by Tammy Cloutier
Editor, Whole Terrain
Extinction is forever.
Or is it? Yes, Jurassic Park may initially come to mind for many when the term “de-extinction” (DE) is used. However, and perhaps to the dismay of some, Tyrannosaurus rexand woolly mammoths will not be populating the earth anytime soon.
I must admit I was excited when I first learned of Rise of the Necrofauna: The Science, Ethics, and Risks of De-Extinction (Greystone Books, 2017), and I was not disappointed by Britt Wray’s approach to this fascinating and complex topic. From researchers avidly pursuing the resurrection of species extinct for hundreds or thousands of years to those who strongly encourage caution or opposition to the act of de-extinction, Wray offers the reader varying perspectives relating to this multi-faceted and controversial issue. Her educational background in biology and science communication, combined with her experience as a radio broadcaster and writer, creates an easy, conversational tone with a touch of humor. As Wray states, “The way we tell stories about science matters” (p. 228). Wray communicates in a way that is eye opening, and multiple audiences will be able to understand and appreciate her information and style.
Through interviews with geneticists, biologists, and other experts, Wray touches upon a variety of related topics that include methods utilized in DE, current DE projects, and an extensive range of questions and possibilities regarding hybridization, protections, patents, benefits, and more. This text provides an overview of the considerations involved in such an undertaking. Wray also attempts to clarify the concept of de-extinction, since DE is one of a slate of terms referring to the reversal of extinction. Yet, regardless of the term used – resurrection ecology, species revivalism, zombie zoology, resurgence – DE is not always clearly defined, leaving people with their own ideas of what is involved. I also had my own thoughts about DE, but discovered that I knew only a fraction of what has and is currently being attempted.
Wray begins with a handful of the many questions surrounding DE: “If we could bring back an extinct species, should we? Could we? How does it benefit society? How does it advance science?” (p. 4). Although there are more questions than answers, she provides an example of how DE may be utilized to support living individuals through genetic assistance. The loss of biodiversity and the ecological roles they play can have an enormous impact on other species and the ecosystems they were once a part of. Two possibilities to offset that impact include increasing genetic diversity for those species facing “bottlenecks,” or lack of genetic diversity that may lead to their extinction, and reviving the ecosystem “traits” of species that have been lost to restore ecosystem functions.
Yet, these “benefits” may have unintended or unknown short and long-term consequences. DE is not a magical remedy that will save all the species and ecosystems we have lost or are losing. Although there may be good intentions concerning ecosystem restoration, as conservation biologist Paul Erlich points out, “Ecosystems are not just more complex than we currently think, they’re more complex than we can think” (p. 85). In fact, as Stewart Brand notes, by thinking we can simply “undo” any biodiversity or ecosystem loss, we “risk undercutting the moral value of living species and all that their existence has brought into the world so far” and diminishing the progress and urgency of other solutions (p. 74).
Aside from not knowing or understanding what may occur when introducing or re-introducing a species, especially one that has been gone for a number of years, it is no easy feat to “raise” one from the dead. Take the bucardo (or Pyrenean ibex) for example. Over 200 implantations were attempted in 57 goats. The result? Seven pregnancies, of which only one young was carried to term, and it died less than four minutes after birth. This type of research raises many questions, but most importantly, what of the welfare of all individual animals involved? Any attempt at re-creation involving other species creates new behaviors, gene expressions, diets, and so forth, not to mention effects on the host species, observable or not.
As stated throughout the book, the uncertainty of DE is huge, and there is also the matter of who will benefit and how. What are the motives for pursuing DE? Which living species do we save, which do we bring back from the dead, and who decides? Is there even a place for these “new” species considering the current status of our planet? Will newly un-extinct species simply be utilized as lab curiosities, human entertainment, or a source of revenue? And what about public perception? Most likely there will be a mixture of fear, resentment, curiosity, and support, which leads back to Wray’s statement about the importance of how one tells stories about science. Stories, and the sources they are obtained from, can create panic, but providing the public with a more accurate depiction of what DE is and isn’t can also allow for more informed dialogue and decisions.
Like Wray, I am ambivalent about DE. There are many possibilities, but also many questions about an action that could have ecological, cultural, economic, and political ramifications. It is certainly not an issue to be taken lightly or approached haphazardly, which Wray clearly touches on by stating: “in all cases, de-extinction requires careful analysis of the pros and cons attached to each project’s goals” (p. 17). However, Wray completed this book to allow people to “analyze the idea for themselves” (p. 18). So, before wishing for a real Jurassic Park, or paying top dollar to have a clone of one’s favorite pet, readers should pick up a copy of Rise of the Necrofauna and take a closer look into DE.