In a recent TED talk, Stewart Brand asserts that we have the technology (and the biology) to bring back species that humanity wiped out. Should we? Which ones?
“Humans have made a huge hole in nature in the last 10,000 years. [With de-extinction,] we have the ability now, and maybe the moral obligation, to repair some of the damage,” says Brand.
Human intervention has contributed to a mass extinction that we are still in the midst of. Brand reminds listeners that saving red list species and associated habitats should remain a priority. But some species, such as the Northern White Rhino, have no hope of being saved without scientific intervention. The Northern White Rhino has no breeding pairs left. This species needs genetic intervention to have any hope of seeing another generation. While species are lost every day, the science of de-extinction is advancing.
Aurochs made famous in 'Beast of the Southern Wild'
Much in the same way breeders work to select traits to develop traits in dogs and horses, breeders are backbreeding cattle to select the genetic traits that made up the auroch.
According to Brand “The aurochs are the ancestor of all domestic cattle, and so basically its genome is alive, it's just unevenly distributed. So what they're doing is working with seven breeds of primitive, hardy-looking cattle like that Maremmana primitivo on the top there to rebuild, over time, with selective back-breeding.”
Passenger pigeon DNA
The Passenger pigeon once filled the skies over North America in flocks that sheeted the sky for miles. People killed every one. The technology of synthetic hybridization has been rapidly advancing. Passenger pigeon DNA has already been sequenced by a molecular biologist named Beth Shapiro.
While the science has a way to go, Brand explains that “the closest living relative of the passenger pigeon is the band-tailed pigeon. They're abundant. There's some around here. Genetically, the band-tailed pigeon already is mostly living passenger pigeon. There's just some bits that are band-tailed pigeon. If you replace those bits with passenger pigeon bits, you've got the extinct bird back, cooing at you.”
Ready for good news
While every lost species does not have a team of scientist working to bring them back, handfuls of scientists ooze with intelligent passion for this science of human restitution. Recreating a species will be useless if the habitat cannot support them or if the policies and practices that lead to extinction remain in place. Good news on the extinction front would be a new phenomenon. Perhaps this would invigorate conservation stewardship across the planet. The questionable siting of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker (the event was not confirmed by additional sightings) inspired hopeful throngs of bird lovers and strengthened conservation efforts in the surrounding forests. Tasmanian tigers would certainly be a boon to tourism and conservation if reintroduced. Recognizing that there are complex issues in de-extinction, Brand co-founded Revive and Restore, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the science, ethics and advancement of this new movement.