Unnatural Selection: On Extinction and De-Extinction

By Colin DickeySeptember 3, 2017

Unnatural Selection: On Extinction and De-Extinction

Bring Back the King by Helen Pilcher
Imagining Extinction by Ursula K. Heise

THE IDEA OF BRINGING previously extinct species back to life through technology has obsessed the public at least since 1990, when Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park was published. Other books, including Australian novelist John Brosnan’s 1984 Carnosaur, explored the concept earlier, but it was Crichton’s novel — and Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film adaptation — that cemented the idea of what scientists now call “de-extinction” in our popular imagination. Of course, the whole point of Jurassic Park is that attempting such a thing is a colossally stupid idea: a great way to end up with a bunch of dead scientists and theme park guests. While Dr. Ian Malcolm (played by Jeff Goldblum in the film) pontificates about science’s hubris, gleeful Velociraptors go about proving his point far more viscerally. And yet, despite three sequels, each further proving how suicidal the fantasy of de-extinction is, we continue to dream: what if?

It’s not only Hollywood producers that have refused to let go of this scenario. As Helen Pilcher’s Bring Back the King: The New Science of De-Extinction attests, this extremely terrible idea has kept pace with technological progress, and is now closer to reality than ever. Pilcher looks at attempts to resurrect not just the T. rex but also other iconic victims of extinction: the woolly mammoth, the passenger pigeon, the Neanderthal, the thylacine (a carnivorous marsupial that went extinct in Australia in 1936), and Elvis Presley. (The “King” of the title stands for both the King of Rock ’n’ Roll and the king of the dinosaurs.) In successive chapters, she runs down the current state of the art in terms of DNA sequencing and repair, incubation and possible surrogates, and the likelihood of successfully bringing an extinct species back to life. In most cases, while the science is currently out of reach, it won’t be for long. The techniques Crichton drew on for Jurassic Park have become far more refined: incomplete strains of DNA are extracted from extant preserved specimens, filled out, and completed (sometimes borrowing from the closest living relatives). In many cases, this feat is less daunting than what comes next: incubating these new specimens. Woolly mammoth cloning would involve implanting a fertilized egg inside of a living elephant, an undertaking that involves either negotiating a six-foot-long reproductive tract, or going through the rectum and then trying to cut through to the elephant’s womb. Neither process has been successfully accomplished by humans.

Bring Back the King, Pilcher writes in her preface, is meant to celebrate the ingenuity and dogged persistence of the scientists behind these efforts, “their reassuringly thick skins in the face of sceptics and critics who say de-extinction either can’t or shouldn’t be done.” The book’s early pages are unpromising, its boosterish tone and forced jocularity suggesting the worst of pop science. “De-extinction, I hope to persuade you, is not something to be feared or resisted,” she writes in the preface to Bring Back the King. “It’s a force for good, not a tool of the dark side.” There doesn’t seem to be much room in this Manichean worldview for the trickier ethical and philosophical questions raised by de-extinction. Nor does Pilcher seem at first to be much interested in larger questions of biodiversity. “I have unashamedly chosen to feature the species and projects that interest me most,” she writes. “Apologies to the world’s ugly animals and to plants — you don’t get much of a look in.” As such, she focuses primarily on well-known examples of extinction, and what sometimes get referred to as “charismatic megafauna”: well-known and aesthetically pleasing large animals, the kind that have so often driven environmentalism for the past few decades.

But Bring Back the King slowly reveals itself to be a more nuanced account of its subject than this initial impression suggests; indeed, she continually contradicts her own pro-de-extinction thesis, and begins to sound more and more like one of the pesky skeptics her heroic scientists blithely ignore. Through the book, as she considers what it would take to bring back these animals, she concludes that doing so is not worth the effort. The real difficulties, Pilcher reveals, are presented not by the technology itself, but by nearly everything else. An animal, after all, is not simply a living being in isolation: it’s one tiny part of a much larger biome, an intricately working machine in delicate balance. Several of the species she considers are herd animals, which means these animals can’t be brought back in isolation: one cannot bring back a woolly mammoth without bringing back several dozen, enough so that they can flourish and thrive. Add to this the problems with their host mothers: mammoths would have to be bred by in vitro fertilization with their closest living relatives, elephants, but how would such births work with matriarchal pachyderms?

