Ethics of De-extinction

When reading the title Ghost Species, your first associations probably include the general image of ghosts or the novel could even be assumed to be some kind of ghost story. Instead, the reader learns, within the novel’s first few pages, that the term ghost species describes the extinct human species of the Neanderthals. The creation or resurrection of an individual of this species is the main goal of quasi-antagonist Davis. Aside from that goal, he also has big plans for the resurrection of extinct animals. The abundance of different animal species that went extinct in the past can be understood as ghost species as well. This second interpretation of the novel’s title is maybe even more unsettling as it is generally more realistic as well as highly relevant. The loss of species is an urgent problem with the global rate of species extinction being thousands of times higher than it should be. The effects this has on the world´s ecosystems are serious and devastating. Of course, humans are to blame, as we have been and are currently destroying habitats through, among other things, deforestation, and pollution.

Davis recognizes this and plans to not only resurrect lost species but also implement them into certain ecosystems to stabilize them to make amends for humanity’s failures. Specifically, one of his plans is to bring back large herbivores like Mammoths and reintroduce them to the tundra to stop the spreading of forests. Aside from whether this de-extinction is actually scientifically possible there is also the question of whether it should be done for ethical reasons and if it would really yield the results Davis wants.

The resurrection and reintroduction of extinct species into nature contain several unpredictable factors. One concern would be that these animals could carry deadly diseases. Additionally, as they are only artificial creations by humans, it is very likely that the resurrected animals would physically be the same but behave in different ways. Many of the behaviors needed for these animals to yield the expected results could potentially be learned behaviors that the resurrected versions of these animals are not able to obtain. Another aspect which ties in with this is the fact that the habitats these animals used to live in were very different from how they are today as the environments and food sources have changed.

These are just some of the reasons which make it apparent that the resurrection of extinct species would not have the benefits Davis is hoping for at the beginning of the novel. Ecosystems are simply much too intricate and unpredictable to just throw a species in there and hope for the best as these reintroductions can have immense impacts both positively and negatively. Throughout the novel, we actually get to see this play out as Davis is successful in resurrecting and reintroducing wooly rhinos and mammoths into the tundra. As predicted, it backfires and “Davis`s efforts seem to be making things worse rather than better” (Bradley 169). One aspect that also ties in with this, which I have not yet touched upon is the moral one. Especially in the case of Davis, it feels very much like he is playing God and displaying his power when he could use his influence in other more reliable ways. Instead of fulfilling his megalomaniac visions, he could have used his resources to save species that are still on the brink of extinction or invest in more reliable ways of disaster relief. During the events of the novel, it is already way too late to hope for the resurrection of animals to make a sufficient difference.

“Images of woolly rhino and mammoth roaming across the empty landscape are increasingly blotted out by videos of melting ice and fires sweeping through the grasslands” (Bradley 141).

All of this leads us to a third way in which the title Ghost Species can be interpreted. Bradley makes it very clear that there will come a point when it is too late for humans to engineer themselves out of their self-made problems. If people are not willing to change something now, they will in the foreseeable future, just like they did with so many others, turn themselves into a ghost species.


Sumner, Thomas and Carey, Bjorn. “The ethics of resurrecting extinct species.” Stanford University, ScienceDaily, 8 April 2013

Gerretsen, Isabella. “One million species threatened with extinction because of humans” CNN, 2019