Hall of Biodiversity at American Museum of Natural History: AMNH/D. Finnin
When I first heard that animals were being brought back from extinction, my mind immediately skipped to Jeff Goldblum turning into a slimy insect in The Fly. Apparently I'm in the minority though, because everybody else got Jeff Goldblum's soul being tickled by the joys of genetic science in the first 20 minutes of Jurassic Park (before that guy gets eaten on the toilet). Bringing animals that don't exist any more back to life? I'm really, really not convinced this is a good idea, guys.
National Geographic's April 2013 issue revolves around the concept of de-extinction, which involves tantalising their readers with images of a wooly mammoth, a sabre-toothed tiger, a huge bear-like creature which I'm guessing is not a dodo and a dodo. While the idea of seeing animals that until now have existed solely in the interesting 15 minutes of a school trip is cool, I'm pretty sure there's a bit more to consider before we get all real life T-Rex on this shit. I decided to head to the top, to find out if we were about to fuck up our planet with prehistoric assholes. Dr Ross MacPhee, an expert in extinct animals, is curator at the American Museum of Natural History. He says "de-extinction" is less museum-trip fun, more creepy Frankenstein.
"We can take the building blocks, assemble them to see if it works, try again and end up with god-knows-what. The god-knows-what part is not like a super mammal or something of that nature, not the world's biggest turkey. I mean that we could end up creating viruses which are much easier to manipulate."
So the term "de-extinction" itself doesn't relate solely to reviving dead animals. Scientists have already reconstructed the influenza virus that killed 50 million people in 1918-19 and have used it to learn more about how flu works and (critically) how to kill it off.
According to Dr MacPhee, even when used in relation to animal species, the term "de-extinction" is relatively misleading: "We're talking about novel creation – we can say that a pigeon that's eventually going to be produced looks and tweets like a passenger pigeon, but it really isn't a passenger pigeon – what it is is a chimera, a mixture, at least initially, of the nuclear genes of a passenger pigeon combined with the mitochondrial environment. Since passenger pigeons as a true natural species got interrupted basically 100/80 years ago, what you've done is create something which has never existed before."
Mastodon fossil at the American Museum of Natural History: J. Beckett/D. Finnin/AMNH
A team of Scientists in Washington DC working under the banner Revive & Restore claim they are close to pulling passenger pigeons out of whatever purgatorial afterlife over-hunting and deforestation sent them to in the early 1900s. Why he seems to question the group's assertion that they are "reviving" the species, Dr MacPhee also doesn't understand the need: "Do we really want billions more pigeons on the planet? Ask people in New York City whether they want more pigeons, the consensus would be no." While his response might sound a little harsh, in reality the justification for sinking time and resources into "creating" animals is pretty flimsy. Furthermore, the ethics of the treatment of animals born as "reproductions" is highly debated, as they often suffer trauma, discomfort and illness.
I asked Carl Zimmer, author of the National Geographic story, what he thought of the ethics of de-extinction. "It's all about weighing the costs and potential advantages; animal welfare has got to be part of the equation for these sorts of things. On the other hand, it's totally unrealistic to think that you can do an experiment with reproductive technology and not potentially have it fail. People who are trying to do captive breeding of endangered animals have had to do tonnes of experiments to figure out how they can help pandas or black footed ferrets have more babies, and a lot of those experiments have failed. But that kind of stuff has led to some successes."
With science there is always going to be trial and error, but the fact that it's scientifically possible doesn't necessarily mean it's a worthwhile endeavour. Dr MacPhee's balanced analysis of the possibilities feels more pragmatic and self-aware than Zimmer's. "If you want to 'make-up' destruction that humans have wrought over the last several thousand years then why don't you spend your money and effort on those species that are still with us?" Dr MacPhee implores. "That is a more useful way of proceeding than trying to bring back sabre-tooth cats and ground sloths and the rest of them."
If you leave behind the iffy semantics, inevitable cruelty and logistics of actually pulling this off, isn't it kind of exciting on some basic level, though? "It would be fascinating, and doubtless at some level in the not too distant future, it will be done and people will express amazement – as a feasible way of going forward, it's not got very much content. It's an exciting intellectual achievement but it's practical value hovers around zero for the planet."
So there you go, bringing back stuff from the beginning of the world isn't going to be the end of the world, but it's not particularly beneficial either. While everyone wants to cuddle a ferocious hairy elephant, children are still dying from starvation and endangered animals are still being killed for quack medicine at an astonishing rate. "We're in the position to literally play God in ways that scientists have always been accused of but never really achieved," resolves Dr MacPhee. "To me, that's the real concern."
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