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Going Extinct?

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin

It has long been our environmental duty to save species from extinction. Will genetic engineering change all that?

Later this month, an extraordinary event is due to take place: A cow will give birth in Iowa. Cows give birth all the time (especially in Iowa), but the difference is that this cow is not giving birth to another cow, but rather to a gaur.

Gaurs are huge ox-like animals from Asia that are highly endangered. Formerly hunted for sport, they now suffer from habitat loss and could soon be extinct. A novel attempt is now being made to save the gaur by cloning them, thereby enabling ordinary cows to produce new gaurs. The first gaur, destined to be born this month, is due to be named Noah (although perhaps a better name would be A1).

The last existing bucardo died of a smashed skull, but scientists have preserved some of its cells.

Other rare animals, too, are scheduled for cloning, including the bongo, cheetah, Sumatran tiger, and, of course, the giant panda. It might even be possible to bring back an animal that is already extinct. The last existing bucardo, a mountain goat from Spain, died of a smashed skull when a tree fell on it early this year, but scientists have preserved some of its cells.

This is not a straightforward procedure, however, as even if there are remaining surviving animals, they are too rare to be used as host mothers. This means that similar species must be persuaded to accept the cells of the clones -- by no means a simple process. To produce the gaur clone required 692 attempts.


Why spend so much effort and expense to save one species? What difference does it make if it becomes extinct? Why is conservation important anyway?

One answer is that animals have extraordinary use to human beings. Scientist Michael Zasloff discovered that African clawed frogs secrete antibiotics. He named these substances mageinins, after the Hebrew word magen, "shield." Cancer-fighting molecules are obtained from the liver of the dogfish shark. Similar substances are found in chonemorpha macrophylla, a climbing plant that grows from Java to the foothills of the Himalayas. Even the most obscure animals and plants have an important function.

Yet this answer has a limited application. The January edition of "National Geographic," discussing the extensive efforts to save species of endangered birds from extinction, raised this difficulty. Writer Virginia Morell interviewed Stuart Pimm, a man working to save the entirely unremarkable Cape Sable sparrow. She admitted the dilemma: "The Cape Sable sparrow, of course, is not likely to lead to a cure for cancer or to any other earthshaking discovery. Nor are most species around us. Why would it matter if this little bird, or any of the 1,100 others on Pimm's list, became extinct?"

Morell left this question unanswered. And there doesn't seem to be any good answer. How can one justify the vast effort of money, time and resources required to save obscure animals from extinction?

"Scientific American" raises the concern that cloning technology will further hasten the destruction of animals.

With the latest advances in genetic technology, this question becomes even more potent. The current issue of "Scientific American" raises the concern that the new cloning technology will actually further hasten the destruction of animals and their environment. This is because once it becomes possible to clone an animal, there will be less incentive to maintain a population in its natural habitat -- when it can be preserved as DNA samples in a freezer?

It is easy to imagine that conservation efforts would lose support once Cape Sable sparrow DNA can be preserved and kept for the rare chance that it may prove useful in the future. We might have a gut feeling that it is nevertheless important to preserve the natural world, but how can we rationally justify this?


From a Jewish standpoint, additional factors enter the picture. The Torah prohibits taking both a mother bird and her young from the nest: "If you happen across a bird's nest... Do not take the mother bird together with the children" (Deut. 22:6). The 13th century scholar Nachmanides explained that taking a mother bird together with its young indicates that one does not care for the perpetuation of the species -- since it destroys two generations of animal life and leaving no possibility of future descendants from either. This is therefore forbidden.

Which begs the question: Why is it so important to care for the perpetuation of the species? The answer is alluded to in a statement by King Solomon: "Look at the work of God, for who can rectify that which he has damaged?' (Ecclesiastes 7:13)."

The Midrash explains: "At the time when God created Adam, He took him around the trees of the Garden of Eden. God said to him, 'Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! Everything that I created, I created for you. Take care that you do not damage and destroy My world, for if you damage it, there is no one to repair it afterwards!'" (Midrash - Kohelet Rabbah 7)

If the world is some sort of random accident, then there is little reason to save animals from extinction. Given the small odds that it may prove to have some vital use for man, and with modern cloning technology, all we need to save is its DNA.

Society is plagued by a disease called "Disposability."

However, if one believes that the universe was created with meaning and purpose, then everything is precious. The Midrash spells this out: "Even things which appear to you to be superfluous in the world, such as flies, fleas and mosquitoes, are also part of the creation of the world. God performs His operations through the agency of all of them, even through a snake, mosquito or frog." (Midrash - Genesis Rabbah 10:7)

Indeed, sometimes a species' purpose may be obvious, such as with the African clawed frog. But even when no purpose is apparent to us, we can be sure that one nevertheless does exist.

Today, society is plagued by a disease called "Disposability." We have forgotten the principle that "everything has value." When a toaster breaks, we buy a new one. When a shirt tears, we get a new one. And how do we subconsciously carry this into our relationships? When a marriage is dull, do we get a new one?

Our lives are filled with objects, items, people and ideas. Each has its own purpose and meaning, waiting to be discovered. Everything is a special gift from God.

The world is not disposable. Each species of animal did not "just happen." God intended it to be. And it is our obligation to preserve it.

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