A deeper look at de-extinctioning

Really good stuff.

“Finding a dodo bird…”

You are wandering the forests of Mauritius, an oyster-shaped island east of Madagascar, when you spy a dodo, a bird famous for being as dead as one can possibly be. Yet this dodo waddles before you, pecking at fallen fruits and nuts with its bulbous beak, like a ghost whose reincarnation may in some way atone for the human sin of driving the species extinct in the first place. What if I told you that, for hundreds of millions of dollars, this future could be ours? Would you say it was worth it?

Before you answer, there are caveats. The dodo* may not be able to roam free and unbounded in its ancestral forests, where the invasive cats, rats, goats, pigs, and macaques that helped extinguish it in the first place will eagerly extinguish it once again. Barring some interventionist miracle of conservation, the bird would likely be placed in a large fenced enclosure or small, uninhabited island nearby Mauritius. As the asterisk implies, the dodo* wouldn’t be a real dodo, in the strictest sense. It would be a genetic hybrid, a calculated reinterpretation of a dodo—ideally bearing some traits of its namesake but perhaps also those of the Nicobar pigeon, the dodo’s closest living relative, whose cells will be manipulated to express the physical traits of the extinct species. A Nicobar pigeon in all its gothic iridescence is certainly beautiful, but it is not a dodo. And with no real dodos around to teach this new bird how to be a dodo, it may behave like a different bird. Is this dodo* worth it?

If taken at face value, de-extinction is a word that overpromises. It is not possible to reverse extinction and resurrect a dodo or a mammoth as they existed. It is possible to fashion a hybrid, an animal manipulated into being by genetically editing the desired traits of the lost species into the genome of a living relative. This proxy is the realistic dream of de-extinction. The term first entered public consciousness in the spring of 2013 after a series of TEDx Talks at National Geographic headquarters explored the idea of using DNA to bring species back from extinction, coinciding with the publication of a skeptical and measured feature. In the decade since, de-extinction has remained a fixture in the popular-science spotlight, enjoying press reserved for only the most audacious, best-funded research.

The buzziest company in the business of extinction is the venture-capital-funded Colossal Biosciences, which was founded by Harvard geneticist George Church and serial entrepreneur Ben Lamm and rakes in headlines whenever it announces its plans to bring back a new animal. (Colossal has yet to de-extinct an animal.) When Colossal launched in September 2021 with $15 million in private funding, its first target was the mammoth. By the time the company announced plans in August 2022 to bring back a striped Australian marsupial called the thylacine, it had amassed $75 million in private funding. In January 2023, the dodo joined the to-do list. Other organizations have entered the de-extinction game, such as the nonprofit Revive & Restore, but none have the resources and profile of Colossal, which has now raised $225 million in investment capital and is valued at $1.45 billion. It is the mammoth in the de-extinction race.

De-extinction proponents have assembled a profusion of scientific, ecological, cultural, and aesthetic arguments to support the project. Perhaps the most intoxicating argument for de-extinction is the moral one: Bringing back lost species could undo some of the unfathomable destruction people have wrought on the planet. By this logic, de-extinction becomes a feel-good, even heroic story, fulfilling our yearning for atonement. But as I see it, even the wildest, most ambitious promises of de-extinction do not really offer atonement, but instead a grand gesture—even if it works, it will not change the path of shortsighted greed that got us here, meaning a world where 1 million species are racing toward extinction, many in a matter of decades, according to a UN report from 2019. It cannot restore what has been lost, and overlooks all that we have left to lose.

See here and here for some background, and go read the rest. It’s a nuanced and philosophical look at what “de-extinctioning” even means, what are the costs and possible opportunities, and how much of this is achievable. There are some recent antecedents to this idea of bringing a species back from extinction, and there was a whole lot I didn’t know. I’ve expressed enthusiasm for this idea, because it seems cool and wants to do good, but I need to give it a lot more thought. Check this out for yourself and see why.

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One Response to A deeper look at de-extinctioning

  1. David Fagan says:

    Go look in your back yard and find the crazy ants, an invasive species changing the makeup of the local area. People, as an invasive species, would consume the wildlife that is left if the industrial food production that supports them were ever disabled, like from an unexpected virus or disease. Or, what’s to say de extinction doesn’t make another invasive species that is not desired? What are these companies after? Possibly the genetic capabilities of extinct species to include in another GMO food product? Whatever it is they are looking for, there will probably be an attempt to feed it to the general public. Soylent Green anyone?

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