Book Excerpt from Rise of the Necrofauna

In chapter 4, “Why Recreate the Woolly Mammoth?” author Britt Wray explores the social consequences of bringing an iconic species back from extinction.

By | October 1, 2017

GREYSTONE BOOKS, OCTOBER 2017People are often willing to pay for something that they think is cool: a flashy convertible, a table at a Michelin-starred restaurant, an overnight stay at an exclusive hotel. But what does it mean when the cool thing is a sentient being? What unexpected forms of commodification might that create? Who profits from making its coolness available? And what happens if it goes out of style?

When considering de-extinction’s potential applications, conservation consultant Kent Redford and colleagues write, “The work will attract funding, inform science, help develop techniques useful in other fields, and provide an example of synthetic organisms that have public appeal.” But that already raises an ethical issue: Should we be promoting the public appeal of synthetic organisms when we could be working harder to increase the public appeal of unmodified creatures that are still around and that face threats in the wild? Are these two things mutually exclusive? Or would it be a mistake to think that they are?

In 2015, Jurassic World, the fourth film in the Jurassic Park series, earned over $200 million at the U.S. box office on opening weekend. In 1993, the original film’s opening weekend roped in almost a quarter of that amount. It would seem that the story about undoing extinction only grows cooler with time. “It would be awe inspiring to look at a woolly mammoth walking around . . . It would be cool. It would be like that first time I turned the corner and saw Yosemite Valley spread out before me,” says Hank Greely, a professor of law and (by courtesy) genetics at Stanford University who has been actively engaged in the de-extinction debate since Revive & Restore first gave it a boost. Certainly, it would be remarkable, memorable—dazzling, even. It would be something we were glad to have seen. It would be cool to hear the noises that a woolly mammoth makes with its trunk. It would even be cool to see how it sleeps. But would it be cool to see it slink its trunk through the bars of a zoo enclosure? Would it be cool to watch it amongst a herd of elephants, the only hairy one of its kind? Would it be cool to see it led around by its caretaker for the third time in one day while families of onlookers gawk and wave in its direction?

When Greely says that it would be cool to see a mammoth, he is not imagining that grim scene. He’s thinking about how seeing a mammoth could reconnect people to the natural world they are a part of through the emotion that its reappearance would likely create. “And that is a real advantage,” he says. “Most of what we do in our lives, we do because we hope for something cool at least, awe inspiring at best.” I can easily imagine that a cage full of passenger pigeons or thylacines would also generate a huge amount of enthusiasm. Some people would do anything to see them. Even the paleobiologist Tori Herridge, of the Natural History Museum in London, who deeply condemns the idea of mammoth resurrection on ethical grounds, says, “For all my protests, I’d pay to see one if it was there.”

On the contrary, Hendrik Poinar, who grew up thinking about de-extinction and now directs the Ancient DNA Centre at McMaster University, says that his nightmare scenario for de-extinction would be if we ever bring back target species so that people can pay money to visit them in a zoo. He is adamantly against de-extinction if human entertainment is the outcome, a not improbable prospect in his eyes. “I don’t think that the people who are at the grassroots of this have that in mind,” he tells me, “but it is also silly to think that it won’t get out of their hands very quickly. I mean, all you have to do is control the patent. Scientists have seen that in the past. They think they have control of the situation, but it’s really the people with the deep pockets that do.” He knows from personal experience that making money from de-extinction theme parks isn’t just material for a Hollywood fantasy but also an enterprising goal for some people. A wealthy businessman once tried to lure Poinar away from his academic position over a lunch that included a seven-thousand-dollar bottle of wine and an offer to join his private effort to bring the mammoth back to life. The businessman imagined that revived mammoths could live in a park north of Toronto, where he’d bring a slice of the Pleistocene back to life for tourists to enjoy.

Nothing went forward with that plan after Poinar turned him down, but others have raised the idea that animal re-creation could open up profitable businesses. Researchers have described the recent rise of “last-chance” tourism, where customers pay to visit near-extinct animals and landscapes before it’s too late. Patrick Whittle, Emma Stewart, and Davis Fisher hypothesize that based on the interest in so-called last-chance tourism and the public awareness of disappearing nature that goes with it, de-extinction could provide a “first chance” for customers to see particular kinds of nature appear, building up a market around “re-creation tourism.”

When viewed pessimistically, such ideas sound as if de-extinction may become yet another technological platform that allows capitalism to get its claws into nature. But the idea of making money from de-extinction may not be in competition with de-extinction’s ecological merits, just as putting a few revived animals on display may not be incompatible with reintroducing many more of them into the wild. A species’ revival will be tremendously costly, especially in cases where bespoke technologies will need to be developed or advanced. If even a handful of unextinct animals are exhibited in a zoo, for example, research funders might be able to recoup some of their costs or even generate revenue to make the next species revival possible. Such an exhibition might also have great scientific merit. As Ryan Phelan tells me, “I think that there is no question that zoos will play a role in assisting any kind of captive breeding that would have to happen before the release of any species.” She sees zoos as an intermediary that can help smooth the animals’ transition from the lab into the wild. If the specimens on display are framed as a cultural curiosity rather than as a scientific oddity, then exhibiting them might cause people to have more of a stake in the animals’ well-being. Would you pay to see the first members of an unextinct species return? And how would seeing them in captivity make you feel?

Excerpted from Rise of the Necrofauna: The Science, Ethics, and Risks of De-Extinction by Britt Wray, published September 2017 by Greystone Books. Condensed and reproduced with permission from the publisher.

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