Monday, March 25, 2013

De-extinction: moral imperative or techno-narcissism?

Two weeks ago, TED Talks posted Stewart Brand: The dawn of de-extinction. Are you ready?

Throughout humankind's history, we've driven species after species extinct: the passenger pigeon, the Eastern mountain lion, the dodo .... But now, says Stewart Brand, we have the technology (and the biology) to bring back species that humanity wiped out. So -- should we? Which ones? He asks a big question whose answer is closer than you may think.
Megan Gannon of LiveScience just reported the facts in Reviving the Woolly Mammoth: Will De-Extinction Become Reality?
Biologists briefly brought the extinct Pyrenean ibex back to life in 2003 by creating a clone from a frozen tissue sample harvested before the goat's entire population vanished in 2000. The clone survived just seven minutes after birth, but it gave scientists hope that "de-extinction," once a pipedream, could become a reality.

Ten years later, a group of researchers and conservationists gathered in Washington, D.C., today (March 15) for a forum called TEDxDeExtinction, hosted by the National Geographic Society, to talk about how to revive extinct animals, from the Tasmanian tiger and the saber-toothed tiger to the woolly mammoth and the North American passenger pigeon.

Though scientists don't expect a real-life "Jurassic Park" will ever be on the horizon, a species that died a few tens of thousands of years ago could be resurrected as long as it has enough intact ancient DNA.
Alan Boyle at NBC News included more opinion in his fairly even-handed article Should we revive extinct species? Watch experts debate de-extinction explaining both de-extinction and linking to the conference. In it, science writer Carl Zimmer made a vain wish.
Zimmer said the last thing that Church and his colleagues want is a genetic free-for-all over de-extinction. "They want this to be something where there's a strong consensus," he said. "This is not an off-the-reservation project."
Too late. Very shortly thereafter, the scientific and popular press went wild over it. Follow over the jump for the reaction, both pro and con.

Discovery News, knowing a cool science story when they see one, jumped on the bandwagon with Bringing Back Weird Extinct Animals.

An extinct frog that hatches its young inside its stomach might be making a comeback thanks to science! In this DNews video, Anthony shows us this amazing little amphibian and how scientists are bringing it back from the dead.
I consider that generally positive coverage from a source that isn't afraid to mock bad science.

On the other hand, the writers at Scientific American and Slate were aghast at the project. I'll begin with David Biello of Scientific American, who worried that "De-extinction hopes to revive mammoths, gastric frogs and other missing species, but it might undermine the conservation of creatures that still survive" in Will We Kill Off Today's Animals If We Revive Extinct Ones?
WASHINGTON, D.C.—The rebirth of an extinct frog species may come from the freezer, not the stomach. The gastric brooding frog, when it existed on Earth, swallowed its eggs, transformed its stomach into a womb and vomited up its young once sufficiently grown. But the frog disappeared from the mountains of southern Australia shortly after it was discovered in the 1970s, persisting only as a few frozen specimens in the bottom of a scientist's freezer.

The cells in those tissues should have been ruptured by the swelling ice crystals that formed within and around them. But some of the cells remained reasonably intact, according to paleontologist Michael Archer of the University of New South Wales in Australia, who is attempting to resurrect the species via his Lazarus Project. He and his colleagues transplanted the nucleus of that cell and others like it into hundreds of eggs from a closely related species. "Last February we saw a miracle starting to happen," Archer announced for the first time to the crowd at the TEDx De-Extinction event on March 15 at the National Geographic Auditorium. "One of them began to divide." (Archer’s group has not published the work yet.)

While tadpoles may be a long way off, let alone a viable frog, the southern gastric brooding frog might be the first species brought back from the dead permanently. The first de-extinction happened in 2003, although it lasted all too briefly. Scientists coaxed a clone of an extinct ibex from Spain to birth from a special hybrid goat. But the cloned bucardo bore a third lung and couldn't breathe properly, dying within 10 minutes.

