Friday September 29, 2017

Undoing forever: The implications of de-extinction

photo credit: <a href=''>TylerIngram</a>

photo credit: TylerIngram

Listen to Full Episode 53:59

Extinction is supposed to be forever. But in labs around the world, scientists—using the latest biotechnology—are trying to bring extinct animals back to life. From passenger pigeons to woolly mammoths, Britt Wray delves into the science, the ethics, and the implications of de-extinction for all animals, including us humans.**This episode originally aired June 19, 2014.

Rise Of The Necrofauna by Britt Wray - book cover

Rise of the Necrofauna: The Science, Ethics and Risks of De-Extinction by Britt Wray, published by Greystone Books, October 2017.

De-extinction raises many important and concerning questions. For example, 99% of all animals that ever lived on Earth are already said to be extinct. So how should we decide which of those species to "recreate" and which to leave behind? A candidate species' feasibility is assessed based on factors such as available habitat, level of existing threat from their cause of extinction, and impact on other organisms in the ecosystem, but even then, how should we choose amongst the eligible options? Will scientists pick the most beautiful and charismatic of available species, or will the process be more equitable than that?
One of the biggest arguments in favour of de-extinction is that it could help restore unproductive ecosystems with new animals that can carry out the lost ecological roles of currently extinct species, and perhaps even help save endangered species on the brink. But de-extinction is also very resource-intensive, and the world isn't exactly teeming with conservation experts who will know how to manage populations of "de-extincted" animals so they can survive in the wild. Would diverting conservation's resources to help resurrected species cause endangered species to suffer that desperately need our help? 

Wray became interested in de-extinction after she studied conservation biology in university, a time during which she grew deeply concerned about our current extinction crisis—the 6th mass extinction to ever happen on Earth. When she heard about de-extinction, she was curious about whether this new movement to recreate close versions of extinct species might do any real good for conservation and depauperate ecosystems. At the same time, however, de-extinction really troubled her. It sounded like another grand technofix, flexing its impressive muscles but distracting us from the real work we should be doing to protect endangered species and habitats. She was wildly curious. Who was behind this? What kind of world do they hope to create? And what are the promises and pitfalls of following through on their visions? She set out to find answers to these questions and more in this program as well as in her new book on the same topic, Rise of the Necrofauna:The Science, Ethics and Risks of De-Extinction

Guests in the program:

  • Dr. Thomas Van Dooren, Professor in Environmental Humanities at University of New South Wales, Australia.

Special thanks to the Macaulay Library at Cornell University for 'field recordings' of extinct and endangered animals.


Reading List 

  • Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves, by George M. Church and Ed Regis, published by Basic Books, 2012.

  • Biology Is Technology: The Promise, Peril, and New Business of Engineering Life, by Robert H. Carlson, published by Harvard University Press, 2011.

  • The Last Tasmanian Tiger: The History and Extinction of the Thylacine by Robert Paddle, published by Cambridge University Press, 2002.

  • Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age, by Adrian Lister, Paul Brand, Richard Green and Jean M. Auel, published by University of California Press, 2007.

  • Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America, by Jon Mooallem, published by Penguin Press, 2013.

  • A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction, by Joel Greenberg, published by Bloomsbury USA, 2014.

  • "Reintroduction and Deextinction" by Dolly Jorgensen, Bioscience, 2013.

  • How We Grieve: Relearning the World, by Thomas Attig, published by Oxford University Press, 1996.

  • The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, published by Henry Holt &Co, 2014.

Related Websites

**This episode was produced by Britt Wray and Sara Wolch.