On February 5th, 2015 a special conference on de-extinction titled, “De-extinction: Rescue or Boondoggle?” was held at the Memorial Union. Coming a few days after Elizabeth Kolbert’s visit to OSU to present on her recent publication The Sixth Extinction, the question of large-scale species loss was on the minds of those in attendance. Here two graduate students from History of Science discuss some of the talks given at the conference!
We Have Always Been De-Extincting –Elizabeth Nielsen
Or at least, that’s historian Luis Campos’ claim. The Oregon State University School of History, Philosophy, and Religion and the Horning Endowment for the Humanities recently hosted a symposium on the phenomenon of synthetic biology, or de-extinction. Current Horning Professor Anita Guerrini organized the well-attended and fascinating conference.
The recent idea of de-extinction, as explained by Susan Haig, an Oregon State ornithologist, involves any number of methods of returning the extinct species (or at least similar species) back to Earth. Backcrossing involves continued breeding for traits (or a phenotypic similarity anyway); cloning involves making a genetically similar copy of an individual; and genomic editing is what it would take to bring back the passenger pigeon. The realistic probability of these ideas varies, but the ideas are still there.
With this in mind, historian Luis Campos presented the idea that we have always been de-extincting. How? What? If this is such a recent – and futuristic – technology, what do you mean, Dr. Campos? Naturally, Campos takes a historical approach to explore how creating dinosaurs in museums, growing maize, and other representations of extinct species have formed what he calls the “cultural imaginary,” or bringing species not literally back to life, but rather in the mind of the viewer.
Following this cultural imaginary, then, Campos also asserts that visions of the past and future have always informed science. We, as a society, are deeply familiar with the language and discourse about de-extinction, whether or not we know it. While the idea of “Jurassic Park” remains the most prominent cultural reference for de-extinction, natural history museums are also clear examples of de-extinction. Just think of the dinosaur in the lobby at the Natural History Museum in New York, or of the Great Auk at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. Cultural depictions abound with ideas about auks or dinosaurs or any number of other, also extinct, animals. In a world that is facing rapid loss of biodiversity and increasing rates of extinction, is de-extinction an answer? What does Campos’ “cultural imaginary” do for the idea of de-extinction if we have always been de-extincting?
Saving Extinct Species: Does it Sell? –Matt McConnell
In a presentation titled, Next-Generation Persuasion: The Pitch for De-extinction, George Estreich discussed de-extinction from a rhetorical perspective. For Estreich the question is not whether or not this practice is wise or ethical, but how the technology is being marketed and portrayed to potential investors. The Long Now Foundation’s project serves to coordinate and fundraise what it terms ‘genetic rescue’. Estreich explains that the problem with founder Stewart Brand’s goal is that the public must be made to feel emotionally positive toward it.
First, the presentation needs to be appealing. Interactive paintings in a 19th century naturalist style grace the Revive and Restore site’s front page, allowing the user to learn about the extinct species represented. Second, the technical and conceptual complexity of the actual process of de-extinction is diminished. It is communicated as a clear and simple graphic: a procedure with a definite result. By placing this highly technical process on a continuum with ‘reintroduction and recovery’ of a species on one end, and ’total extinction’ on the other, de-extinction is promoted as a natural addition to other conservation efforts. Careful word choices in these diagrams and descriptions, such as ‘revival’, ‘restoration’, and ‘rescue’ promote association of the project with positive goals.
Estreich likens the marketing strategy to that of ‘Natera’, a company that offers non-invasive, prenatal genetic testing for pregnant women. “These pictures are chosen for a reason,” he asserts while showing various advertisements related to Natera’s testing service. The ads show model husbands and wives laughing and smiling in beautiful homes filled with soft light, holding their perfectly healthy children. The text urges the buyer to make the right choice. “They chose these pictures just like (The Long Now Foundation) chose their artist,” Estreich continues. “They just did it with a different audience in mind.” Then Estreich moves on to a Natera image showing the genetic testing process, and again the comparison is clear. The image shows chromosomes being zapped up and, in few easy steps the health of your unborn child can be determined.
Whether or not this strategy works, and de-extinction sells, remains to be seen. In the final analysis, the question is, “Who is buying”, and “Why?” For the answer, we may not need to look any farther than our immediate consumer culture. Maybe by the time Jurassic Park 7 comes out, we won’t need to go to the movies to see it!