Sunday, April 7, 2013

Should we bring back the mammoths?

This course has provoked me to do a lot of thinking about my stance on environmental issues. It has led me to question what the purpose of the environment is, and what I think our goals regarding it should be. What it comes down to for me is, does the environment exists to serve us (by providing for us and by simply making us happy) or does it's "naturalness" (i.e. lack of interference by humans) have some intrinsic value that we ought to preserve?

These questions are, I think, very relevant to the current debate over de-extinction. This idea of using modern biotechnology to revive extinct species is one of the hottest topics in science right now and has become a topic of fierce ethical debate. Some argue that we have a responsibility to bring back species that humans have clearly caused the extinction of, such as passenger pigeons and dodos, and reintroduce them to the environments that they were once a part of. Others think that reintroducing extinct species would be irresponsible because these ecosystems have likely already adapted to the loss of this species, and reintroducing it could therefore wreak havoc upon existing ecosystems, perhaps even causing more extinctions.

But where does our responsibility as our own species truly lie? Is humankind's role to try to live separately from nature, and influence it as little as possible or to shape nature in a way that we find is the most pleasant or beneficial for us? What I mean by this is, if bringing back mammoths will make people happy and excited about science, should we just go for it? Life is incredibly robust overall, and ecosystems will adapt to change. The question is whether or not we think this change is good.

Obviously, this is not an easy question to answer. People have very different opinions on what kinds of environmental changes are "good." The main thing that I personally struggle with is the hypocrisy of many arguments regarding the environment.  Why should we feel guilty because we have driven other species extinct, even though this is in principle a very natural process that occurs throughout the natural world? Why should it be ok for us to intervene in nature for purposes of conservation, rehabilitation, or possibly reintroducing species, but not in ways that serve humankind more directly?

To me, sustainability and preservation/conservation, which are some of the most fundamental aspects of environmentalism, can be very contradictory practices. I am not at all advocating environmental degradation, but I do think that we need to have a clearer picture of what we want for and from the environment before we make decisions about issues such as de-extinction.