2017 Huang Fellows Group
2017 Huang Fellows Group

Back from Extinction

The Huang Fellows take sides in the debate on whether or not to bring extinct species back to life.
Olivia Lee

Olivia Lee, Huang Fellow ’17

I was late to the Huang Fellows Debate. The twenty-minute walk to the conference room was taken at a nervous trot that left me breathing hard and sweating as I took my seat. Two long tables faced each other, head on, in the middle of the room. Sixteen of us were divided into two teams. Papers shuffled around, computer screens scrolled down as we all mentally rehearsed our opening speeches and reviewed talking points with our team members aloud.

At the beginning of the summer, we received an email with the details for the debate attached. We were to be divided into two teams, told to prepare for both Pro and Anti, and given basic resources about the issue.

The issue in question: De-extinction. Should we bring extinct species back to life?

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Each side of the debate had four “roles” with two people assigned to each. For example, the Pro side had two Ethicists who argued that humans have a moral obligation to bring back species we killed. The Con side had two Animal Rights Activists who believed that de-extinction could lead to avoidable animal suffering.

Our preparations were structured around this system. Our whole team piled into a small conference room and divided into pairs. We worked together to come up with an introductory argument for our role, and when we felt confident, the whole group got together to discuss and organize our strategy. We all worked in the same online document so we could see each other’s changes, and we drew notes and arrows all over the white board. We were productive, but not stressed out. We made jokes and laughed together while we delved into the more complicated nuances of ethics and law. Because we were preparing Pro and Anti materials, we got to argue with ourselves, which made both arguments stronger.

We were productive, but not stressed out. We made jokes and laughed together while we delved into the more complicated nuances of ethics and law.

At the start of the debate we flipped a coin to decide sides, and then we were off. Each role made their introductory arguments, and then the judges had time for questions. We had a couple minutes to prepare our answers and a couple minutes to prepare a rebuttal to the other side. We volleyed back and forth for nearly an hour before we made our closing arguments and then the judges made a final decision.

The Pro De-extinction team argued that we do not need to bring back flashy creatures like wooly mammoths, but we should bring back recently extinct animals. An example is the Reúnion Giant Tortoise, which spread seeds across the Indian ocean. Now that they are gone, the plants who depended on them for reproduction are dying too.

By the end of the debate it was clear that the argument was not over giant tortoises or moral obligations, but rather what approach to take regarding the field of conservation.

The Anti De-extinction team argued that we are not omnipotent. It is impossible to foresee every consequence of a de-extinction program, and we could irretrievably change our earth with our lack of knowledge, much as we have already done to our atmosphere.

Though each side came armed with thorough evidence and many more points than those listed above, by the end of the debate it was clear that the argument was not over giant tortoises or moral obligations, but rather what approach to take regarding the field of conservation.

The Pro team saw de-extinction as an important tool to add to the arsenal of conservationists. It’s okay if we fail to save the last Golden Toad, because we can build a new population with genetic engineering. We can increase biodiversity, and introduce new genes into inbred populations of existing animals.

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The Anti team saw de-extinction as the antithesis of conservation. De-extinction would destroy the field of conservation by taking the already-sparse funding. Also, de-extinction fails to address the reason why species go extinct in the first place. We can make more Giant Tortoises, but the poachers will kill them again. We can increase rainforest biodiversity, but that will not stop it from plummeting again when the rainforest is cut down.

That differing perspective on conservation became the argument we ran circles around, and was the issue that ultimately decided who won: Anti-De-extinction.

I came away from the debate more conflicted than when I started and I think that was the point.

I went into debate preparations firmly on the Anti side. I frowned and sighed when the coin toss revealed I would be arguing for Pro. However, through all the research we did, and the arguments we developed together as a team, I began to see the other point of view. I came away from the debate more conflicted than when I started and I think that was the point.

There is no right answer to this question. It is an argument that rages throughout the scientific community and even within the confines of the sixteen Huang Fellows, we all had different opinions.

This is a debate that will not end for a long time. I am glad I had the opportunity to argue it with such intelligent and passionate people. I will not forget the experience of the debate or the complexity of the issue.

Reagan Portelance

Reagan Portelance,
Huang Fellow ’17

After hours of preparation, the day was finally upon us. Today we were holding a debate on whether or not to bring animals back from extinction.

We emerged independently from our labs and converged on Duke’s North building from all directions. Dressed in professional attire, we sat with our fellow seven team members and wondered which side, for or against de-extinction, we would be assigned.

While we waited, we bounced the dual roles around in our minds, scanning through our introductory statements just one more time. Would my partner and I extol the biodiversity that de-extinction would bring to the world as techno-conservationists, or would we denounce the entire practice as playing God in our roles of clergy?

