Will it one day be possible to bring a woolly mammoth or a Neanderthal back to life? If so, should we? How is climate change affecting the evolution and extinction of species?
These are some of the questions explored in science writer Maura O’Connor’s new book, Resurrection Science: Conservation, De-Extinction And The Precarious Future of Wild Things.
Traveling the world from Kenya (in search of the white rhino) to a lab in California (where a geneticist is trying to resurrect the extinct passenger pigeon), O’Connor reports on the people and places on the front lines of what has become known as resurrection science.
Talking from her home in Brooklyn, she explains why the White Sands pupfish of New Mexico would have amazed Charles Darwin; how it may become increasingly necessary to genetically engineer species in order to save them; and why she has no plans to volunteer as a surrogate mother for a baby Neanderthal.
Courtesy St. Martin’s Press
You write, “When I was a kid in the 1990s, the world felt like it was on the edge of catastrophe.” Wind back the clock for us and explain how those childhood experiences got you interested in the question of extinctions.
I grew up in California, where kids are taught to conserve water from an early age. The early ’90s was also a time when the idea that we need to save species at risk because of habitat destruction, pollution, and deforestation, was making news. When I was 14, I read Douglas Adams’s amazing book, Last Chance to See, which made a huge impression on me.
Resurrection is a word normally associated with Jesus. That’s not what you mean, is it?
[Laughs] It’s only recently become a term used to describe the de-extinction effort. The reason I wanted it as the title for the book is that in the next decades we could be bringing back species from the dead, so to speak.
In the next decades we could be bringing back species from the dead.
This recalls Biblical mythology, and yet it is all about science. How can we use our scientific and technological mastery to do something we’d have thought miraculous not that long ago? By trying to de-extinct species, we’re bringing together two very different things: mythology and science.
You write, “Humans are in the midst of an unplanned experiment of influencing the evolution of the planet’s biodiversity.” Explain the role of climate change and the concept of “rapid evolution.”
Most of us are aware that climate change is altering habitats and environments. What we don’t necessarily think about is that by changing habitats and environments, we’re influencing the forces that act upon evolution.
Changes are now happening so quickly that they appear to be driving some species towards extinction because they can’t adapt fast enough. Climate change is also driving adaptations that speed up evolution.
You can see species changing in response to their environment in a couple of decades.
The example I write about is a species called the White Sands pup fish, in New Mexico. Four populations of this fish are located in a small area in the Tulurosa Basin. What biologists have learned studying them is that evolution occurs much faster than Darwin believed, and faster even than biologists believed 30 years ago. You can see species like the White Sands pupfish changing in response to their environment in a couple of decades. That’s pretty spectacular and scientists are becoming aware that this kind of rapid evolution is occurring in other species, like Chinook salmon or soapberry bugs.
The taxidermist’s art made this lifeless passenger pigeon lifelike. The birds went extinct in North America in 1914, but a geneticist in California now hopes to bring them back.
Photograph by Robb Kendrick, National Geographic Creative
One of the problems conservationists face is that there’s no clear definition of what a species is. Explain “the species problem” and how this can alter an animal’s status.
The species problem is essentially, how do we define a species? Before the 19th century, people believed a species was divinely created and had fixed identities. Thanks to Darwin, we know that species change.
But how do we define where a species begins and ends? Genetic sequencing compounds the problem because we can now look into the genetic makeup of an animal and see how closely—or not—it’s related to a distant relative.
How you define a species can also alter its legal status under the Endangered Species Act. A species may be protected, but its subspecies may not be. That’s why it matters for conservationists to have an accepted definition of what a species is and is not.
Sometimes conservationists have to work with strange bedfellows. Tell us about Roy McBride and the attempts to restore the Florida panther.
I wanted to understand how there came to be a small population of panthers living in Florida, north of Miami and south of Disney World. When I started speaking to folks involved in the conservation effort, it became clear that McBride had played a central role.
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