Torill Kornfeldt’s new book The Re-Origin of Species: A Second Chance For Extinct Animals is a collection of dispatches from the frontlines of the science of de-extinction — reviving extinct species. The chapters brim with enthusiasm, fear and nostalgia, as she zips from frozen landscapes of Siberia to research labs in America, learning about woolly mammoths, passenger pigeons and the bison-like aurochs. As a science journalist in Sweden, she’s no stranger to wrestling with scientific questions and ethical challenges, and guides readers with ease. Excerpts from an interview with BL ink .
What excited you about writing The Re-Origin of Species?
We live in a time where humans are affecting nature in innumerable and almost immeasurable ways, from global issues like climate change and pollution to local ones such as deforestation and poaching. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and depressed. So when I came across projects of de-extinction, I was really struck by the optimism of these scientists trying to make the world a better place. Bringing back replicas of extinct species might not always be the best solution, and there are many problems, but I found it really refreshing and interesting.
In the book, there seems to be two distinct camps when it comes to de-extinction as an idea: Optimistic geneticists and technologists versus pessimistic ecologists and conservationists.
Yes, you can clearly see two distinct lines of thought that divide the geneticists and engineers compared to the ecologists and conservationists. Both have good causes for their standpoint: There have been a lot of cases throughout history where well-meaning humans have caused great harm when trying to “fix” nature, but, on the other hand, there have also been great successes within genetic technologies that might be put to very good use to save species on the verge of extinction.
What I find interesting are the tentative attempts of these two traditions to meet each other and work together. I really think you need both views balancing each other to move forward, and I see that starting to happen now.
In the book, you describe how scientists are editing the genes of Asian Elephants to recreate mammoths. Is an “actual” mammoth possible? Or will we only ever be able to get a “cold-resistant Asian Elephant”, as once scientist described it?
An actual mammoth, as in a genetic copy of a mammoth that once lived, will never be possible. The genetic material and the cells that have been found are much too damaged for that. What might become possible, given a few scientific breakthroughs, is an elephant that carries mammoth traits and that might end up looking like a mammoth. So, a mammothified elephant.
Obviously, it’s tremendously exciting to talk about bringing extinct creatures back to life. But are there better reasons to try and bring back a mammoth or an auroch?
One reason is basically the scientific journey of discovery, and the challenge of trying to push scientific boundaries. It’s easy to think of Frankenstein-scenarios when you hear expressions like this, but so many amazing discoveries that made our lives better have come out of pure curiosity. You could see the trials to make a mammoth like the moon landing, and whether we get there or not, we are sure to learn a lot along the way.
The auroch is a slightly different story. There is definitely a need for a big, grazing animal in Europe today. As more and more farmers are abandoning land in Europe, and as shrubs and trees move into former meadows and pastures there is a need for grazers to keep the landscape open. That, in turn, will save a huge number of plants, insects, birds and small animals from going extinct as their ecosystem disappears. So the argument for releasing something like an auroch in Europe is a strong one, in my eyes. The main problem is finding a way for the animals to coexist with humans without causing too much trouble.
It seems that our society’s relationship with nature is a problem. We want a rich, natural world but, at the same time, we want it to be sanitised.
We humans dream of a wild, untouched nature and we tend to have very romantic notions about what that is and how it should function. A kind of “Disney” version of nature that comes from everything from the garden of Eden to nature documentaries. Whereas nature, in reality, is always messy, complex and hard to predict.
You describe many cautionary tales of invasive species and the damage they can pose when introduced into an environment. Are recently extinct animals such as the White Rhino safer from a conservation point of view?
There are several advantages to bringing back a more recently extinct species, or helping a species to recover from the brink of extinction. One is that there is still a space available for them in the ecosystem, so to speak. No other species has moved in to fill their niche, and the ecosystem hasn’t changed in response to their disappearance. The problem is that the thing that drove them to extinction might still exist. If, for example, 20 cloned individuals of the Northern White Rhino were released tomorrow, they would likely be killed by poachers within a few weeks. So, before we solve the problem of poachers there is no point in bringing them back. And, hopefully, we can do that before the ecology in the landscape changes too much in their absence.
Thomas Manuel is a Chennai-based writer. He is the winner of The Hindu Playwright Award 2016
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