Science //

Rebooting nature

A new project aiming to revive long-dead species is awesome but irresponsible, writes Leigh Nicholson.

Illustration by Monica Renn.
Illustration by Monica Renn.
Illustration by Monica Renn.

Despite the lessons learnt from Jurassic Park, a new project in the United States called Revive and Restore aims to bring back species from extinction. Started by Steward Brand with funding provided by National Geographic and TED, Revive and Restore comes under the umbrella of the Long Now Foundation, which backs similar projects including a clock built to tick uninterrupted for the next 10,000 years in order to instil “long-term responsibility” in the public.

The aims of Revive and Restore will hopefully be achieved through somatic cell nuclear transfers, a series of delicate genetic procedures. However, the technique can only be used with species for which we have cellular material for, which unfortunately destroys any dreams for a real life Jurassic Park scenario. The process involves sequencing the correct genome for the species with existing material, with the rest made up with information that we more or less think or know from modern day relatives of the species. The slightest change in a genetic sequence can have massive impacts. What follows is a complex process of cell culturing, inscribing the genome into a living embryo, and ensuring the correct behavioural and developmental science once the creature is born.

However, the idea has received a fair share of criticism, from members of the scientific community calling it impossible to the New Yorker labelling it a “vanity project”. When reading the goals on the project’s website, the latter disparagement certainly comes to mind. Brand compares the drive of his project to that of the conservation movement, citing innate human guilt as motivation: “some resurrection is in order a bit of redemption might come with it”. This was reinforced in a Q&A on Reddit last year. “If we killed them off, do we have any obligation to repair the damage?” he posed. This dangerous mentality ignores the reason for the revival in the first place – reviving species from human-caused extinction does not address why the extinction originally occurred. This is the difference between Revive and Restore and the broader conservation movement, which Brand tries to blend his morals and goals with.

Mark Colyvan, a professor of philosophy at the University of Sydney, emphasises this. “There is no point putting time, effort, and money into reviving a species, only to watch it go extinct again,” he says. Colyvan agrees that there is rationality in the inherent guilt that Brand has spring-boarded from. However, he suggests that the project might still not be the best solution. “It would be better to determine which currently extant species would most benefit targeted conservation efforts,” he says. The reasoning for this, he believes, is quite simple probability. It would likely be better to put money towards a more manageable task like saving an endangered species rather than trying to save the past with a smaller chance of success.

Brand also mentions the most obvious of desired results; the aesthetic we desire whilst witnessing species falling to extinction. “Just the thought of mammoths and passenger pigeons alive again invokes the awe and wonder that drives all conservation at its deepest level”, he writes. Unfortunately, this desire is not enough to justify the means, or even to confirm the ends. The project requires a huge amount of funding and a lot of trial and error, error that will be endured by the species involved. To cement his position, Colyvan paraphrases a quote by Kahil Gibran: “If we really love Thylacines, perhaps we ought to let them go”.