Back from the Dead

We’re on the Verge of Being Able to Revive Extinct Species. But Even If We Could, Does that Mean We Should?

artwork depicting extinct animals rising from a petri dish and a beakerIllustration by Lisel Ashlock,

Few creatures have ever existed that can match the sheer weirdness of Australia’s gastric brooding frog. As the name suggests, the amphibian had the strange ability to reproduce offspring in its stomach. The female would release a cloud of eggs, the male would fertilize them, and then the female swallowed the eggs whole. At that point, the female ceased making digestive acids and her stomach became, essentially, a womb. A few weeks would pass, and then the female would open her mouth and a batch of babies would issue forth. Think of it as the swampland version of Zeus birthing Athena out of his forehead: a beast that pukes its young into the world.

This wonderful oddity no longer exists. Biologists didn’t identify the frog until relatively recently – and then it almost immediately disappeared. The southern gastric brooding frog was described in 1973, discovered in a narrow range of streams on Australia’s east coast; the last sighting occurred in 1979. Its cousin, the northern gastric brooding frog, wasn’t discovered until 1984; the last one was seen just a year later. One of the main culprits of the frogs’ demise was a pathogen called the chytrid fungus. As usual, humans accelerated the rush toward extinction. Much of the frogs’ habitat was destroyed by invasive weeds and feral pigs. The miraculous animal was gone as soon as we knew it.

Now, in a new twist on miracle, scientists are on the verge of bringing the frog back.

In March researchers with the “Lazarus Project” announced they had cloned gastric brooding frog embryos. Forty years ago, a biologist happened to throw a few specimens into a freezer before the species went extinct. Today’s researchers were able to obtain cell nuclei from the tissues collected in the 1970s. “Almost miraculously, we were able to extract viable DNA from the specimens,” one of the Lazarus Project scientists, Simon Clulow, wrote to me in an email. Using a technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer, the team injected the gastric brooding frogs’ DNA into inactivated egg nuclei from the great barred frog. Some of the eggs began to spontaneously divide. Although none of the embryos survived beyond a few days, tests confirmed that the dividing cells contained the genetic material from the extinct frog. “We are watching Lazarus arise from the dead, step by exciting step,” the team leader, Mike Archer of the University of New South Wales, said in announcing the news.

What was sci-fi fantasy only a few decades ago is now well within the realm of the possible. Asked how close his team was to having a living, breathing gastric brooding frog, Clulow wrote: “We are confident this will only be a matter of a small number of years, perhaps less.”

The Lazarus Project is part of an emerging field of science called “revival biology.” Advances in cloning, genetic sequencing, and synthetic biology – along with successes in more old-fashioned “back breeding” – have opened up the possibility of returning to the world species that are long gone. Scientists are busy trying to revive the passenger pigeon, the European auroch, and the Pyrenean ibex. Proponents of de-extinction also dream of resuscitating the dodo, the Carolina parakeet, the Steller’s sea cow, and the thylacine, a wolf-like marsupial known as the Tasmanian tiger that was hunted to extinction in the 1930s. If any of those creatures were ever to walk or swim again, it would be the realization of one of humans’ most ancient wishes: the power to bring life back from the dead.

De-extinction champions say species revival offers humanity a chance for redemption. By recreating species that we drove into the great void of extinction, we could right a historical wrong. Just as important, de-extinction proponents argue, revival biology can provide a new spark to the global conservation movement. Imagine a flock of passenger pigeons in the sky: The sight alone would reinvigorate civilization’s apparently flagging sense of awe with nature. Call it re-wilding from a test tube.

“I think de-extinction can enrich conservation efforts,” says Ryan Phelan, executive director of the Revive & Restore project at the Long Now Foundation. The group has dedicated itself to serving as a clearinghouse for information about de-extinction, and Phelan has become one of revival biology’s most impassioned promoters. “I think it takes the inspiring vision of de-extinction … to help move all of this forward. As controversial as all of it is, and possibly because it’s controversial, it’s going to help drive interest in [species loss], in a way that conservation by itself couldn’t do. Because at the end of the day, the species that we are talking about bringing back, they really are part of the continuum of life. And I think that’s the real power in what we are trying to do. We’re calling attention to the extinction threat.”

