When I was 19 I spent a month in Tasmania in winter. For three weeks I worked on a farm on Bruny Island for room and board, taking my days off to climb the bluffs by Cloudy Bay, where I could sit and watch the Southern Ocean fall off the bottom of the world. Then I headed to the mainland, to Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park, and walked the Overland Track. The weather was bad, and in the huts I slept in at night I was typically alone to pore over my tattered map and its captivating place names: The Walls of Jerusalem, The Mountains of Jupiter, The Acropolis. I read Siddhartha by headlamp and hated it.
On my fourth day on the Track it was snowing hard as I pulled into camp at dusk. For once, the hut was already occupied: A wiry man in his 60s was boiling water for dinner on a steel counter, dressed fully in wool, his face wreathed with an unkempt gray beard. “Very Hall of the Mountain King, isn’t it?” he said with a grin as I set down my pack, waving at the cavernously high roof. Happy for company, I pulled up a stool and we began to chat—about the weather, the route, his long career in the bush with the state geological survey. Inevitably, our conversation turned to the thylacine, Tasmania’s famous, extinct marsupial wolf. Had he ever seen it? Did he believe reports that it was still out there somewhere? “I don’t think it’s still around,” he said, pouring me wine from a canteen. “But if I did, I’ll tell you exactly where I’d look.”
If you want to know what he said next you’ll have to buy me a beer sometime. The thylacine is almost certainly gone. But hope for the species persists, rooted less in the long odds of a rediscovery than in the possibility of its ‘de-extinction’ through gene editing and embryology. Though far from the first team to float the idea, a company called Colossal Biosciences has recently gone public with an ambitious de-extinction agenda that includes the thylacine as well as several other iconic extinct species. Colossal is flush with venture capital and academic partnerships to boost its legitimacy, and news of its successful second round of financing brought attention and skepticism. (“What’s the business model here? Selling dodo eggs?”, the geneticist Andy Kern quipped on Twitter.)
There are philosophical, practical, and ethical problems with de-extinction, relitigated with each media boomlet. Is an engineered thylacine from a surrogate womb really the same thing? How will it learn to hunt? Wouldn’t the money be better spent on the many endangered species that are still with us today? To its credit, Colossal seems aware of the reputation of its discipline, dedicating ample text on its website to claims that its research program and resources would benefit conservation more broadly. Yet doing so merely underscores the reality that this goal alone would have not have garnered anywhere near the same level of interest from investors. In an era of ecological crises with underfunded solutions, why is de-extinction so appealing?
Some of it is the Jurassic Park effect, of course. But I think there’s more to it than that. A few years before his death my family and I had breakfast with the pioneering conservation biologist Michael Soulé in a diner in western Colorado. At the time he was wrestling with an unpublished manuscript on the concept of sin in our relationship with the natural world, work that would occupy the remainder of his life. At the Dawn of Man, greed and gluttony might have been adaptive, he argued. Now they imperil our own existence, as well as those of other species. How do we change course? How do we atone?
You can probably see where I’m going with this. The allure of de-extinction is more religious than scientific; a miracle we can perform to restore a state before the Fall. Collosal’s profile of the dodo trumpets the phrase “Native Habitat: Paradise”; the road back to Eden, they suggest, begins with CRISPR. But 1662 was a long time ago, and the Garden is now full of rats. It has always been easier to wave a Bible around than live according to its message.
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Great read! Thank you