By Kristen Linsalata
The notion that reviving extinct animals is merely science fiction is rapidly changing within the scientific community. With recent developments, it seems that the possibility that an extinct animal could re-enter the world might not be as implausible as it once seemed. In fact, it seems to be no longer a mere possibility, but a reality that could be happening within the next few years.
One might believe that these developments could only be made by the clichéd mad scientist, equipped with a large bifocal and goggle combination, neglected hair, evil grin, and suspicious looking chemicals. However, the forerunner of this scientific revolution, Ben Novak, is only a couple of years older than the average LIU Post student.
At the age of 16, Novak visited The Science Museum of Minnesota for the first time. It was there that he was overcome by the majesty of the passenger pigeon. In that moment, he vowed to dedicate his life to resurrecting some of the Earth’s lost and forgotten species, starting with the beloved passenger pigeon, the New York Times Magazine reported in Nathaniel’s Rich’s article, “The Mammoth Cometh” on Feb. 27.
Novak, who is now 27 years old, is working with Revive & Restore, an organization a part of The Long Now Foundation. He is also partnered with the National Geographic Society that is dedicated to genetic rescue for endangered and extinct species, and a team of scientists that believe that the first resurrected passenger pigeon, a species that went extinct when the last captive pigeon died on Sept. 1, 1914, will be re-entered into the ecosystem by 2025.
While these advancements in the field of “de-extinction” seem to be progressing rapidly, Novak and other prominent scientists in the field, such as Beth Shapiro, an evolutionary molecular biologist that is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, have been waiting for the passenger pigeon’s genome sequencing to be completed for over a decade. According to the New York Times article, if scientists are successful in culturing a germ cell from the passenger pigeon’s closest relative, known as the band-tailed pigeon, then they will be able to replace chunks of the band-tailed-pigeon’s DNA with synthesized chunks of the passenger pigeon DNA, until the cell’s genome matches their working passenger pigeon genome.
To the layman, this process seems extensive and improbable. However, scientifically, not only can it be done, but also it has been done before. In 2003, scientist Alberto Fernandez-Arias, the head of the Service of Hunting, Fishing and Wetlands in the Aragon government and an advisor for the Revive & Restore organization, revived a bucardo, a mountain goat subspecies that went extinct in 2000. However, the resurrected bucardo did not survive due to a lung defect. While the attempt was unsuccessful, it opened up the school of thought that enabled citizens of the world to see that “de-extinction” is something that is truly possible and attainable in this new age.
“I think this is just part of evolving scientific technology,” said Katie Gambino, a sophomore Journalism major. “Scientists have been trying for generations to come up with this technology, and the fact that they have finally come up with this is really interesting.”
However, some people don’t share Gambino’s sentiment that these scientific advances are necessarily a positive thing. Stuart Pimm, the Doris Duke Chair of Conservation Ecology at Duke University, presents the case against species revival and asserts that the conservation of species still alive should take precedence.
In Pimm’s article for National Geographic entitled, “Opinion: The Case Against Species Revival,” he states that the reintroduction of zoo-bred species that have gone extinct in the wild will only cause more questions, not answers. The climate has changed tremendously in the last century, and the habitat of these extinct species is no longer in tact. This raises the question: where would these revived animals live and prosper?
Pimm also asserts that “de-extinction” will only enable people to ignore the issues surrounding the endangerment of our current species, and sends the message that the persistent damage that we cause ecologically can be simply erased. Third, Pimm believes that the money spent on this endeavor is a colossal waste. The species that have gone extinct have done so for reasons largely attributed to people’s mistreatment of the environment and the species itself. If a species becomes extinct, how can we ensure that it won’t become extinct again? Most importantly, how could we send a message that ignoring our neglect and abuse of the environment and of the animal kingdom is justifiable because we can simply turn back the hands of time with scientific technology?
Some students are taking on the animal activist perspective, and don’t believe that “de-extinction” is ethical. Danielle Sposato, a sophomore English major, believes that to tamper with issues involving life and death is morally wrong.
“Being a huge supporter of animal rights, I really don’t approve of this idea,” Sposato said. “We have to think about how this could affect the animal. Obviously, once brought back from extinction, scientists aren’t just going to let them frolic in the wild freely; they are going to be experimented on, they are going to be observed. I don’t think it’s right. I don’t think it’s fair for them.”
Something that she’s the most fearful of is that this expenditure could spawn the pursuit of resurrecting different living things, including human beings. Sposato raises a point, where will these revivals stop? Only time will tell if the world is ready to meet where “de-extinction” is leading us, and if we, as a people, are ready to deal with the consequences that may ensue.