The Re-Origin of Species
Anyone familiar with the Jurassic Park franchise knows something about de-extinction, including its potential to breed not just beasts but hubris. Swedish science journalist Torill Kornfeldt set out to explore the science, excited at the prospect of seeing long-extinct creatures reborn. She meets palaeontologist Jack Horner, who inspired the character of the dinosaur-reviving scientist in the original Jurassic Park film. Finding him running a project that aims to create a dinosaur from a chicken, Kornfeldt remarks on Horner’s unclouded optimism. Scientists, she notes, still struggle to clone living species.
Even so, bioengineering seems to offer the possibility of halting, and even reversing, some of our environmental loss. Scientists are working to clone endangered species, as well as to revive the passenger pigeon and the American chestnut, as well as ruminants and rhinoceroses. Most efforts aim, initially, to produce a hybrid by introducing to a living species genetic material retrieved from specimens preserved by taxidermy or permafrost.
“We are as gods and might as well get good at it” is the mantra of Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and advocate of “ecopragmatism”. His organisation, Revive & Restore, plays a role in coordinating international de-extinction efforts, which he believes herald a new chapter in the history of humankind. Talking to him, says Kornfeldt, “It’s tempting to see the future painted in broad brushstrokes, in bright colours.”
But she also talks to experts in fields ranging from bioethics to species conservation and human psychology. And as you might expect, there are misgivings. Prometheus and the cane toad are invoked. If species can be revived, who’ll care about those threatened with extinction? But even some sceptics concede that with good news on the environment hard to come by, the woolly mammoth’s revival might, in its turn, revive hope.
The mammoth-revival project, by the way, is no mere whim. Large, frost-hardy herbivores knocking down trees on the Siberian steppes and intensively grazing would keep the frozen north frozen. Thawing permafrost would be restored, preventing the catastrophic release of sequestered carbon.
It’s a terrific vision, requiring untold numbers of mammoths. In the meantime, Siberian researchers rely on an old Soviet tank to clear scrub. Kornfeldt doubts they’ll be joined by mammoths any time soon. FL
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 21, 2018 as "Torill Kornfeldt, The Re-Origin of Species". Subscribe here.