[W]ould a woolly mammoth calf recognise its mum? Would it know to suckle? How about the mother? Would a modern elephant mum caress her hairy newborn with her tactile trunk, or reject it as an aberration? And if she did decide to care for a Pleistocene misfit, how could she possibly teach it to act like a mammoth rather than an elephant?

Once you start thinking through the ramifications of de-extinction, complications quickly mount. Recreating a healthy woolly mammoth, for instance, would also involve developing her gut bacteria, necessary for proper digestion, which means we’d not only have to synthesize the mammoth itself but also successfully identify and recreate a species-specific microbiome. As for the T. rex, Pilcher discusses at length the kind of elaborate zoo enclosure that would be necessary to keep it not only from eating humans, but also to keep it alive. And as we’ve seen from documentaries like Blackfish, keeping massive animals in pens not much larger than themselves leads to depression, aggression, and illness. Is it worth going to such great lengths to bring back the King only to leave him confined and suicidal?

If the task of bringing back several dozen mammoths at once seems difficult, consider the case of the passenger pigeon, which went extinct in 1914. Passenger pigeons flourished not in flocks of several dozen or several hundred, but literally in the billions. The 19th-century ornithologist Alexander Wilson once tried to estimate the number of passenger pigeons in a flock that took over three hours to pass over his house and came up with a rough estimate of 2.2 billion. John James Audubon likewise came up with an estimate in the billions when he tried to count the size of a flock so thick and voluminous with passenger pigeons that the “light of noonday was obscured as by an eclipse.” The passenger pigeon’s extinction, many naturalists now agree, came about in part because the species could only thrive in such enormous groups; once their numbers had been reduced to the millions through hunting and deforestation, the species entered a death spiral and couldn’t recover. Thus, while splicing passenger pigeon DNA with that of related, extant species is not out of the realm of technology, there’d be no way to successfully recreate the species without creating billions of passenger pigeons: anything less would doom them to re-extinction. “We can’t bring back and release a handful of passenger pigeons,” Pilcher concludes. “They wouldn’t stand a chance. With the passenger pigeon it’s all or nothing. We either bring back a flock so large it would darken the sky, or we don’t bother at all.”

Gradually, Bring Back the King becomes a meditation not on de-extinction per se, or the technological advances required to re-engineer a lost animal, but the role that animal once played in a past ecosystem, and how difficult it is to re-fill that niche after the extinct creature has exited the stage. “The de-extinction process isn’t just about ‘making’ the de-extinct animal,” Pilcher writes, “it’s about ensuring there is a place for it and giving it the best start so that one day it will be able to thrive on its own.” There’s no point, for example, in bringing back an animal like the Yangtze river dolphin, whose natural habitat has subsequently been destroyed: it would have no place to go.

“De-extinction isn’t about creating lonely zoo exhibits,” Pilcher insists, “it’s about producing sustainable animal populations that will thrive in the wild.” As such, Bring Back the King is an exercise, almost despite itself, in thinking beyond charismatic megafauna. We can’t bring back the king without considering the queens and knaves, the jesters and the peasants, the court and the castle and the far fallow fields, all of which are just as important as the sovereign. Rather than just naming off famously extinct species, “we should ponder instead what job vacancies there are. What ecological ‘holes’ are there that need plugging? What roles are left unfilled?” Despite her own apparent bias toward the singular and iconic, Pilcher ultimately moves her reader toward an understanding of the importance of biodiversity: the goal is not de-extinction per se, but rather “ecological enrichment, returning communities of animals to the wild where they can live and interact with one another, and positively influence their surroundings.” De-extinction may someday soon be a tool for this project, but it can only ever be a means, not an end in itself.


