Of Clocks and Mammoths: The Pitch for De-Extinction

Posted by George Estreich, <i>Biopolitical Times</i> guest contributor February 9, 2015
Biopolitical Times
picture of dinosaur

Introduction

De-extinction raises a host of questions: ethical, practical, philosophical. But for advocates, there’s a rhetorical question as well: How do you persuade a lay audience to support the project? That persuasion involves special challenges: one has to explain and normalize a complex technology, answer ethical objections, and make a radically new approach to nature seem emotionally “right.”

De-extinction has been much discussed in print, but the most complete case for the project is made at the website of Revive and Restore, a nonprofit dedicated to “genomic conservation”; their “overall goal,” in their words, is “enhancing biological diversity and ecological health worldwide.” Revive and Restore—the project of environmentalist, entrepreneur and Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, and his wife, Ryan Phelan—touts, sponsors, and helps to coordinate several hoped-for restorations, including the heath hen, the passenger pigeon, and the woolly mammoth. In TED talks and other forums, Brand has been a passionate advocate of de-extinction.

Revive and Restore’s webpages are artful and complex: words, images, and video combine and reinforce each other, and appeals to reason and emotion are interwoven. The total effect of these strategies is to present de-extinction as an ideal route to an ideal outcome; in doing so, however, the persuasion tends to erase or minimize complexities, both technical and conceptual. To see how this works, let’s take a closer look, beginning with the smallest unit: the word chosen to describe the project.

Prefixes, nouns, and frames

The word “de-extinction”—neutral, scientific-sounding—frames the discussion in a powerful way. That power resides largely in the prefix.

1. The prefix assumes a central and debatable premise: that extinction can, in fact, be reversed. If this premise is accepted, then conceptual questions (would an engineered approximation count as a revival? is it right to revive an Ice Age creature on a rapidly warming planet?) become secondary to technical ones (what is the best way to bring species back?). To Brand’s credit, he has engaged with these questions publicly; but they are clearly secondary to the project of revival, which has already begun.

2.  The prefix also frames the technology as positive, opposing it to “extinction,” just as the word revival links it to life. At the same time, the coinage gives the reader a foothold in the familiar, linking synthetic biology to the known. This tactic is used throughout the webpages, which is filled with words like revive, restore, rescue, conservation, comeback. Often these words are paired with a technical word (“genomic conservation,” “genetic rescue”). These phrases position science and technology as saviors, not threats.

As a result, a complex world of ideas and choices is divided into simple alternatives: extinction or de-extinction, loss or rescue.  This is the beginning of persuading people to adopt one alternative, and not the other.

What’s next? Filling in the frame with a picture.

Images: filling in the frame

On a well-designed webpage, words and images work together. That’s true of the Revive and Restore home page, where reproduced paintings show us images of the species to be restored, including a composed still life of lost species, with the passenger pigeon front and center; an image of a single pigeon, soaring in the sky; and a picture of a woolly mammoth in fisheye perspective, its majestic tusks dominating the foreground, the curvature of the earth barely visible behind it. The mammoth is, in Brand’s terms, “iconic.”  These images are informative, in that they show us species that are lost; but their true function is persuasive: they help the viewer imagine an ideal outcome of the de-extinction experiment.

In context, however, a digital reproduction of a painting is more than a little ironic. Though the lush realism of the image evokes another century, a time when many extinct species were alive and abundant, the image functions differently in practice: digitally reproduced, distributed on the Internet, viewed on screens, the images are computer-dependent reproductions used to advocate for computer-dependent reproductions. (In the large composed still life, we can “mouse over” lost species to learn more.) 

The emphasis on the visual is a function of the medium. But this medium privileges the beauty of individual members of species over other things harder to represent: less beautiful species that matter more in an ecosystem (like, say, bees); groups of animals (it’s ironic that we see a single pigeon, and not flocks); and ecosystems themselves. But the emphasis on the visual is also driven by the economics of restoration. To paraphrase a recent interview with Brand, mammoths are easier to fund than mice: “As architects say, form follows funding. The animals that will draw avid supporters who have avid amounts of money will probably be the first ones that get dealt with.”

An idealized process

Persuading the public to approve of new technologies entails explaining those technologies. That explanation, however, has a persuasive bent. We can see this tendency in a clever graphic on the Revive & Restore site: the “extinction continuum.”

This graphic gives form to the project’s central premise. Like the word de-extinction, the graphic implies that species can be restored in their original state, while linking that premise to the power of biotechnology (“How Biotechnology Can Help” is the caption). It’s also deftly constructed, and more complex than it first appears.

In the graphic, both living and lost creatures are recognizable silhouettes, as if to emphasize the uncertain status of threatened or theoretically revivable species: present yet absent, gone but not lost. Only one creature—the dinosaur, with “no DNA” available—appears as a skeleton. The other animals, whether extinct or still living, are rendered in shades of gray. That, and the ability to see all the creatures in a single image, makes it almost as if the extinct creatures are still present—thus making “revival” imaginable, as if the pigeon simply needed to follow the green arrow back to “recovering.”