Yet even those who support de-extinction acknowledge that many risks are involved. There are political and ethical concerns: Will the idea make us cavalier about extinction, leading us to wreck the planet even more recklessly, believing we can repair the damage? There are ecological worries: What if we end up bringing back the passenger pigeon and it becomes an avian version of kudzu? For some people, there is a visceral fear that de-extinction is just the virtuous version of synthetic biology’s darker side – the creation of “customized species” and “perfected humans.”

Some eminent conservation biologists say the whole thing is a waste of time. “I’ve been trying to tell people, ‘I bloody well won’t talk about it,’” Stuart Pimm, a professor of conservation ecology at Duke University, told me in an interview he agreed to only reluctantly. “It’s not worth my time. It’s not worth yours. The idea that this is going to be much of a solution is fanciful at best.”

The debate about de-extinction centers on a classic dilemma. Just because we can do something, does that mean we should? For environmentalists, the answer largely depends on whether you think de-extinction will advance conservation efforts, or undermine them.

I promised myself I wouldn’t mention Jurassic Park – but, what the hell, Michael Crichton was onto something. The 1990 bestseller and subsequent Spielberg blockbuster might have been outlandish, but the science wasn’t all wrong. No, we won’t be able to bring back the dinosaurs. Scientists say reviving an extinct species will require relatively intact original DNA, and that will limit us to species that have disappeared during roughly the last 200,000 years. But if Jurassic Park remains a fantasy, a Pleistocene Park might be doable. Given enough time and money (and a good bit of laboratory luck), scientists could create a simulacrum of a wooly mammoth. Or a giant ground sloth. Or a Neanderthal. We won’t have to worry about velociraptors getting loose – just saber-toothed tigers.

As in the fictional Jurassic Park, reviving a long lost species would involve sequencing the genome of an extinct animal and then splicing in genes from its closest living cousin through what’s called “allele replacement.” The most advanced efforts so far have focused on the passenger pigeon. In the nineteenth century, flocks of passenger pigeons darkened the skies of North America. Then habitat loss and market hunters’ shotguns whittled away at the birds’ numbers. The last known passenger pigeon – “Martha,” she was dubbed – died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

A 26-year-old genetic engineer and bird lover named Ben Novak is spearheading the effort to revive the passenger pigeon. Novak grew up in a conservation-minded family, and when he was a teenager he developed a fascination with the passenger pigeon, a bird very similar to the common rock pigeon, only graced with a longer tail and a handsome red breast. “I am a very, very passionate passenger pigeon enthusiast,” Novak told me. “There are people in the world who love pigeons. And within that group there are people who become life-long obsessives with the passenger pigeon. I fell into that group when I was very young.” Novak works in the lab of University of California-Santa Cruz researcher Beth Shapiro. Together, the two are steadily decoding the DNA of the passenger pigeon and its closest surviving kin, the band-tailed pigeon.

Novak has been able to gather 65 tissue samples from preserved passenger pigeons and has also obtained some bone fragments dating back to the 1700s. He has completed genetic sequencing on a third of his samples; he expects to have a “first draft” of the passenger pigeon’s genome by the end of this year. Meanwhile, Shapiro is assembling the genome of the band-tailed pigeon. Once completed, the band-tailed pigeon genome will be used, Shapiro says, “as a scaffold on which to map the DNA of the passenger pigeon.” Because of natural decay, the passenger pigeon DNA will be incomplete. Genes from the band-tailed will be needed to fill in holes. But some of the passenger pigeon’s traits – say, the distinctive red breast – may be lost altogether. To fill in those patches, the geneticists will have to synthesize new genes through a process of “inference and experimentation,” in Novak’s words. Organizing the band-tailed pigeon genes, the recovered passenger pigeon genes, and the synthetic genes is very similar to “writing a paper from a whole lot of different sources,” Novak says. “Even if the first individual is not right, we will have a stepping stone to make it better.”