But why, Ursula K. Heise asks, do we care about animals going extinct in the first place? Why this obsession with creatures dead and gone? Heise’s book Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species attempts to probe the underlying concerns and contradictions of a question too easily taken for granted. “How, when, and why do we invest culturally, emotionally, and economically in the fate of threatened species?” she asks.

What stories do we tell, and which ones do we not tell, about them? What do the images that we use to represent them reveal, and what do they hide? What kind of awareness, emotion, and action are such stories and images meant to generate? What broader cultural values and social conflicts are they associated with?

If Pilcher’s book reframes the debate of extinction and de-extinction around the importance of biodiversity (instead of technological achievement), Imagining Extinction takes this one step further, asking on a more fundamental level what’s really informing our discussions of extinction and biodiversity in the first place. Again and again, Heise finds that when we talk of endangered and extinct species, or habitats and biodiversity, we are mainly talking about ourselves. Environmentalists’ personal stories often read like religious testimonials: a given species, or even a given animal, awakens a deep sense of empathy and purpose in a writer or activist, who then devotes her or his life to fostering awareness and conservation. These environmentalists’ “engagements with these species,” Heise notes, “gain sociocultural traction to the extent that they become part of the stories that human communities tell about themselves: stories about their origins, their development, their identity, and their future horizons.”

Heise is a literary scholar, and her contribution is to see extinction narratives in terms of genre. One of the most common and long-standing tropes among environmentalists is the recourse to elegy, letting the plight of individual species kindle emotions of loss and grief in humans: “Stories about species that have already gone extinct or may soon disappear frequently rely on the politically mobilizing power of mourning and melancholy.” They also invoke narratives of dramatic tragedy (the inevitable and partly undeserved fall of a powerful figure). This, in Heise’s view, explains our bias toward charismatic megafauna: “the sheer size and the perceived majesty and fierceness of major predators makes it easy to cast them in narratives of tragic falls from grace.” By contrast, Heise goes on to note, animals and plants that don’t fit this trope receive far less attention from conservationists: animals whose appearance is less magisterial, plants and fungi who don’t receive anthropomorphism as easily, and pests whose eradication is actively desired are all often excluded from extinction narratives. “Certain species, in other words, lack the cultural standing that might make them tragic or elegiac figures,” Heise concludes.

Coupled with this is a nostalgia and yearning for a pre-modern era in which humanity lived in perfect harmony with its surroundings, an Edenic landscape in which industrialization and capitalism stand in for the Fall. For many environmentalists, this vision is harshly juxtaposed against a sense that the splendor and beauty of the world has been irrevocably poisoned and lost, an environmental posture that neatly mimics a postlapsarian theology. Books like Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature offer a history of humanity’s interaction with nature that’s structured around a central break, with its attendant sense of mourning for what’s been lost.

This trope has long characterized environmental discourse, particularly in Europe and North America, but anthropologists have begun to push back on this notion, reminding us that pre-modern cultures regularly altered their environments to their own benefit. The Australian outback, for example, was managed by aboriginal cultures through water projects, fire management, and other sophisticated acts of environmental control that lasted thousands of years before white settlers displaced these people. Similar programs have been found in pre-Columbian cultures in both North and South America, including the Brazilian rain forest itself, which has now been shown to have been cultivated by early populations. All of which is to say that this nostalgic yearning for a natural world untouched by human engineering is not only based on a fiction, but carries with it a none-too-subtle chauvinism, with its absurd presumption that non-European cultures were unable to manage (and yes, even harm) the lands they occupied. As Heise suggests,

[T]he idea of nature as Bill McKibben and other North American environmentalists have defined it increasingly appears as, at best, a retrospective misperception and, at worst, a misconstruction of the historical context and ecological impact of Euro-American colonial ventures.

