By Gregory E. Kaebnick
This past November, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature declared the western black rhinoceros of Africa, last seen in 2006, officially extinct. It also concluded that most other rhino species are in danger, even “teetering.” Yet at the same time, over the past year, some scientists and others have been declaring that the woolly rhino — last seen, oh, 10,000 years or so ago — could soon not be extinct. Along with a small but growing host of recently expired species, it might undergo “de-extinction”: we could sequence and then synthesize its genome, and then use the genome to synthesize the animals themselves. The work requires a combination of genetic and reproductive technologies. One route would be to extract DNA from a reasonably well-preserved specimen of the ancient animal (several have been found in Siberian ice and one in a Polish tar pit), reconstruct the overall genome, insert the genome into an enucleated egg taken from a living rhino species, stimulate the egg so that it becomes an embryo, and bring the embryo to term in a living rhino. Some first forays have already been taken at the early steps in this process.
Is this good news for a conservationist? Seen one way, de-extinction is an answer to extinction — not the only, and surely not the best, but an interesting and exciting fallback option. Seen another way, it is a distraction from the core issues threatening species, which mostly have to do with over-hunting and habitat destruction. Seen yet another way, both de-extinction and human-caused extinction are part of the same phenomenon – of the wave of human activity that is remaking the world in almost every conceivable way. Given the growing human influence on the chemistry of the atmosphere and the oceans, nature has arguably now ended, as the science journalist Bill McKibben has memorably put it. And given the science that makes de-extinction possible — notably, synthetic biology and assisted reproductive technologies — nature may be fading not only from the environment at large but also from particular organisms. At least, that is how many interpret the development of genetically modified organisms, which many regard as unnatural.
Yet defending nature is difficult, and not only because it seems to be giving way on so many fronts, but because the very idea of nature has been under assault. One criticism is that we are often wrong about it. Environmental phenomena thought to be entirely natural are in fact artificial to at least some degree. The Great Plains of North America, for example, were actively maintained as plains through regular burning carried out by the people who lived there. A second criticism is that, according to some thinkers, the idea of nature is just incoherent. The belief that nature must be protected from human activity suggests (hold these critics) that nature is a pristine, pure realm from which humans are excluded — that human activity is somehow unnatural. That seems bizarre. Yet if humans are part of nature, then what is unnatural, exactly, about the human activity that supposedly threatens nature, and why try to protect nature as something apart from humans?
This is the foundational challenge posed by de-extinction. It plays into criticism of the very idea of nature. To preserve nature has mostly meant to restrain or limit human interference with it. But with de-extinction, preservation is interference with nature. Indeed, de-extinction can look like an attempted coup, in which technology overtakes nature and preservation as usually understood is eliminated. Preserve creation? We can recreate it. As synthetic biologist George Church captured it in the title of a 2012 book, we can achieve “regenesis.”
I suspect that for many critics of de-extinction, the possibility that these technologies effect a shift in thinking about how to balance human activity in the world with conservation of the world is what initially gives them pause, and perhaps remains an underlying misgiving even though the explicit objections to de-extinction are framed in terms of its possible consequences. De-extinction threatens preservationism at the level of its premises, not just its practices. It might redirect our attention from nature as a thing to be preserved to nature as a realm for unrestricted human activity.
If this is right, then the decision about whether to bring back the wooly rhinoceros depends partly on questions such as, What does “nature” mean? What should the human relationship to nature be? How should those views affect public policy? The criticisms of the idea of nature have established that “nature” cannot refer to a pure and pristine realm that is entirely distinct from anything human. Yet to think of nature as something worth preserving in and of itself, apart from its benefits to humans, is to think of it as at least partially distinct from human activity. The preservationist’s question about de-extinction is whether an ingenious technological intervention into nature can also advance the preservationist goal of leaving nature alone.
Gregory E. Kaebnick is the editor of the Hastings Center Report, a scholar at The Hastings Center, and author of Humans in Nature: The World As We Find It and the World As We Create It.