“If everything went smoothly and almost idealistically perfect, it would be good to have some passenger pigeons in the wild in 25 years.”

How close can the researchers get to nature’s original? “I think we can probably get into the 80 or 90 percent range,” Novak says. Shapiro is more circumspect. “How close are we to having an exact passenger pigeon?” she emailed me. “Infinitely far away. A hybrid of some sort, with a less-than-random selection of genes that hopefully impact the behavior or phenotype of a band-tailed pigeon and make it act more like a passenger pigeon.”

In theory, this process could revive many other species that haven’t roamed the planet in centuries, or even millennia. Genes from a zebra could be used to splice together a quagga, a half zebra-half horse creature that once inhabited southern Africa. Take the genome of the Asian elephant, combine it with ancient DNA, and a wooly mammoth (of sorts) might one day return to the Siberian steppe.

If mammoth revival seems impossible, consider this: A team of Russian and Korean genetic engineers is searching for fully intact mammoth DNA to simply clone the animal. In June an expedition uncovered some liquid mammoth blood in a well-preserved carcass in Siberia. The blood sample is now in Seoul, at the labs of the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation, a private organization that is developing techniques for dog cloning.

While many researchers are skeptical that the Seoul-based group will ever get enough high quality mammoth DNA to clone one, cloning is a viable de-extinction technique for more recently deceased species. The gastric brooding frog is one example. Another is the Pyrenean ibex. In fact, one ibex clone has already been born.

The Pyrenean ibex, also known as a bucardo, was a kind of mountain goat that once inhabited the rugged terrain between Spain and France. A large creature weighing up to 220 pounds, the bucardo had long horns that swept back from its head and then curled frontward. In the nineteenth century, the population began to decline precipitously – the victim of human hunting and competition from domesticated goats and sheep. The last bucardo, christened “Celia” by biologists, died in 1999; a tree fell on her.

Before Celia perished, scientists took several tissue samples from the animal and preserved them. A team led by Dr. José Folch from the Centre of Food Technology and Research of Aragon began trying to create a clone from Celia’s DNA. In 2003 the scientists succeeded in getting a surrogate mother to bring a clone to term. The cloned bucardo, however, had a short and miserable life. It was born with a massive lump in its lungs, and died just 10 minutes after coming into the world.

As the bucardo experience shows, cloning is far from a perfected science. But steady improvements in the technique open up the possibility of one day bringing back a host of extinct species. The San Diego Zoo’s “frozen zoo” has preserved the DNA of hundreds of mammals, birds, amphibians, and fish, many of them threatened or endangered. On the botanical front, the Svalbard seed vault in Norway preserves thousands of varieties of food crops. If (or when) some of those species go extinct, and if (or when) cloning becomes more reliable, such cryonic arks will be essential for reviving lost plants and animals.

Other scientists, meanwhile, are experimenting with back breeding to revive extinct species. To understand back breeding, think of any selective breeding program used to prioritize certain traits – only in this case it’s running evolution in reverse. A Dutch group called Stichting Taurus is using back breeding to revive the auroch. The massive species of cattle (six feet tall at the shoulder and weighing more than a ton) once roamed throughout Europe; its likeness appears on the cave paintings at Lascaux. detail from petri-dish artworkThen came the now-familiar story of habitat destruction and human hunting. The last one died in Poland in 1627. But much of the auroch’s genetic code remains in today’s cow breeds, for example in the large and wild Heck cattle. The Dutch scientists are using DNA samples from auroch bones and teeth to figure out its exact genetic code. Then they are breeding cattle to select for those auroch genes. If all goes according to plan, each successive generation should look more like the ancient auroch.

How close are we to actually reviving a lost species and returning it to the wild? It depends. While a reborn gastric brooding frog appears imminent, a genetically diverse herd of wooly mammoths is probably a century away. Even the passenger pigeon will take some time. “If everything went smoothly and almost idealistically perfect, it would be good to have some in the wild in the next 25 years,” Ben Novak says. “I think in 50 to 100 years you might start to see some flocks of significant size.”

