Shall we bring back the passenger pigeon? …Sure: I hear that they’re tasty.

Via AosHQ, meet a controversy you may not be aware of: the politics of using genetic engineering to recreate extinct species. Although admittedly the NYT thought that it was just writing about passenger pigeons.

More pressing to conservationists is a practical anxiety: Money. De-extinction is a flashy new competitor for patronage. As the conservationist David Ehrenfeld said at a Revive & Restore conference: “If it works, de-extinction will only target a very few species and is extremely expensive. Will it divert conservation dollars from tried-and-true conservation measures that already work, which are already short of funds?”


De-extinction also poses a rhetorical threat to conservation biologists. The specter of extinction has been the conservation movement’s most powerful argument. What if extinction begins to be seen as a temporary inconvenience? The ecologist Daniel Simberloff raised a related concern. “It’s at best a technofix dealing with a few species,” he told me. “Technofixes for environmental problems are band-aids for massive hemorrhages. To the extent that the public, who will never be terribly well informed on the larger issue, thinks that we can just go and resurrect a species, it is extremely dangerous. . . . De-extinction suggests that we can technofix our way out of environmental issues generally, and that’s very, very bad.”

Well, it’s certainly bad for people who get paychecks from Big Green. Not that I’m generally for or against recreating non-sentient species, unless of course they taste good, yield up valuable resources, make excellent pets, or otherwise benefit humanity by their presence. Which, yes, can include being a vital part of the local ecosystem, which is why you need to be careful about what happens to, say, bees, mosquitoes, and earthworms.

…Hey, I’m an apex predator AND a tool-user.  I draw the line at sentient and proto-sentient species: if you can have a meaningful conversation with an adult member of its species, tread lightly. Otherwise… well, Darwinian natural selection, right?

Moe Lane


  • acat says:

    Hmmm. Maybe we can figure out this “missing bee” thing…

  • Luke says:

    Ducks Unlimited and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation are conservationists.
    Greenpeace and the like are not.
    The NYT should know better than to conflate the two.
    As to the passenger pigeon itself, I’m not too concerned. Despite the repeated claims that they were hunted to extinction, their biggest problem was competition from introduced species. Those species haven’t gone away. If a few gengineered passenger pigeons get loose, they’re not going to have a population explosion and darken the sky.

    • acat says:

      The NYT writers are, by and large, an urban monoculture.
      You’re lucky they can tell Ducks Unlimited apart from Duck Dynasty.

  • wbuthod says:

    Tasty or not, I can think of so many critters I’d rather have than the passenger pigeon. Heck, I can think of extinct *plant* species I’d prefer.

    Go to http://www.damninteresting.com/extinction-of-the-passenger-pigeons/ and search for “1491” (or pick up Charles C. Mann’s book of the same title). TL;DR: The early Columbian Exchange brought new diseases to the Americas, causing devastating pandemics; loss of apex predators (H. Sapiens) allowed explosive population growth among food species like the Passenger Pigeon, and elevation to pest status.

  • Catseyes says:

    The whole idea doesn’t take into account that while old species are going extinct new ones are being created. Mitochondrial DNA mutates like clockwork about every 4 thousand years and supposedly it takes millions of years for a new species to develope than why do Bobcats and Lynx share the same mitochondrial DNA and the same goes for mule deer and whitetail deer. Either two separate species are interbreeding or the separation occurred in the last 4000 years. And then there is the whole rise of the megahogs problem are they the beginnings of a new species of megafauna or merely sports. The whole idea is based on the assumption that we live in a static and unchanging world.

  • Phil Davis says:

    Thank you Catseyes for the 2 hours of my life down the internet black hole due to ‘megahogs’. I knew that some large ones were cropping up but good grief. As for the pigeons, I recall reading that the extinction ended up really being driven by their breeding habits. They wouldn’t breed unless there were a *lot* of them together which pretty much doomed them once they populations dropped below a certain point and captive breeding programs failed utterly. Hmm, the black hole is calling again, now I have to go find that paper…

  • Catseyes says:

    Sorry to have wasted 2 hours of your life Phil but if I’m right and we are seeing the beginning of the rise of new species of Megafauna is it really time wasted? As for the pigeons breeding habits remember there were attempts to preserve the species that failed. What if Luke’s point is correct and we reintroduce them only to find they have no place in the current ecology? Lot’s of black holes forever. As the saying goes “Life’s a bitch and then you die.”

  • USCMogul says:

    What? No Jurassic Park joke from anyone? “After due consideration, I’ve decided not to endorse your [dinosaur] park”

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