And things were never the same again

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As a writing student I learned that’s a launch point for a successful narrative. But as a kid I wouldn’t have believed it. My favorite stories were the ones that my grandmother told me, and I liked to hear them over and over. I reveled in the detail and the order of narratives I knew well. The way Gam’s dad (my great-Grampa) winked at her when he said that it might be too much to hope for a tricycle for her birthday. And then her birthday came and her present was a set of paper dolls but then her told her to go look outside —with a wink again— and there was the tricycle! It was shiny red and had a big wheel in the front…

Even as I try to re-tell it here, I know that I’m making changes, and I know that my grandmother must have, whether intentionally or not. Nature is writing a new story every day, too. One researcher recently made a breakthrough with a picturesque example: stick bugs. It’s easy to imagine that these insects evolved to closely match the plants in their immediate environments. Those matches are the product of tiny changes, selected over time as the stealthiest bugs survived to reproduce. The surprise here is that the most of the DNA-level changes were different across individuals, even among bugs that basically look the same. The bugs aren’t like a set of paper dolls in which a fixed set of variables are toggled to create different (shrubby) outfits, and randomness plays a big part in the changes take place over generations.

The possible implication of this is that, at least for these bugs, and probably for many other species, the evolutionary journey is unique. (Does this suggest that there isn’t a clear genetic recipe for a particular set of traits, which may be bad news for any hope of restoring lost species, at least for re-creating individuals identical to those that have already disappeared, over multiple generations? See last week’s post.) For me the stick bug discovery complicates the question of what preservation and conservation might mean for the present, and the future. Because in almost all ways—from the most emotional to the most pragmatic—I define the world I want to protect in terms of what I know now. I’m charmed by the cardinal’s fiery up-do, and I expect the tulips to be blooming before my Gam’s birthday in April. The details and the order matter, and for me they are defined by what I can see and hear, here and now.

At the same time, focusing too hard on restoring the particulars of one space, one moment could blind me to what nature does best, which is carry on through such long stretches of space and time with resilience and persistence and spontaneity, through diverted migrations and late frosts. The same is true for the stories. I didn’t and don’t mind whether great-Grampa winked twice, whether the tricycle was really red. What I really valued, wanted to be the same time and again, were the qualities underlying Gam’s stories: the sound of her voice, the vicarious joy and surprise of a child, the tight attention that connects a storyteller and her listener.

The stick bugs, then, offer a two-fold, paradoxical inspiration: Value everything I see now as a one-of-a-kind phenomenon. That cardinal’s crest is as awesome as a comet, even if it flashes by six times a day; a product of a certain kind of magic that is valuable in its own right. At the same time, the study is a reminder that protecting nature requires a wide embrace, with plenty of wiggle room for things to be different now than they were then, or different here than they are there. When did those tulips downtown get planted, anyway? Would Gam have seen them on that tricycle birthday?

Maybe I will tell my granddaughter about the flashy red birds that lived in my backyard. Maybe we’ll see some just like it. Perhaps she’ll grow up with different flocks, and won’t believe such a thing could exist in her part of the world. Probably we’ll both be surprised at what we find, and grateful for the chance to wonder at it.

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Hope is the Thing with Feathers

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I’ve got species preservation on the brain lately, and I’m not the only one. The story arc of humanity as stewards is everywhere. Maybe it starts on the big screen, with Russell Crowe as Noah, rescuing fauna from cataclysm. Over on the book shelf, Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History traces the evolution of human understanding of what brings new species to life and what makes them disappear. Darwin and his predecessors established the baseline that earth isn’t populated with a permanent collection, and, now, two hundred years later, E.O. Wilson suggests that human beings are both agents of a wave of mass extinction that might take us down, too.

Now a new chapter is opening: “De-extinction.” This fresh appendage of the human ecology toolkit is growing in the favorable climate of knowledge and technology for manipulating genetic material. The criteria (as listed by The Long Now Foundation, a research sponsor) are careful, but broadly defined: DNA available from samples 500,000 or less years old; habitat available; culturally appropriate. The reasons for these restoration efforts are as diverse as the candidates. Wooly mammoths might help restore the northern grasslands ecosystems. The gastric-brooding frog could be useful for medical research. Passenger pigeons could boost ecosystem, just by looking pretty.

If it delivers on these promises, then selective de-extinction could be a step forward for humanity’s stewardship of the ecosystems we need and know. Or, does embracing de-extinction pull science backward, to when we thought that species simply appeared (or disappeared)—when we didn’t understand that extinction and speciation are functions of time. Species occupy niches in the historic landscape. Whatever we can conjure with DNA samples and stem cells, we can’t re-shape time itself. And we know from recent episodes of species introductions, like the infamous cane toad in Australia, that a misplacement can wreak havoc. Will the wooly mammoth really carry the healthy grassland of hundred thousand years ago back to Europe? Or is this the ecological equivalent of dragging that circa 1970 olive green sleeper couch out of the basement and trying to stuff it into a studio loft?

Surely the proponents of de-extinction, and the opponents too, have considered this and could make strong cases for whether we’re advancing or reverting in our actions. But quibbling over that is in itself a misplaced interpretation of evolution and time. There really isn’t forward and backward in the loopy realm of ecological cycles. Today it’s a fur-friendly freeze, and tomorrow it’s a fad for flashy feathers. Among our other adaptive traits, we humans have carried through our era strong streaks of affection, imagination, optimism, and a bit of hubris. De-extinction may just be the latest presentation of those traits, and whether the projects turn out to be of flutters of hope or the wings of ecological revolution, it is only natural that we give them a test flight.

What cool creature do you want to revive? Check out the de-extinction Candidate Checklist at the Long Now Foundation.