Humans hunted mammoths. Do we have an obligation to bring the extinct herbivores back?
Read Caption
Gregory Manchess/National Geographic Stock
Humans hunted mammoths. Do we have an obligation to bring the extinct herbivores back?

Reinventing the Mammoth

The first groaner of the TEDxDeExtinction conference cropped up less than an hour into the program.  Paleontologist Michael Archer was on stage, wrapping up his talk on possibly recreating the gastric brooding frog and the thylacine – two species totally lost from Australia in recent time. Archer laid out the technological particulars of the plans, as well as where the animals might live, but at the end he took a turn for the transcendentalist in justifying the difficult endeavor to resurrect these creatures. Since our species played a prominent role in wiping out both species, Archer argued, we have an obligation to “restore the balance of nature that we have upset.” If I had brought a flask with me, I might have taken a strengthening sip of whiskey right then.

There is no such thing as “the balance of nature.” If sifting through the fossil record has taught me anything, it’s that change is the rule. Balance is only a temporary illusion created by the difficulties of envisioning life on a geological scale. That, and quite a few conversations with practically-minded ecologists and biologists, means that I’ve become a bit allergic to snuggly phrases that are often trotted out to emphasize the inherent goodness of nature – whatever “nature” means – in a way that suggests we can simply restore the complexity of life to a stable state that the ghosts of Thoreau, Emerson, and Muir would honor us for. And the irritation of that line kept with me throughout the rest of the day. Perhaps the closing appeal to the balance of nature was a trifling throwaway, yet that one line underscored the problematic nature of the major proposal the assembled speakers and guests had been called to consider – that we can, and should, resurrect lost life to take some of the tarnish off our ecological souls. The concept falls under the banner of “de-extinction.”

De-extinction, in the strict sense of trying to resurrect creatures just as they were, appeals to a simplistic sense of environmental justice. Through cloning, tweaking genes, and other procedures, synthetic biologists suggest that they can recreate long lost creatures and pop these revived lineages right back into suitable habitats, therefore restoring some semblance of ecological equilibrium. New inventions will restore some semblance of nature untrammeled and undisturbed by human presence, according to such visions, which is preferable to the compromised ecological hodgepodge that surrounds us today.

That’s how de-extinction is marketed, in any case. The fact of the matter is that revived species would be more akin to carefully-assembled replicas that fit our vision of what those lost creatures were like – living odes to our best conception of what that animal was actually like. The distinction may be minor, but is critical. Instead of truly restoring species just as they were, we would be creating the woolly mammoth, passenger pigeon, or auroch mk. II, assembled from tattered DNA remnants and a base stock of their closest living relatives. And these invented creatures would often be entering habitats that are not only different from those the lost species disappeared from, but are set to undergo drastic ecological changes thanks to human-driven climate change. Of course, synthetic biologists could intentionally try to engineer mammoths, thylacines, Steller’s sea cows, and other candidate species to better withstand the coming changes, but this would only highlight the fundamental truth that “revive and restore” projects are actually creating new species rather than truly resurrecting what was lost.

View Images
Will mammoths – or mammoth-ish elephants – eventually roam the Arctic? Raul Martin/National Geographic Stock.

If we really want mammoths – or something mammoth-ish – to roam Alaska and Siberia again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with creating a hybrid animal to accomplish that goal. But if that is our intention, we should call such a creature what it truly is. Even though most everyone who spoke at TEDxDeExtinction seemed to recognize this necessity of biological engineering, this fact remains hidden under a language that emphasizes true resurrection rather than human-guided reinvention. Perhaps, as suggested by Kent Redford during his talk late in the afternoon, this is because of a cultural obsession with natural “purity” and a distaste for what is “tainted.” Persistent and unfounded fears about genetically-modified organisms – often denigrated as “frankenfoods” when they come in crop form – are a bellwether of public resistance to the kind of genetic engineering that would be required to create the closest thing to a living Carolina parakeet or Xerces blue butterfly. Maybe that’s why the TEDxDeExtinction symposium and Revive & Restore emphasize ecological reinvigoration through resurrection rather than putting engineering and synthetic biology up front, unlike the “How will synthetic biology and conservation shape the future of nature?” conference set to be held in Cambridge, England next month. Even though Redford chastised opponents of raising mammoths and thylacines for what he perceives as an obsession with purity, proponents of de-extinction trade in the same language in order to give the impression that they are going to revive pure, pristine ecosystems where the influence of humans can be erased despite the massive amount of planning, coordination, oversight, and guidance such projects require.