Everyone else was similarly prepared to argue either side. After studying the topic extensively, we had each become personally invested in this debate. While we all held some preference for one side, it was chance, not choice, that would cement our respective roles.

The coin seemed to fall in slow motion, everyone holding their breath as it spun on the table for a short eternity. Finally, a decisive voice rang out, “Heads”. Heads bowed, hearts leaped, sighs of relief and dismay rang out in equal measure, but for better or worse our fates were now sealed.

With poorly contained excitement, my partner and I donned our official (paper) priest collars, wrapped a rosary around our hands, and set our minds to defending the sanctity of God’s plan. Everyone in the room followed a similar routine. Regardless of previously held biases, my team was now just as certain of the unnatural horror of de-extinction as our opposition was of its ability to change the world for the better.

It quickly became obvious to us that every question possessed a substantial gray area, and there was no such thing as a “right” answer.

My team’s first representative, an esteemed population biologist, stood and made his case against the sizeable quantity of money that de-extinction would steal from more practical conservation efforts. One by one, an animal rights activist, public health official, and my own blessed colleague rose and presented their arguments for why de-extinction would harm other animals, endanger humans, and attempt to cover up our sins rather than attest to them.

The pro-de-extinction team countered with a formidable response. A scientist praised the discoveries that could be made through de-extinction. A techno-conservationist argued for increased funding resulting from the return of flagship species. A conservationist proposed re-wilding the world. And an ethicist lamented the need to make up for our own actions that had contributed to leading these animals to extinction.

The judges began their round of questioning, attempting to blow a hole in each team’s stance, attacking both sides with unsettling ease. Right out of the gate, one judge tried to undermine the clergy by suggesting that God gave humans outright dominion over all of the Earth, and thus de-extinction would not be an affront to God. That matter was settled rather simply with choice references to Genesis, using God’s own words to defend His holy orders.

Our opposition faced their own question regarding the possibility of producing genetic variability in any population that is brought back. They claimed that genetic variation could be artificially produced by instilling different gene formats into many different embryos.

Beyond the environmental consequences, we had to consider public safety, fiscal practicality, religious obligations, and many other pressing concerns.

It was at this point that my teammates noticed a contradiction in their argument. They seemed to flip-flop between several definitions of de-extinction, which created too much ambiguity and uncertainty to support such an ambitious endeavor. We were quick to pounce on this discrepancy in our rebuttal.

And so it went. A flurry of energy and movement as teams refined their defenses and earnest appeals to the panel of judges. With each question, we delved deeper into the very real details of a debate that is currently being discussed by leaders around the world. Taking on the role of scientist, clergy, and animal rights activist, we were forced to align our arguments with different occupational biases, allowing us to better understand the many different points of view that are at play in any major discussion.

It quickly became obvious to us that every question possessed a substantial gray area, and there was no such thing as a “right” answer. Both sides had viable arguments and both had their shortcomings.

Finally, each team put their weary heads together to plan their final statement. The techno-conservationist’s closing statement was admittedly inspiring and well-spoken as she lauded the many avenues that de-extinction could take and played on patriotic nostalgia by reminding us that while de-extinction may be a moonshot, our great country had made it to the moon before.

The effort was inspiring, but our public health official was not about to concede defeat. Unimpressed by the many possibilities of de-extinction, he stood by our claim that being unable to settle on one cohesive definition made the entire enterprise far too uncertain to reasonably pursue. In a knockout blow, he dulled the wonder of the previous closing statement by reminding us that this fad may be one and done seeing as we haven’t been back to the moon in 30 years.

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When the judges went off to deliberate, each team passed congratulatory remarks amongst its own members and those of its opposition, proud of the work that they had done. The debate had shown us the many different aspects of society that have to be taken into account when considering a drastic scientific endeavor. Beyond the environmental consequences, we had to consider public safety, fiscal practicality, religious obligations, and many other pressing concerns. With this understanding, we were better prepared to consider all sides of debates like these.

Our fate now out of our hands, all we could do was wait. As the minutes passed by, the tension in the room grew. Just as it became unbearable, we heard footsteps approaching the door with a metronomic consistency that matched our own pounding hearts. The door swung open, its hinges squealing as if in protest of the silence that had engulfed the room. The judges shuffled in, throwing encouraging smiles to both sides, and sat with hands folded.

“Each team did a wonderful job,” Steve Nowicki ensured us consolingly, “and it was a split vote 2-1. But the winner is….”

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The Huang Fellows Program trains students to understand science in the context of and in service to society. The annual debate is part of the Freshman summer intensive programming experience. Learn more about the Huang Fellows Program and how to apply.