As the researchers toil in their labs, the job of popularizing de-extinction has been taken up by Stewart Brand, the charismatic and controversial environmental thinker whose Whole Earth Catalog was a kind of lifestyle bible for seventies-era greens. In late May, Brand delivered an hour-long presentation about revival biology to a packed house of several hundred people at the San Francisco Jazz Center. Brand is tall, lanky, and, at 74, still super vigorous, and the talk – part science seminar, part history lesson, part sentimental appeal – was a rousing advertisement for de-extinction’s potential.

“Biotech is about to liberate conservation, or at least part of it, in a spectacular way,” he said at the beginning of his presentation. Then, after showing grainy, black and white film footage of the last known Tasmanian tiger, Brand intoned: “We see what we’ve lost, and we just mourn. Well, don’t mourn – organize.”

In Brand’s telling, it was he and his wife, Ryan Phelan, who coalesced the disparate species revival efforts into an international de-extinction movement. Phelan is a successful biomedical entrepreneur who, in the early aughts, started one of the first companies, DNA Direct, that offered individuals genetic testing over the Internet. In the course of her work Phelan got to know George Church, a Harvard geneticist who is a leader in the field of synthetic biology. During a Cambridge dinner with Church, it became clear to Brand and Phelan that species revival was not just possible, but probable. So Church and the couple organized a meeting at the Wyss Institute in Boston to discuss bringing back the passenger pigeon. Buoyed by the encouraging talk they heard there, Brand and Phelan then connected with the National Geographic Society, which in the fall of 2012 hosted a closed-door meeting of molecular and conservation biologists in Washington, DC. The meeting was, by all accounts, exciting; Church said it reminded him of the 1984 meeting in Alta, Utah that started the Human Genome Project. After that came a National Geographic cover story and a widely viewed TEDx seminar, all designed, Brand said, so that the “public discourse [about de-extinction] would not be simpleminded.”

Brand’s talk at the SF Jazz Center clearly was also part of that effort, an attempt to inoculate de-extinction against some of the criticisms that have started to arise. “Why bring vanished creatures back to life?” he said. “It will be expensive and difficult. It will take decades. It won’t always succeed. So why even try?” The reasons, he said, are the same ones that motivate us to go to great lengths to protect endangered species: “To preserve biodiversity, to restore diminished ecosystems, to advance the science of preventing extinctions, and to undo harm that humans have caused in the past.”

Brand was especially careful to head off any suggestions that synthesized species wouldn’t be as valuable as the natural originals. “Will there be something wrong with those passenger pigeons if they have band-tailed traces in them?” Brand asked, and then quickly brushed away such concerns. “We waste our time getting purist about genomes. Most of the American bison we protect have some cattle genes in them, and it makes no difference in their look or behavior.”

De-extinction, Brand argued, could rescue conservationism from a “kind of hopelessness” in which many people see the natural world as irrevocably “broken.” “Conservation focuses too much on reclaiming the past,” he proclaimed. “It needs to be about creating an exciting vision of the future.”

detail from petri-dish artworkHe then made a moral plea. If de-extinction is technically possible, we have an obligation to attempt it: “Humans have made a huge hole in nature over the last 10,000 years. Now we have the ability to repair some of the damage.” Brand closed with an aphorism inspired by a Gary Snyder interpretation of Zen Buddhism: “Part of ‘do no harm’ is ‘undo harm.’ … Want to try it?”

Altogether, it was a convincing presentation. At least in that moment, I did want to try it. To see a wooly mammoth in the flesh – that would be awesome. To bring back the passenger pigeon – that would be an act of poetic justice. Only a killjoy would object.

And yet … I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was more complicated than Brand had made it sound. Bringing a species back from the dead might be possible, but recreating the ecosystem in which it once lived would be far more difficult. In place of an endling we might have an ecological orphan, stranded outside of its time. A revived species would be a wonderful curiosity – but, I worried, it would be no cure for the extinctions we continue to cause.

