Reframing "De-extinction"

Biopolitical Times

Beth Shapiro is a distinguished molecular biologist who has specialized in ancient DNA. She has worked on the dodo [pdf] and the late-Pleistocene steppe bison [pdf], been anointed as a "Young Innovator" by The Smithsonian, and won a MacArthur grant. Alas, she seems to have fallen into dubious company.

As she has recounted several times, she became frustrated by the press because every time she returned from a field trip hunting for mammoth DNA, someone asked her about cloning the mammoth. So she looked into it, and decided it was (a) impossible and (b) foolish. She has said that many times, at least twice in my hearing. So what on earth is she doing publishing a book entitled How to Clone a Mammoth? She told Nature:

"I probably should have called the book How One Might Go About Cloning a Mammoth (Should It Become Technically Possible, And If It Were, In Fact, a Good Idea, Which It's Probably Not). But that was a much less compelling title."

Well, she has a point. It does make the book something of a bait-and-switch, though, as some have complained and she has admitted more than once. But there is a good reason that Stewart Brand is still very much on her side, and it's not just that she has let his protégé have lab space to work on reviving the passenger pigeon.

Shapiro is conceptualizing a much more subtle, and potentially dangerous, concept than merely putting a mammoth in a zoo.

I argue that … the birth of an animal that is capable, thanks to resurrected mammoth DNA, of living where a mammoth once lived and acting, within that environment, like a mammoth would have acted — is a successful de-extinction, even if the genome of this animal is decidedly more elephant-like.

She is hoping to see what are admittedly novel creatures — for instance, "cold-tolerant Asian elephants" — not just fill ecological niches but change entire ecologies, for instance to "lower the temperature of the soil and slow the release of greenhouse gases trapped within it." In her view:

De-extinction is a markedly different approach to planning for and coping with future environmental change than any other strategy that we, as a society, have devised. It will reframe our possibilities.

That is precisely why environmentalists should be wary of these technologies. As a species, we are busily making irreversible changes to the world in which we live. We already know for certain that we have made and probably will continue to make big mistakes. At the very least, plans to deliberately re-engineer ecosystems should be subjected to broad public consultation and strict regulatory oversight. And we should be asking ourselves whether we really want to turn the entire world into Anthropocene Park.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: