A while back I chanced across a post by Carla Sinclair at BoingBoing, recounting a recent TED talk that proposed reviving extinct species:
Stewart Brand began his TED talk today with the statement, “Biotechnology is about to liberate conservation.” Before I had a chance to process what that meant, he went on to list a number of birds and mammals that have become extinct in the last few centuries, including the passenger pigeon, which was killed off by hunters in the 1930s. For a moment my mood plunged, as it always does with conversations of human-caused animal extinction. And then he asked the question, “What if DNA could be used to bring a species back?” I felt a tsunami of awe and excitement barrel through the audience. This was as exciting as his declaration about the digital world in 1984 when he said, “Information wants to be free.”
So far, the usual dewy-eyed gravitas we’ve come to expect from TED talks. But my reaction was quite different from Carla’s. “That is, without doubt,” I muttered to myself, “the stupidest thing I’ve heard this year.”
Stewart Brand is President of the Long Now Foundation, a charity dedicated to taking a 10,000 year view of humanity and one that’s produced some neat ideas in the past, such as the ‘clock of the long now‘, designed to keep time for 10,000 years. Brand is also the organiser of DeExtinction, a TEDx event held on Friday which seems to be a showcase for Revive & Restore, another Long Now project. In case it wasn’t obvious, the project plans to revive extinct species such as the auroch, the Tasmanian tiger, the woolly mammoth and… well, that’s where things get a little vague. The splash page announces:
“Genomic technology and techniques are advancing rapidly.It is becoming feasible to reconstitute the genomes of vanished species in living form, using genetic material from preserved specimens and archaeological artifacts. Some extinct species may be revivable. Ecological enrichment through species revival…”
So why do I feel this idea is a damp squib instead of the tsunami of awe Sinclair experienced? Let’s take a look at the first of the proposed candidates for resurrection: the Passenger pigeon. It’s an obvious species for the Revive and Restore project to showcase, given that it is an American bird, instantly familiar, and its reduction from unimaginably large flocks (a single nesting site could comprise over 100 million birds) to complete extinction in the space of a century is a powerful motif for man’s environmental destruction. However, the restitution of the Passenger pigeon demands many more questions than cloning alone can answer.
To start with, remember those hundred-million-strong flocks of pigeons? That wasn’t just abundance. That was their survival strategy. Passenger pigeons were probably the most socially-gregarious bird in known history. They overwhelmed their predators with sheer numbers. Nothing could kill all of them – well, except humans, who put a big dent in their numbers. Big enough that the system became unstable, and the birds began to die out. Long before the last one was killed, the passenger pigeon was already in terminal decline. To pull a handy quote from Wikipedia:
Naturalist Paul R. Ehrlich wrote that its extinction “illustrates a very important principle of conservation biology: it is not always necessary to kill the last pair of a species to force it to extinction”.
Turn that phrase around and you’ll see that the ability to clone two birds in a lab does not make a species un-extinct. And to matters worse, even breeding passenger pigeons in captivity is not a new idea. Attempts during the 20th century failed because – surprise – the birds will only reproduce in large flocks where they feel safe. So you better be prepared to clone a few thousand. Did I mention that Dolly the sheep took several hundred attempts and we’ve not improved or cloning success rate much since?
In fairness, the Revive and Restore page asks these questions. The problem is, it doesn’t answer them. They just sit on the page, as if doffing a cap to the fundamental flaws in their plan is the same as addressing them.
But why let technical barriers stop us? If we threw up our hands at every technical challenge we’d never have got out of the caves. Instead let’s think about what we could do with a De-Extinction box: key in a piece of DNA, and out pops an animal. Auroch, Tasmanian tiger, tarpan, mammoth. Now what? Where are you going to put these animals? The forests that once nested billions of passenger pigeon are now shopping malls and cornfields. The grassland plains that the auroch called home, that once stretched from Portugal to the Pacific ocean, are nothing but tiny parcels of farmland marked out in fence and wire.
And therein lies the rub. The environment wasn’t damaged by the loss of the auroch. The auroch was lost by damage to the environment. The overwhelming driving force for extinction events is habitat loss. Extinction is a symptom of wider environment degradation, and the ability to resurrect species does nothing to counter that.
“Conservation” is an awkward term, because it evokes two daft ideas. One, that natural environments have some kind of pre-human Eden state, which ought to be maintained (and even preserved in the face of non-human impacts).The obsession with restoring lost species is a hallmark of this conservation attitude. But animals aren’t puzzle pieces you can slot back into the environment – the world has changed, and there’s often no room left for that animal.
Secondly, this form of conservation fantasizes that human impacts on environments move them away from a “natural” state. There is no human versus natural environment, there is only the environment. When human activity impacts on an environment, it’s rare that the humans living there are willing to pack up and leave in order to let it return to its previous state. We are the dominant species on the planet. We are going to exploit every bit of it we can. Nothing will ever change that, but we can choose what kind of world we want to live in. This means that conservation will have to be about balancing competing demands on an environment – both human and non-human. One of the criteria for the Revive and Restore selection process is that species “should be able to take up their old ecological role in their old habitat”. It may well be true that some animals and humans simply cannot live side by side, and we need to accept that.
Finally, if we can revive species, might that undermine efforts to preserving existing ones? Grab some DNA, let the animal die out, and bring it back when you have 100,000 acres of farm or a small Caribbean island to play with. In fact, if we are reducing biodiversity to the existence genetic material for big glossy animals, why keep them alive at all? If the genes are their essence, aren’t they equally de-extinct, so long as an intact DNA sample exists? The zoo that fits in a freezer. Why not render them in biomolecular binary? The tiger on a microchip. Ultimately, if we can raise the environment from the dead, where is the impetus to keep it healthy?