species and, ultimately, their success? Turning to the practical matter, all life forms, and especially animals, are complex organisms that thrive in a highly intricate dynamic milieu with each other and the planet's ecosystems. Although DNA preserves the genetic template of any given species it does not preserve the way these genetic instructions unfold in the physical, social and psychological context to yield the whole animal in all of its essence. Moreover, it is the disappearance of natural habitats that is the major cause of most of these extinctions. These realities make it highly unlikely that species will be able to be restored in their original form in their natural environment to lead natural lives. Even if some semblance of extinct life forms could be made to survive, there will be no place for them to go. Although this issue is given lip-service, it is taken in stride by cloning enthusiasts.
Beyond these critical pragmatic and scientific issues, I argue that these efforts are representative of a mindset that has contributed greatly to the extinction trend in the first place. I also argue that these kinds of efforts tell us something about the stunning disregard we have for the animals we share the planet with. This dangerous viewpoint is part of a cultural ill I call “recreational conservation”, societal beliefs and practices that superficially resemble genuine conservation efforts but, instead, reflect and promote a demeaning commoditization of other animals for the purposes of our entertainment and edification. Zoos, marine parks, captive breeding programs, frozen DNA banks, and extinct species cloning programs all promote themselves as modern-day Noah’s Arks. But the danger is that these human-created contexts of cement and steel, test tubes, and incubators are all sending the message that natural habitats are irrelevant. And if the animals’ natural context is implicitly presented as unimportant, then these institutions are actually contradicting the message they claim to affirm. Moreover, these types of efforts palliate people's concerns about a vanishing natural world, instead of forcing us to confront the imminent dangers to animals. In this way they create a false sense of security about the survival and welfare of other animals. Hence the notion that species can be reconstituted or “rebooted” sometime in the future. Zoos and marine parks, especially, often explicitly convey to the visitor that by patronizing their facility they are contributing to conservation. Visitors, in turn, are not only entertained but they can leave the zoo with a sense of self-satisfaction that they are “doing their part”. The opportunity loss for real conservation efforts is obvious. Instead of doing the real work of conservation, “recreational conservation” entertains under the guise of education and leads us to look forward to the day when we can be “conservationists” once again by gawking at even more exotic commodities such as the woolly mammoth, tyrannosaurus rex, the saber-toothed tiger, and neanderthals. Recreational conservation ensures failure because it is a continuation of the same mindset that brought other animals to this precipice in the first place. What is needed is the hard work of real conservation – shifting to a non-anthropocentric view that takes seriously the inherent value of the other animals on this planet.
As I read about these touted efforts to bring back extinct species I envision a dystopic future that repeats the ignorance and abuses of the past. In 1902 the