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.

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