I didn’t have to wait long to share my concerns. Brand and Phelan had organized a private dinner right after the presentation, and I was invited to attend. The gathering took place at the Hayes Street Grill, a San Francisco institution that is a favorite spot for people on their way to the opera or ballet. There were 19 of us: a handful of Silicon Valley venture capitalists, a bunch of techies, some of Brand’s friends, plus the eco-futurist Alex Steffen and Kevin Kelly, the founding editor of Wired. We had the place all to ourselves. Brand sat himself at the center of the table and then plopped onto the white tablecloth a stuffed wooly mammoth that he had used as a prop during his talk. With a mischievous gleam in his eyes, it was obvious how he had fit in as one of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters.

For her part, Phelan meant business. A striking blonde with soft blue eyes, Phelan carries herself with the easy confidence of someone who has been a stranger to failure. Her professional successes, however, haven’t infected her with arrogance. She knows how much she doesn’t know, and she’s eager to listen to conflicting points of view. As we perused the menu, Phelan issued a challenge: “I want to go around the table, and I want each of you to share your concerns. What’s your biggest worry about de-extinction? Because we have to get this right. We need to make sure we do the cautionary vigilance.”

No one held back. During the next two hours, the dinner conversation touched on all of the main de-extinction criticisms that I would hear from biologists and environmental activists in the following weeks. The objections go like this:

Charismatic necrofauna? The first complaint about revival biology is that it will distract from the less glamorous work of protecting threatened habitats and endangered, but still extant, species. Some people have argued that the conservation movement has done the public a disservice by focusing so much on especially cuddly or cool animals – “charismatic megafauna” like pandas, tigers, and wolves. To truly preserve wildlife, most conservation biologists agree, we need to prioritize saving whole ecosystems. With their overwrought enthusiasm for the wooly mammoth and the passenger pigeon, the de-extinction proponents just fuel that single-species myopia. At the Hayes Street Grill dinner, Alex Steffen coined a neologism for this: “charismatic necrofauna.”

“I mean, if we had a passenger pigeon, where the hell would we put it?” Duke University’s Stuart Pimm said to me later in an interview. “The more obvious case is the Pyrenean ibex. They were hunted to extinction. If you brought it back, that would be the most expensive cabrito those Basques have ever eaten. You have to have a place to put them back. It’s even worse than that, because it distracts you from the fact that it’s not about species – it’s about ecosystems. If you had spotted owls in a bottle, would that solve the problem of them going extinct in the Pacific Northwest? No, because you’re still destroying the forests.”

If anything, de-extinction boosters have only fanned this anxiety. Take bird enthusiast Ben Novak. His fetish for the passenger pigeon and his personal peculiarities (he wears his hair completely shorn on one side, chin length on the other) give him the air of one of those eccentric nineteenth-century English citizen-explorers who were dead set on their goals – no matter whether the goals were scientifically important. In our interview he acknowledged that the Long Now Foundation is focused on the pigeon in part because it’s attention grabbing and, well, fundable. “Our goal is to get people behind the goal of de-extinction,” he said. “We had proposed doing proof-of-concept work in a way that would use two living rats and an extinct species of rat, because the technology is much farther along for the cellular work with those species. But few people really care to work on a rat for a subject like this.”

Here you go, Senator Inhofe. A second worry centers on how the public might come to perceive de-extinction. What if people get the idea that, since we are able to bring back disappeared species, we no longer have to worry about wiping out plants and animals? De-extinction could set up a kind of moral hazard – people may be willing to take more risks with the environment, believing there is no price to be paid. The mere possibility of revival biology could give rhetorical cover to the forces hell-bent on resource extraction at any cost. “What I’m afraid of is that there will be people who will say, ‘We don’t have to worry about extinction anymore,’” David Ehrenfeld, a professor of biology at Rutgers, told me. “You know right away which members of Congress will be saying that.”

De-extinction proponents’ overwrought enthusiasm for the passenger pigeon and the wooly mammoth fuels concerns that the endeavor is only for what you could call “charismatic necrofauna.”

