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Extinction and the Reset Button



I’ve just finished reading The Re-origin of Species, by Torill Kornfeldt (2016 in the original Swedish). The English translation is just barely out in Australia and the UK; here in North America it’s slated for a November release. (I scored an early copy from a publisher eager for blurbs.) Re-origin is about the burgeoning de-extinction— well, movement seems too coherent a term for what appears to be a few dozen labs scattered around the world, more often than not operating on shoestrings budgets and shoehorned in around the edges of other more respectable projects, laboring towards goals that range from transmuting chickens into velociraptors all the way over to inundating parking lots with bird shit. Maybe cause. Maybe revolution.

Anyway, it’s a good book. It was easy to blurb. I learned a lot of new stuff, and was reminded about a lot of old stuff— because as it happens, I wrote a column for Nowa Fantastyka on this very subject, way back in 2014. Strangely I can’t find it anywhere on the ‘crawl; I don’t think I ever recycled it here.

Until now.


The Reset Button

(A Nowa Fantastyka remix, now with Recent Insights!)

Resurrection is a wonderful thing in video games.  No matter how many zombies eat your brains, no matter how many skyscrapers fall on you, no matter how many times the Big Daddy smacks you across the room with skeleton-shattering force, you’re always back in the game for the price of a 30-second reload and the few minutes since your last save. Sure, it may make you a bit reckless— you end up taking chances and trying insane Hail-Mary strategies you’d never risk in real life— but it’s only a game, right?  And what’s the alternative: being cautious, being careful? Acting as though one life is all you’ll ever have? Give me backups, every time. When immersed in a video game, the Reset button is a godsend.

In real life, maybe not so much.

It’s been nearly thirty years since Gregory Benford first advocated the collection of DNA from the world’s endangered species, a genetic Noah’s Ark to serve as a fallback measure for those inevitable and myriad cases when conservation didn’t work (or more likely, when it wasn’t even attempted). It may have seemed fringe then— the essay actually appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction— but these days, so-called “de-extinction” is all over the news. We’re bringing back the mammoth and the passenger pigeon  (something like them, anyway). We’ve already resurrected the Pyrenean ibex— for seven minutes at least, before its collapsed lungs caused it to suffocate in agony. England’s Frozen Ark project is on track to store DNA samples from twenty thousand of the world’s most endangered animals; Norway maintains a vast underground seed vault to do the same for crops. The New York Times had an extensive profile of the whole de-extinction thing in their Sunday Edition a few years back. De-extinction is all over TEDx.

As you might imagine, the very premise is controversial (back in 2014 PLoS Biology reviewed the debate swirling around the subject; it swirls still[1]). Proponents point out the myriad sins that can be undone, the vital ecological nodes that can be restored. The dodo, the sabre-tooth cat, all those species we’ve wiped out over the centuries: brought back not from the brink, but from the very grave. Detractors point to items on their own lists: the thing that comes back won’t be the same as the thing that went away, for one thing. The need to gestate the resurrectee within the womb of a related (non-extinct) creature introduces a host of developmental complications; the injection of its nuclear DNA into the egg of a living relative means that its mitochondrial DNA will belong to the extant mother, not the extinct father. We wouldn’t be bringing back the dead, some argue; we’d be creating some new hybrid of extinct and extant, some bastard fusion never before seen on the planet.

Others point out that ecosystems which have equilibriated to some new state might be thrown out of kilter all over again by the reintroduction of long-absent species (how would the Arctic respond to the reappearance of thousands of woolly mammoths stomping across the tundra?). And what about the ethics of bringing something back using techniques which only work in once in a while? What about the suffering and death inflicted upon all those also-rans who die convulsing at birth because their parts didn’t link up the right way? And perhaps the most profound misgiving: if extinction isn’t forever, why even worry about it? If we wipe something out, we can just hit the reset button; bring it back again.

I’m not convinced by the Hybrid objection. The point of de-extinction is not to recreate a pristine snapshot of the past, but to restore functional ecological relationships; if an elephant-mammoth hybrid occupies the same niche as a purebred mammoth once did, who cares about racial purity? And the Ethics Argument seems legitimate only in terms of the current state-of-the-art, which is bound to improve. Arguing that we shouldn’t ever use these techniques because they cause pain and suffering today is tantamount to arguing against cell phones because you can’t fit a rotary dialer into your pocket.

As for the disruptive effect of of reintroducing old species into extant ecosystems— well, that’s actually the point of the exercise. Extant ecosystems— impoverished, weedy— could benefit from a bit of disruption. Adding predators to a system changes the behavior of the herbivores, motivates them to avoid some areas and frequent others; this allows the untouched patches to go their own way, increasing the overall dimensionality of the habitat. Massive storms of resurrected passenger pigeons would process and redistribute seeds and nutrients all over the place (including your windshield, but we all have to make sacrifices). Mammoths— get this— mammoths would knock over trees, keep forests in check, and allow more productive steppe-lands to make a comeback. (Out in Siberia, even as we speak— according to Kornfeldt’s book— Soviet biologists are joyriding around in an old armored Soviet personnel carrier, bashing into trees as a kind of ecological mammoth-surrogate.)

Multiply by 300,000. Save the planet.

Multiply by 300,000. Save the planet.

The most mind-boggling ecological justification for bringing back mammoths, though, has to be the claim that they could help mitigate climate change. We’re in for a world of hurt when the carbon currently locked in the melting permafrost gets out, you see; and one way to slow that melting is to reduce the insulative effect of the snow that shelters the ground from the bitter cold of Arctic winters. And one way to do that is— wait for it— trample the snow flat under the piledriver feet of thousands upon thousands of mammoths, resurgent upon the Arctic landscapes of Canada and Russia.

(Hey, I’m not saying I buy it. I’m just saying people have put it out there. Apparently they’ve even run the numbers.)

The Reset Argument carries more weight for me— but not because of some video-game scenario where we boot up endless backups to keep things humming along. My fear is the exact opposite— because at some point, extinction won’t be such a big deal any more. So we’ve wiped out another species. So what? Just squirt a dab of DNA from the dearly departed into an egg from a close relative, roll the stone away, command Lazarus to come forth. As one of Blindsight‘s epigraphs puts it: “Species used to go extinct.  Now they go on hiatus.” Nothing dies forever. We can bring it back again, any time we feel like it.

Just not today.

The economy’s a bit weak right now, you see. The mortgage bubble looks like it might burst again; wouldn’t want to start something and then run out of funding halfway through, would we? Or maybe we should wait until we know a bit more about how climate change is going to rearrange our coastlines— no point in bringing back the Florida panther if its habitat is going to be wiped out by rising sea levels anyway. But no problems, no hurry; we have the technology. We’ll get around to it. Eventually.

Here in the real world, I fear, the natural tendency to restore from backup will be the exact opposite of what it is in Fallout or Witcher 3. It’s not that we’ll hit the Reset button too often. It’s that— complacent and comfortable in the knowledge that it’s always there— we won’t use it at all.


[1] Be sure to read the comments, in which the scientist Powledge takes her shots at fires back a few of his own.

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