And yet the arrows, though graphically parallel, are conceptually askew. One (the red) is factual. The other (green) is hypothetical. Therefore, the diagram blurs the distinction between fact and projection. It is fact that the passenger pigeon is extinct; whether it is “revivable” is hypothetical, and “reintroduction” and “recovering” extend the hypothesis. Fact and optimistic projection coexist in the same image.

That optimism reaches its zenith in one of Stewart Brand’s selling points for reviving the mammoth: ameliorating climate change. In a short essay reproduced on the Revive and Restore site, Brand writes, “[The mammoth’s] return to the north would bring back carbon-fixing grass and reduce greenhouse-gas-releasing tundra.” In this paradigm, the mammoth—an engineered creature—will itself become an agent of geoengineering. Created to live on the earth, it will also alter the earth in a beneficial way.

Apart from the optimism cascade required to believe that synthetic mammoths will help lower the Earth’s temperature, the scenario displays a fundamental tension in the de-extinction project: it is sold with the rhetoric of restoration and preservation, but driven by an ethic of engineering and control.

Blockbuster resurrections

To sum up: de-extinction frames the issues with a deft use of naming, establishes a vivid picture in words and images of a desired outcome, establishes biotechnology as the sole route to that outcome, and portrays the technology itself in a positive light.

Similar patterns are visible in the persuasive tactics used for other technologies, including noninvasive prenatal testing and mitochondrial transfer. But the pitch for de-extinction has a distinguishing feature: what I call a “blockbuster aesthetic,” a belief in visual spectacle, technical impressiveness, the project’s sheer size—and perhaps even its expense—as proofs of value.

The “revival” of the woolly mammoth, and of the passenger pigeon, closely resembles a Hollywood movie: the revival and restoration of the Jurassic Park franchise, for example, or (as historian of science and medicine Anita Guerrini suggested to me) Avatar.

As with those movies, the relaunch of the species is closely associated with a larger-than-life, charismatic auteur. And as with those movies, the return of lost species is meant to awe and overwhelm. In Stewart Brand’s narrative, these effects have a moral purpose:  

Such animals can also serve as icons, flagship species inspiring the protection of a whole region. 

and:

Conservationists are learning the benefits of building hope and building on hope. Species brought back from extinction will be beacons of hope.

The return of the marvelous marsupial wolf called the thylacine (or Tasmanian tiger), extinct since 1936, would ensure better protection for its old habitat.

The returned species, in other words, will be living persuasive tools. Images in the present will inspire action to “bring back” species; those species will then themselves inspire further action. What is hoped for, then, is a feedback loop of persuasion.

“The Long Now”

What troubles me most about the paradigm Brand promotes is the naïve idea of interpretation at its heart: the belief that the creature, once authored, will be understood, even decades from now, precisely as its creator intends. That naïveté is present in another, seemingly unrelated project of Brand’s Long Now Foundation: The 10,000 Year Clock.

This clock, a massive device composed of “marine grade 316 stainless steel, titanium and dry running ceramic ball bearings,” and currently being built inside a West Texas mountain, is meant to “creatively foster long-term thinking”: pilgrims, hiking miles to the clock, will witness it and presumably think about time in a different way. (They will also need to help wind it occasionally.) From the Long Now’s home page:

Such a clock, if sufficiently impressive and well-engineered, would embody deep time for people . . . . Ideally, it would do for thinking about time what the photographs of Earth from space have done for thinking about the environment. Such icons reframe the way people think.

Like a living mammoth, the clock’s sheer scale is meant to elicit a specific idea. The idea of “deep time,” expressed by the phrase “The Long Now,” is an interesting one—and, like the reversal of a tragic extinction, difficult to oppose in principle.

And yet I see a second meaning in the phrase “The Long Now.” The 10,000 Year Clock and the revival of lost species are meant to demonstrate taking the long view beyond our present moment. But it seems to me that they do precisely the opposite: they extend specific, local, cultural values associated with our time and place—and, even more specifically, with Silicon Valley—into the foreseeable future. In the uncritical belief in technological solutions, in the belief in size and spectacle, in the exalting of computing power that bridges both online persuasion and the engineering of new genomes, “The Long Now” may mean something other than its authors intend.

George Estreich received his M.F.A. in poetry from Cornell University. His first book, a collection of poems entitled Textbook Illustrations of the Human Body, won the Gorsline Prize from Cloudbank Books. His memoir about raising a daughter with Down syndrome, The Shape of the Eye, was published in SMU Press’ Medical Humanities Series. Praised by Abraham Verghese as “a poignant, beautifully written, and intensely moving memoir,” The Shape of the Eye was awarded the 2012 Oregon Book Award in Creative Nonfiction. Estreich lives in Oregon with his family.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: