2014 : WHAT SCIENTIFIC IDEA IS READY FOR RETIREMENT?

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Doris Duke Chair of Conservation Ecology, Duke University; Author, The World According to Pimm: a Scientist Audits the Earth
Unbridled Scientific and Technological Optimism

Science and technology have made such spectacular improvements to our lives that it seems churlish to whinge about them. I understand the benefits better than most. My fieldwork is where "the other half" live—the majority of the world's population too poor to have access to safe drinking water, antibiotics, and much, if any, electricity. I can go home, flip a switch, turn on the tap, and carry Cipro wherever I go. Just as natural selection picks past winners, but brutally trims most mutations, so the science we love does not make every scientist in a white lab coat a hero. Many proposed scientific advances are narrow in their benefits, poorly thought out in the long-term, and attention getting or venally self-serving. Worst of all, optimism creates a moral hazard. When science promises it can fix everything, why worry if we break things?

For example, discussions about fracking, and the supplies of cheap fossil fuels it may give us, pit the local, near-term threats of a new technology against obvious benefits. For the USA, the energy is here and not in some politically sketchy country which requires vast military adventures to defend. Or to invade—for, surely, we would not have invaded Iraq if its principal export had been cantaloupes.

So bravo for fracking? Hardly! Suppose this, or any fossil fuel, were cheap and environmentally entirely free of local concerns. It would further accelerate global carbon emissions and their increasingly serious consequences. Perversely, the better—cleaner, cheaper, faster—is the technology, then the worse the eventual problem of too much atmospheric carbon dioxide. Surely, decades of cheap gas give us breathing space to develop and transition to sustainable energies? That's a gamble with disastrous consequences to our planet if we fail.

Won't new technologies soak up the carbon for us, allowing fossil fuels free reign? Only in the minds of those who seek huge research funds to pursue their ideas. The best and cheapest technology is what we ecologists call trees. Burning them contributes about 15% of the global carbon emissions, so reducing those—as Brazil has done so successfully in recent years—is altogether a good idea. Restoring deforested areas is also prudent and economical. Trees have been around since the Devonian.

Of the many dire effects of a much hotter planet, the irreversible losses are to the planet's biodiversity. Species extinction rates already run a thousand times higher than normal. Climate disruption will inflate them further. Optimists have the answer!

The purest hubris is to raise the dead. "De-extinction" seeks to resurrect individual extinct species, usually charismatic ones. You know the plot. In the movie Jurassic Park, a tree extinct for millions of years delights the paleobotanist. Then a sauropod eats its leaves. We then learn how to re-create it the animal. The movie is curiously silent on how to grow the tree, which at that size would be perhaps a hundred or more years old, and how to do so metaphorically overnight. To sustain a single sauropod, one would need thousands of trees, of many species, as well as their pollinators and perhaps their essential symbiotic fungi.

Millions of species risk extinction. De-extinction can only be an infinitesimal part of solving the crisis that now sees species of animals (some large but most tiny), plants, fungi, and microbes going extinct at a thousand times their natural rates.

Proponents of de-extinction claim that they only want to resurrect passenger pigeons and Pyrenean ibex, not dinosaurs. They make the assumption that the plants on which these animals depend still survive, so there is no need to resurrect them as well.  Indeed, botanic gardens worldwide have living collections of an impressively large fraction of the world's plants, some extinct in the wild, others soon to be so. Their absence from the wild is more easily fixed than the absence of animals, for which optimists tout de-extinction.

Perhaps so, but other practical problems abound: A resurrected Pyrenean ibex will need a safe home, not just its food plants. For those of us who attempt to reintroduce zoo-bred species that have gone extinct in the wild, one question tops the list: Where do we put them? Hunters ate this wild goat to extinction. Reintroduce a resurrected ibex to where it belongs and it will quickly become the most expensive cabrito ever eaten.

De-extinction is much worse than a waste: it sets up the expectation that biotechnology can repair the damage we're doing to the planet's biodiversity.

Fantasies of reclaiming extinct species are always seductive. "Real" scientists—those wearing white lab coats—use fancy machines with knobs and digital readouts to save the planet from humanity's excesses. There is none of the messy interactions with people, politics, and economics that characterise my world. There is nothing involving the real-world realities of habitat destruction, of the inherent conflict between growing human populations and wildlife survival. Why worry about endangered species? We can simply keep their DNA and put them back in the wild later.

"When I testify before Congress on endangered species, I'm always asked, "Can't we safely reduce the spotted owl to small numbers, keeping some in captivity as insurance?" The meaning is clear: "Let's log out almost all of western North America's old-growth forests because, if we can save species with high-tech solutions, the forest doesn't matter." Let's tolerate a high risk of extinction.

Conservation is about the ecosystems that species define and on which they depend. It's about finding alternative, sustainable futures for peoples, for forests, and for wetlands. Molecular gimmickry does not address these core problems.

We should not limit science. I celebrate its successes, too. The idea we should retire is that new, technically clever solutions suffice to fix our world. Common sense is necessary.