Elegy and nostalgia have since been joined in these last few decades by an increasingly dire apocalypticism, a mood which, in the era of climate change, has begun to infuse environmental discourse to an ever greater extent. Our nostalgic laments for a time now gone are increasingly being drowned out by prophecies shouting the End Times, a secular Second Coming whose imminent destruction will end life as we know it. David Wallace-Wells’s recent New York Magazine piece that outlined an extremely dire picture of global warming is only the latest in a series of doomsday proclamations arguing it’s already too late and we’re all going to die. It’s hard to say whether this kind of fatalism is productive or not; since Wallace-Wells’s piece was published, numerous climate scientists have pushed back both on his data and his tactics. Writing for The Atlantic, Robinson Meyer tried to parse the debate and concluded that a more likely warmed globe might be “a place where sea levels cause mass migration within and without the developed world; where the economy is never great but isn’t in shambles either; where voters fear for their livelihoods and superpowers poke at each others’ weaknesses.”

One thing is for sure, though: the apocalypticism of modern environmentalist discourse continues to distort our perception of nature. Heise describes how Elizabeth Kolbert, in her best-selling book The Sixth Extinction, details the extinction of the golden frog in Panama — an extinction which, scientists ultimately learned, was caused by a previously unknown fungus, one so rare and unusual that a new genus had to be created to taxonomize it. As Heise notes, this fact “elicits no wonder or celebration from [Kolbert], indeed, no comment at all.” Why, Heise asks, is the frog prioritized over the fungus? A perspective less focused on animals innately valued by humans might find it “remarkable that at the moment of investigating extinction, a new species and genus was discovered, so that the reduction and expansion of biodiversity in human knowledge go hand in hand.” But, of course, “the logic of species preferences has it that we care about beautiful or strange frogs (somewhat), whereas fungi leave us indifferent. They do not fit into our narratives except as villains we are glad to rid ourselves of.”

There is no way, Heise argues, to strip away all of these affective filters, to look at the natural world and its animals without human biases and preoccupation. Even relying simply on scientific data reveals another set of innate biases, since “a good deal of the science is shaped by […] the same stories about the decline of nature that have shaped our ecological culture at large.” Take, for example, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which has long maintained a taxonomy of species’ vulnerability known as the Red List of Threatened Species. Since 1964, the IUCN has been documenting animals on a spectrum from “Least Concern” to “Critically Endangered,” “Extinct in the Wild,” and “Extinct.” The list, which is regularly used to provide data on biodiversity to influence policy making, tilts heavily toward mammals and birds: while the IUCN has evaluated the status of all 5,488 known mammals, and all 9,990 described species of birds, it has evaluated for conservation status only 6,161 of the approximately 1.2 million known invertebrates, only 12,000 out of 300,000 known plant species, and only one type of mushroom out of 30,000 known varieties. So while scientists have long recognized that the public’s focus on charismatic megafauna like wolves and whales distorts the problems with extinction and conservation, their own efforts to quantify the natural world contribute to this problem, ignoring the vast majority of different kind of animal and plant life to focus on evaluating a very narrow band of vertebrates.

If Pilcher’s Bring Back the King asks us to look beyond charismatic megafauna to a more holistic understanding of the world’s ecosystems, Imagining Extinction suggests just how difficult gaining such a perspective may be. The trail of the human serpent, as William James once put it, is over everything. We can look at nature as a resource to be plundered, or we can look at nature as a vulnerable victim of our own excesses, but either way it is we who are doing the looking, and no matter how hard we look, we only ever see ourselves.


Colin Dickey is the author, most recently, of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places.

LARB Contributor

Colin Dickey is the author, most recently, of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places (Viking), as well as Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius and Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith. He is also the co-editor of The Morbid Anatomy Anthology. He currently teaches creative writing at National University.


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