In their presentations, Stanley Temple, David Ehrenfeld, and other critics brought up the fact that a supposedly revived passenger pigeon or auroch might not actually be a true representation of the animal that was lost. The engineered organisms will be close proxies, but not truly resurrected animals. I didn’t see this line of criticism as a reflexive distaste for the tainted or artificial, but as the recognition that de-extinction – in a literal sense – fails its own premise.

The words “resurrection” and “revive” have an almost magical quality to them. No surprise, then, that they can obscure the scientific nitty gritty of what deep restoration projects actually entail.

During his session, George Church confidently stated that enough of the mammoth genome is now known that biologists could sufficiently alter living elephants into mammoth hybrids capable of living in the Arctic. That’s easy enough to say offhand, but later the same day Beth Shapiro laid out how little we actually know about mammoth genetics and the hurdles involved in using DNA scraps to reinvent a mammoth.

View Images
Recreating a mammoth will be a multi-step process. (Click for larger image.) Fernando G. Baptista/National Geographic Stock Bringing back a mammoth is a multi-step process. (Click for larger image)

Right now, Shapiro noted, paleontologists and biologists have only assembled about fifty percent of the part of the mammoth genome that codes for traits like curvy tusks and shaggy hair. We may never actually know the beast’s complete genome, especially given how rapidly DNA breaks down after death. (And even with all the money spent on human genetics we still haven’t fully explored the reaches of our own genome. Even our knowledge of ourselves is incomplete.) If we’re serious about recreating a mammoth, step one involves documenting the extinct elephant’s genome. Only then does the real work of trying to bring the megamammal back to life really start. Researchers will learn a great deal about mammoths by doing the basic work of trying to recover prehistoric genes, but, if we’re going to see anything mammoth-like at all, it’s much more likely that it will be an elephant modeled after our best guess at what a mammoth is.

But let’s say that researchers really are able to create a shaggy elephant they present to the world as a cloned woolly mammoth. Based on last Friday’s presentations, that creature is going to be a hybrid created by tweaking Asian elephant biology into mammoth form, and that undoubtedly adorable baby will not have any true mammoth role models from which to learn how to be a mammoth. And if such an animal was introduced to the wild, its habitat would most likely be a proxy of Ice Age ecology not quite like what it used to be, not to mention that such a cold, dry habitat is going to be ephemeral in the wake of climate change. (Indeed, as we considering replacing mammoths, warming temperatures are thawing out greater expanses of permafrost where tusk hunters search for newly-exposed mammoth remains.) The invented proboscideans will either have to track their shifting habitat, adapt to different conditions, or go extinction all over again. Biologists will have created something novel, even if the novelty seems slight, in an animal not quite like what was lost. Is this really de-extinction?

Though the neologism is unwieldy, and actually unnecessary, “de-extinction” is good marketing. The term is a hopeful one – a word that symbolizes a hope that we can turn the tide of extinction. So snuggly and warmth-inducing is the concept that it’s quite easy to overlook the hubris involved in effort, revealing that “de-extinction” is not a literal translation of fact but a euphemism for engineering a future nature that we find wonderful and satisfying. The case for species revival is phrased in terms of our “moral obligation” to species we had a hand in eliminating, and finding some way to bring species back – more or less – would make us feel proud in our penance.