Brand and Phelan take this complaint seriously. “The worst case scenario would be one in which people get cavalier about extinction,” Phelan said to me. And that, Brand says, “would be like giving up on exercise and good diet because you hear the costs of heart surgery are coming down.”

The problem is that not everyone is as conscientious as a couple who live on a houseboat in Sausalito. American politics in the Digital Age has is a game of instant telephone; Brand and Phelan’s thoughtfulness won’t translate very far. Some political operatives might cynically use the possibility of de-extinction to advance more logging, mining, or oil drilling. Alex Steffen warned: “I guarantee you there are people in DC who are working late tonight making a plan for using this to push a political agenda of continued destruction.”

Ceci n’est pas une pipe. If it looks like a passenger pigeon and coos like a passenger pigeon, but is largely made up of band-tailed pigeon genes, is it really a passenger pigeon? Or just a representation of one? No one I spoke with felt that a revived species would have to be 100 percent pure. Still, I heard doubts about the value of something that would be, in the words of Stanley Temple, a professor of environmental studies at University of Wisconsin and a fellow at the Aldo Leopold Center, “a chimera of a pigeon. Or a mammoth that is part mammoth, part Asian elephant.” At some point the original gene pool could be so watered down that the exercise might be worthless.

detail from petri-dish artworkGenetics and synthetic biology have come a long way in the last decade, but they remain inexact sciences. “DNA is not an instruction manual,” Rutgers’ Ehrenfeld told me. “It’s kind of like a list of ingredients. Like a dictionary of sorts.”

The emerging science of epigenetics further complicates the issue. Researchers have found that the genetic prompts encoded within a DNA strand can switch on and off depending upon various factors. For example, an obese and stressed parent will pass to its progeny different characteristics than a slim and thriving parent. The few remaining passenger pigeons from which we have tissue samples – birds that lived in small, fractured flocks – might not be representative of the passenger pigeon in its billion-strong prime.

But even skeptics say the molecular work being done by the revival biologists could assist traditional species conservation. Advances in genomic sequencing might, for instance, resolve genetic bottlenecks in critically endangered species like the northern white rhinoceros. “If they want to recover ancient DNA and see what they might find, that could be an addition to genetic diversity [of still living species],” Temple said. “To me, that’s almost more exciting than bringing back a passenger pigeon.”

Flying purple people eaters. Embedded within the specific concerns are harder-to-pin-down anxieties about the abuse of genetic engineering and synthetic biology. Simply put, when we tinker with the building blocks of life, we can’t be sure the experiments won’t get away from us. “They [the species revivalists] assume a kind of omniscience that we just don’t have as ecologists,” Ehrenfeld said. “We just can’t predict whether a species that has been translocated will be invasive. … This is techno-optimism of the worst sort.”

Some people worry that the well meaning de-extinction efforts could be a stepping-stone to more diabolical, Dr. Moreau-like tinkering. After Brand’s presentation, Ben Novak, speaking on stage, casually mentioned the potential of creating “customized species.” Harvard geneticist George Church (“a mad scientist out of Central Casting,” in the words of one person I spoke with) is even more cavalier. In his book Regenesis, he writes: “Genomic technologies will permit us … to take evolution to places where it has never gone, and where it would probably never go if left to its own devices.”

Such talk makes even some of Brand’s backers uneasy. One of the venture capitalists at the Hayes Street Grill dinner said he feared people creating “flying purple people-eaters” in their garages – something along the lines of the out-of-control artificial species in Margaret Atwood’s cli-fi dystopian novel Oryx and Crake. This isn’t an academic concern. In May a group of biotechnology hobbyists raised nearly half a million dollars on Kickstarter to fund the lab creation of glow-in-the-dark plants; each person who pledged more than $40 was promised “seeds to grow a glowing plant at home.”

The species revivalists grow impatient when they hear criticisms of synthetic biology. “This is what we do – we explore, we make progress, we change how we interact with the world, and we shape it around us,” Novak says. Phelan argues: “We are already engineering. Engineering is happening.”