Although this early effort failed, the growing cohort of resurrection projects raises a central question: Does extinction mean forever, anymore? If not, do we have an obligation to bring species back?
Frank Swain of Slate was even more unstinting in his derision as part of his explanation of "How de-extinction could derail the conservation movement" in Don’t Bring Back the Saber-Toothed Tiger.
A few weeks back I chanced across a post by Carla Sinclair at BoingBoing in which she recounted a TED talk that proposed reviving extinct species:

“Stewart Brand began his TED talk today with the statement, ‘Biotechnology is about to liberate conservation.’* Before I had a chance to process what that meant, he went on to list a number of birds and mammals that have become extinct in the last few centuries, including the passenger pigeon, which was killed off by hunters in the 1930s. For a moment my mood plunged, as it always does with conversations of human-caused animal extinction. And then he asked the question, ‘What if DNA could be used to bring a species back?’ I felt a tsunami of awe and excitement barrel through the audience. This was as exciting as his declaration about the digital world in 1984 when he said, ‘Information wants to be free.’ ”

So far, the usual dewy-eyed gravitas we’ve come to expect from TED talks. But my reaction was quite different from Carla’s. “That is, without doubt,” I muttered to myself, “the stupidest thing I’ve heard this year.”
Swain points out two obvious flaw in the headline example from the talk, reviving the passenger pigeon. That's a species that is well-known for only reproducing in large flocks. A single couple will not be enough. Instead, the there will have to be many thousands of them. I've even read estimates that it may take colonies of at least a million to induce the bird to breed. Also, the environment that supported these birds will have to be re-created if it's too degraded and fragmented. That's a lot of time, energy, and money to make this project succeed.

The most scathing attack came from Hannah Walters at Scientific American. While she also argued that the effort would distract from preventing future extinctions, she had her own unique take on the project, calling it The Narcissism of De-Extinction.
[T]he main thing that bugs me is the blatant narcissism and anthropocentrism behind it.
[N]ot only are we trying to restore nature to a balance that doesn’t seem to exist, but we’ve picked a rather arbitrary point in time to return it to: the moment when people first started paying attention. The only species we are capable of resurrecting are those that we know went extinct, those large and common enough to leave fossils, and those that we watched die off. So you see a familiar cadre of de-extinction candidates on the list: mammoths, passenger pigeons, thylacine tigers. These are all big animals that we are sure used to be around because they are large enough to leave an impact on human culture—or, as speaker Stanley Temple put it later in the afternoon, “species that I lamented as a boy.”

This suddenly is less about the species themselves and more about us.
As I wrote, scathing.

Walters isn't the only one to see narcissism in the belief that technology will save modern technological civilization. James Howard Kunstler does as well, calling faith in technology "techno-narcissism." He's even singled out Stewart Brand before.
The techno-narcissism flowed like a melted Slurpee this torrid weekend at the annual Aspen Environment Forum where scores of scientists, media figures, authors, professors, and policy wonks convened to settle the world's hash - at least in theory. The trouble started Friday night when Stewart Brand, 74, impresario of The Whole Earth Catalog, and an economic cornucopian these days, exhorted the skittish audience to show a little goshdarn optimistic spirit about the future instead of just griping about climate change, peak oil, imploding global finance, and a few other vexing trifles. The audience's response was to not line up and buy a signed copy of his latest book....

The mission of the Environment Forum is divided about equally between publicizing the gathering horrors of climate change and promoting an ethos of wishful thinking that all the problems of mankind will yield to technological rescue remedies. It's a very odd mix of hard-headed science and the most dismaying sort of crypto-religious faith in happy endings, tinged with overtones of corporate log-rolling and government propaganda. The basic message is: the world is hopelessly fucked up but thank God for technology. There is not even a dim apprehension that many of the aforementioned vexations originate in technology itself, and its blowbacks....

Another strange notion permeating this forum - and probably the entire Progressive intellectual class in America - is the belief that if you can measure things, you can control them. Thus, an endless regurgitation of statistics, which, after a while, resembles liturgical incantation and, pretty much, serves the same purpose, namely an obsessive-compulsive ritual aimed at calming the nerves. If it was, after all, techno-magic that led us to poison the oceans and upset the calibration of the earth's atmosphere, then maybe fresh applications of magic can make all those bad things go away, fighting fire with fire, shall we say.
As you can tell, Kunstler has no faith in the abilility of T in the equation I = P*A*T to decrease the environmental impact of population and affluence, but that's a subject for another entry.

Instead, I'll point out that, while "techno-narcissism" is a catchy term, a clever meme, and a good insult for people who don't agree with his view of the world, he really doesn't connect his targets' uncritical faith with narcissism, at least not in his essays. Instead, it's more a case of delusion, denial, and bargaining. On the other hand, Walters does a better job of pointing out the narcissism in the human-centered world view implicit in these schemes for technology saving civilization as well as the natural world. It really is all about us.

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