George Church, Robert Lanza, Michael McGrew and other synthetic biologists at the conference were optimistic about creating replica passenger pigeons and other candidate species. Their presentations were progress reports of how far technology has come and the possibilities of the near future. Efforts to reverse-engineer lost species are already underway. In fact, when Alberto Fernández Arias mentioned that he and his colleagues were successfully able to clone a Pyrenean ibex, the audience applauded at what the talk billed as “The First De-Extinction”, even though that clone died within seven minutes of being born and the horned herbivore still remains extinct. Considering what such projects are really doing is not just a game of semantics, but cuts to the core problem of whether these efforts are viable conservation options and how we handle the mounting issue of conservation triage. Saying that we intend to restore the thylacine, mammoth, and passenger pigeon to their previous habitats is fundamentally different from admitting that we are creating proxy species that will likely have to carve out altered niches for themselves.

This is not to say that lost species could only survive in a very specific, constrained environments. In my previous post on the TEDx symposium, I was lazy enough to fall into this typological trap – that since the mammoth steppe of the Ice Age is gone, recreated mammoths would not have suitable habitat. This mistake is particularly irksome because it plays into the same “balance of nature” myth that denies both ecological flux and evolution. There is not stable point of nature where all will remain well. Ecological conditions are always changing, and organisms can follow comfortable habitats, become adapted to altered habitats, or slip into extinction. That will be true of engineered species as well as those that we have not carefully tweaked. Ultimately, should they be released into the wild, recreated species will stay in stasis, adapt, or become extinct all over again as the world continues to change. Just as we shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that there is no place left where lost species might still survive, we’d be foolish to assume that recreating extinct species will somehow halt over 4.5 billion years of change on our planet.

Whether or not we want to recreate species and give them a place for the future remains unsettled. Even as Michael Archer continues his Lazarus Project to bring back the gastric brooding frog and Ben Novak angles to engineer a passenger pigeon, the conversation about what will become of these animals in potentia has only begun. Right now, synthetic biologists and ecologists are butting heads over whether such projects should move forward, but when do regulatory agencies and the public become involved? If scientists want to introduce passenger pigeon proxies – birds that required massive flocks that reportedly blackened the sky for days as they passed – then at what point do regulatory agencies become involved to see whether such an introduction would actually benefit the environment, and when does the public get a say as to whether or not they actually want the birds back? Such questions are almost moot before there’s actually an engineered creature to discuss, but, as speakers James Tate and Hank Greely noted, these issues are looming over the ongoing scientific squabbles. Thus far, the resurrection ecology debate has hinged upon technological methods and whether such strategies have a place in modern conservation. A proxy mammoth or thylacine will emerge into a world of government regulations, public opinion, and scientific debate that will hinge upon what we value and want to protect.

I would say that I don’t want to sound cynical, but that would be a lie. I am indeed cynical of “de-extinction” projects, and I don’t believe that the TEDx conference did much to move the debate forward. The event was good media marketing, but the talks felt less like a real discussion and more of a study in scientific contrasts.

Synthetic biologists and advocates for “de-extinction” told tales of their progress and our ill-defined duty to recreate species despite our ignorance of ecological consequences, while the ecologists and critics continued to question the philosophical and practical motivations behind such efforts. One of the few speakers who attempted to bridge the gap was Kate Jones, who suggested the techniques being applied to the question of species re-creation could be applied to assisting imperiled species that are still living. If we are reshaping habitats by hand – removing invasive species, planting forests, closely monitoring the reproduction of rare species, and the like – then we have to ask whether there might be ways to use synthetic biology to aid the conservation of what still exists. But even if ecologists answer such questions in the negative, such an outcome requires a deeper dialogue between synthetic biologists who are already trying to recreate lost species and ecologists that are wary of such projects. Right now, experts are still haggling over what “de-extinction” truly means and the attendant philosophical quandaries. These arguments are worth having, especially during a time when distinctions between artificial and natural can be nearly impossible to pick out, but there may ultimately be more potential in collaboration between the field and the lab in our attempt to give ecosystems an ability to keep evolving as the world changes. If we must choose what the future of nature will look like, we must make such a decision carefully and all together.