Raising Lazarus: the exoticism of extinction

The promise of the ‘resurrection’ of the mammoth has been causing a stir in recent media. A group of Harvard scientists estimate that in a few years, ‘mammophant’ embryos will be produced, using the genomes of Asian elephants into which sections of mammoth DNA have been spliced. Most commentary has questioned the timeline and moral viability of these projects, rather than why we want to bring extinct animals back or why this one in particular? And why not start with something a bit more manageable, like an extinct amphibian or fish?

woolly_mammoth_bfi

We already know how to play jiggsaw with genomes, roll out herds of clones, or store the biosphere’s blueprints in gene banks. What makes the possibility of a living mammoth, or mammoth-elephant chimaera, so intriguing? The Harvard group suggest they might give the Asian elephant a genetic segue in the face of climate change and reinstate a cornerstone of the Tundra ecosystem. But these two reasons seem more fantasy of a regenerated Ice-Age Utopia than practical conservation endeavours.

De-extiction and the rediscovery of creatures thought lost undoubtedly capture our imaginations. Recently-extinct animals, such as the dodo or tasmanian tiger (thylacine) seem to hold a special allure, even over equally-strange, extant creatures. Many people have never heard of a pangolin, despite their bizarre, prehistoric appearances and widespread over-exploitation. Yet everyone would recognise a dodo, a flightless bird that lived on a distant Indian Ocean Island several hundred years ago, extinct just 80 years after it was first encountered.

Why is this? Such animals existed alongside humans, interacted with them, were hunted, eaten, marvelled at – sometimes within living memory- but have vanished. Some took on symbolic roles: in the West, for example, the dodo has become a symbol for greed, lethargy, as well as anthropogenic extinction. Just as important is the fact that rare natural things have always been valuable, whether useful or not. Things that are so rare that they are just out of reach – familiar but now lost – even more so. We often don’t value something until it is gone: footage of the last living Thylacine, ‘Benjamin’, in Beaumaris zoo, gives a haunting glimpse of an animal many would now give anything to encounter. In 1933, however, Benjamin was of so little value that he was left to die in the cold by his keepers, and the body was simply thrown in the dump. The recent stir about potential sightings of thylacines in Australia shows just how much our attitues have changed.

ThylacinePhotograph
‘Benjamin’, 1933

The biologies of extinct creatures have to be assembled by researchers. Physical remnants, photographs, DNA, recordings, and textual descriptions are all used to build up composite, chimerical images. Self-styled ‘dodologists’, for example, scour historical sources and physical remants to try and piece together the bird’s living reality. Similarly, recent scan analysis of the thylacine brain demonstrated specialised hunting adaptations, adding another layer to the picture formed from the other materials we have about these strange marsupial carnivores.

Resurrection or de-extinction would be the ultimate reconstruction. Such projects may have practical scientific and conservation value, but, arguably, most enticing would be the possibility of direct experience of infinitely rare creatures. This would not be a true resurrection: most extinct genomes are lost for good. But, perhaps the prospect of seeing living, breathing mammoth-alikes is enough. Jurassic Park-style menageries of extinct exotica might be spectacles worth the effort and investment in de-extinction. A ‘mammophant’ would definitely draw enough ecotourists to the Tundra Mammoth Park to merit a gift shop and cafe at the very least.

This might serve a more profound psychological need for us than sheer time-machine voyeurism. Many of the creatures that would be at the top of most people’s ‘de-extinction’ lists were lost because of humans. We have always been catastrophic neighbours for other large beasts: Arctic Stellar’s sea cows, New Zealand Moa, herds of North American bison, to name but a few. The mammoth was probably amongst these victims of human ingenuity. These are spectacular beasts, but perhaps we also feel an obligation reinstate these natural wonders, even if only as tokens.

Moa

Europeans voyaging to unknown regions East and West in the sixteenth century hoped to rediscover a lost terrestrial paradise or Eden in exotic locales. Is there something of a similar quest behind de-extinction projects? Are we attempting to save a Fallen global biosphere, decimated and adulterated by human activities, perversely, through the use of human technologies. The illusory control of genetic machinery, the preservation of genetic data, and the potential ability to ‘de-extinct’ lost species might give us hope that the devastation we are causing is not permanent. Do attempts towards the restoration of an anthropogenically-destroyed Eden through resurrection and rewilding offer us the possibility of redemption for what we have done, and continue to do to the planet?

Whether or not we ‘should’ do this is a moot point: the genetic landscape is an amoral one. Reduced to manipulable sequences of letters, genomes can no longer be viewed as pristine ‘natural’ creations. Selective breeding has long allowed humans to ‘play God’ with other species. But, what is at stake is our sense of jeopardy. This sense of loss needs to be directed to where it is most needed: to what is and will be destroyed if we don’t improve our efforts to conserve the globe’s biodiversity.

Ice_age_fauna_of_northern_Spain_-_Mauricio_Antón.jpg

 

Tamach rose

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