Here we go again, playing God and playing with Promethean fire. After doing an extremely brutal job killing the thylacine, known in popular parlance as the Tasmanian tiger, along with a growing number of other species, it’s worth reviving them and eventually returning them to the nature. And, as with any divinity, the choice lies with the divine figure, all decision-maker and omniscient. The killer becomes the selector, the executioner, the saviour.
Interest in the venture was piqued and stimulated by a philanthropist’s AU$5 million donation to a research team engaged in a partnership with the creepily named Texas biotech firm Colossal Biosciences. The research team in question is located at the TIGRR laboratory at the University of Melbourne (Thylacine Integrated Genetic Restoration Research). Axel Newton, an evolutionary biologist working in the lab, is filled with a messianic goal. “I think we have an obligation to do everything in our power to bring back this remarkable animal, especially since our ancestors [sic]
were the direct cause of his disappearance.
In the 1970s, the Frozen Zoo in San Diego gave us the concept of appreciating God known as disextinction. The website notes the project as “the largest and most diverse collection of its kind in the world”, containing “more than 10,000 cultures of live cells, oocytes, sperm and embryos representing nearly 1,000 taxa, including one species extinct, the po’ouli”. ”
Resurrected species popular culture received a worldwide and enchanting boost with the first of jurassic park films in 1993. The core tenets of the field—technological hubris, entrepreneurial greed, and ecological fiddling—remain very much in vogue.
Three years later, Dolly the sheep appears cloned, the product of DNA taken from the mammary gland of an adult Finn Dorset sheep. In 2008, a dead mouse frozen at -20 degrees centigrade for 16 years was cloned, raising “hopes”, observes the new scientist, “to one day be able to resurrect extinct animals frozen in permafrost, such as the woolly mammoth”. The following year, the extinction
cockle (Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica), a species of wild goat otherwise known as the Pyrenean ibex, also received the cloning treatment.
It’s not without huge problems. Playing with and editing nature in this way isn’t just about animating (or reanimating) Jurassic Park and luring the capital for entertainment. This raises further problems of interference with the ecosystem that human beings have proven utterly unable to handle. Far from restoring balance to an unbalanced world, such lawsuits threaten to exacerbate instability.
The very term seems to invite trouble. Disextinction covers analysts with an ecological dispensation, the sages being fully free in terms of planning, decision-making and determination. In the adventure, other species are discarded in front of the supposed sagacity of donors and scientists. In time, if technology and funding are of such magnitude, the only species in town capable of doing this – Homo Sapiens – will be able to warp and twist an environment more than they have done a magnificent job of ruin. Species favored from a financial, economic, industrial, selfish point of view will be selected, or perhaps deselected; others will remain intact.
The academic literature on this subject shows some awareness of the issues, although little seems to bother the leading paleontologist consulted for the jurassic park film franchise. In a 2015 interview, Jack Horner referred to a project discussing the creation of a dinosaur snout-like beak in a chicken embryo. “It’s a great concept, isn’t it? I don’t care how we make a dino-chicken, or how we bring back dinosaurs, I don’t care who does it, I just want it to happen.
Others are not so cavalier in their enthusiasm, annoyed by the issues involved in such an undertaking. “Disextinction entangles us in complex ethical and speculative territory,” a paper co-authored in Studies in ecocriticism complaints. There are “technical, ethical and ecological challenges,” says Corey JA Bradshaw of Flinders University.
A number of criticisms have been leveled at such projects. In a spatial context, resurrected species should encounter a radically altered environment. In the decade since 2010, the global net loss of forests has been recorded at 4.7 million hectares. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, however, puts the global rate of deforestation at around 10 million hectares each year. It’s fine to imagine a world repopulated with its saber-toothed cats, mammoths, and thylacines, but the environment itself must be suitable enough to accommodate them.
From an accounting point of view, such programs are very expensive for a meager result: a few animals, as opposed to a sustainably high number of this species. Instead of focusing on God’s plans for extinction, why not focus on stopping the extinction process in the first place?
A 2017 study looking at “potential candidate species for de-extinction” from the state of New South Wales and New Zealand was pretty damning about the process. Even given that such “resurrection” projects could receive external sponsorship and costs could be shared “with existing analogue species”, the pool of public funding for the conservation of these species “would lead to fewer existing species that could be conserved, suggesting a net loss of biodiversity.”
This flimsy endorsement suggests that other strategies should be considered, from managing and removing invasive species (itself problematic), to implementing breeding and reintroduction programs. endangered species and to buy land for reasons of ecosystem preservation.
None of these alternatives will deter cashed-in entrepreneurs and opportunistic scientists from meddling in global ecology, which humans have done since they set foot on this planet.
Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently teaches at RMIT University. Email: email@example.com
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