True enough. But it’s worth remembering that engineering isn’t infallible. Take, as just one example, the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. The beautifully designed suspension bridge is billions of dollars over budget and, before a single car has passed over it, already busted because of some faulty bolts. Human engineering is, indeed, a marvel – blemished only by the inevitability of human error.

Hank Greely is an academic’s academic, the kind of thinker who is able to see four sides to every coin. A professor of law at Stanford University and the director of the school’s Center for Law and the Biosciences, Greely specializes in teasing out the implications of the emerging life sciences. It’s a position, he says, that often gets him in trouble from all sides of the genetic engineering debates. “I have either the fortune or misfortunate trait of heading toward the middle of any topic,” he told me recently.

Of the 25 presentations delivered at TEDx De-Extinction, Greely’s was among the most thoughtful. The law professor went through de-extinction’s pros and cons and asked whether it should be considered “hubris or hope.” Then he answered with an equivocal, “yes, a little bit of both.” After weighing the evidence, Greely said he was in favor of de-extinction because of the way in which it would spark a “sense of wonder. It would be awe-inspiring to see a wooly mammoth. … It would be like the first time I turned that corner and saw Yosemite Valley spread out before me.”

detail from petri-dish artworkThis is a common refrain among the species revivalists. Novak says his work is hopeful and “humanistic” in a way “similar to the space race.” Phelan told me that de-extinction could deliver to conservationism a jolt of “hope and positive energy.” In his San Francisco presentation, Brand promised: “The current generation of children will experience the return of some remarkable creatures in their lifetime.” And in that achievement “they might see our relation to nature as something other than tragic.”

I’m sorry, but I’m just not buying it. De-extinction is neat, I agree. It won’t, however, make a meaningful contribution to the global conservation movement.

There’s no doubt that a revived giant ground sloth would be awesome, in the truest sense of the word. But I doubt such a sight would revive a wonder with the nonhuman world and, in the process, reinvigorate efforts to protect that world. Why? Simply because of the difference in how we experience a man-made wonder and a natural one. The amazement we experience with our technological gee-gaws (remember the first iPhone you saw?) is one thing. The amazement we experience with the surprise at natural forms (remember the first time you visited the Grand Canyon?) is another.

When I shared this concern with Greely, he took it seriously – and then dismissed it. “Wonderment is culturally conditioned,” he said. “Wonder varies. I’m not sure there’s a difference between the wonder inspired by nature and the wonder inspired by the Manhattan skyline or the Parthenon.”

I think Greely is wrong. Not to be too prissy about it, but when it comes to the objects of our wonder, the distinction makes a difference. The Manhattan skyline at night amazes us with the scale of human invention; the Milky Way amazes us with the scale of the universe. They are both an arrangement of lights, but while the first makes humanity seem huge, the second makes us feel small. The difference matters because it influences how we think about our place on this planet. The skyline is good for illustrating our power; the starscape teaches us humility.

The species revivalists overestimate de-extinction’s contribution to conservationism because they misunderstand what conservation is really about. Brand, Novak, and Phelan say humans have always been creators and engineers, and they are not wrong. But that fact adds nothing to the ethic or practice of conservation. Taking some parts of the nonhuman world and protecting them from our unruly desires is, above all, an exercise in restraint – not creation. Conservation is about forbearance. It’s a demonstration of the discipline to leave well enough alone.

Do you like enterprising journalism on the environment like this? Make a contribution to our investigative fund.

Restraint, Discipline, Humility, Forbearance. I know – those are old-fashioned virtues, passé in the epoch of the Anthropocene. Yet they remain the essential counterweights to those who would pave whatever they can for the sake of a buck.

“We are as gods and might as well get good at it” was the famous epigram of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog. Forty-five years later, the possibility of de-extinction makes the line more true than ever. Will playing God by raising species from the grave make us better conservationists? Unlikely. The techno-fix of de-extinction will, in fact, be awe-inspiring. But let’s not pretend that human inventions will make nonhuman creation seem more deserving of our care and protection.

If we truly want our relation to nature to be “something other than tragic,” what that will require, most of all, is for us to finally, belatedly get good at behaving like something less than gods.

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Subscribe Now

Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.