De-Extinction: Building Future Worlds with Extinct Organisms?

For decades, conservationists have worked to minimize human impacts and restore landscapes. Today, global climate change threatens the efficacy of their efforts, prompting them to consider interventions that many would have deemed heretical—and technologically impossible—only a generation prior.

De-extinction, the proposed revival or re-creation of extinct species using synthetic biology, has recently become a focal point in these debates. On April 23, 2014 the UCSC Science and Justice Working Group will host a symposium, “De-Extinction: Building Future Worlds with Extinct Organisms?” Panelists include Beth Shapiro (Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, UCSC and National Geographic Emerging Explorer) Oliver Ryder (Director of Genetics and Kleberg Chair, San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research), Paul Koch (UCSC Dean of Physical & Biological Sciences, Professor of Earth & Planetary Sciences), and Brian Switek (science writer, National Geographic blogs) and Allen Thompson (Oregon State University, Philosophy). Donna Haraway (Distinguished Professor Emerita, UCSC History of Consciousness Department) will provide closing commentary.

Proposals for de-extinction have sparked many conversations in bioethics and conservation science. Our hope for this symposium is to deepen the discussion by engaging questions of science and justice. We will consider the fundamental principles that shape our visions of a flourishing future for all species on the planet, and re-examine longstanding questions about the constitution of and proper relations between science, technology, and nature. The question at the center of our discussions will be: What kind of future world(s) do we want to make, and what role, if any, should engineered species have in it?

In the first panel, “Conservation and Biotechnology: For Whose Good?” speakers will explore the role of biotechnology in conservation efforts. While conservation historically has focused on the well-being of non-human species and systems, biotechnology mostly has been directed at advancing human ends. Yet many conservationists are now eager to adopt new biotechnological tools to aid their scientific research and conservation agendas, including some who favor de-extinction and possible spin-off techniques. We will discuss what challenges may arise as conservationists make use of scientific infrastructures and ethical concepts that mostly have been directed to the betterment of humans.

The second panel, “Science, Media and Spectacle: How Does Media Support, Threaten, or Change the De-extinction Agenda?” will explore the powerful imaginaries of de-extinction that have animated the public conversation. Media spectacle is central to de-extinction.  The question for the panel will be:  relates to scientific practice, policy and funding.

De-extinction has captured public attention in a way that other conservation topics rarely do. The past year has seen a proliferation of media coverage of the topic, including cover stories in the National Geographic Magazine and New York Times Sunday Magazine, a TEDx conference, and is the subject of a vibrant twitter discussion (#deextinction). Such attention and excitement brings in funders and participants, but also may generate conflict with other conservation research, practices and goals.  Excitement generated by this coverage often overlooks the central question: Which values, research agendas and techniques should guide conservation practices and our collective multi-species futures in an age of extinction?

The symposium builds on a series of ongoing Science & Justice Working Group conversations about justice in a more than human world.

Agenda:

2:00-2:15       Introduction

2:15-3:30       Panel I: Conservation and Biotechnology: For Whose Good?

Panelists:

Oliver Ryder (Director of Genetics and Kleberg Chair at San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research; Adjunct Professor of Biology, UCSD)

Paul Koch (Dean of Physical and Biological Sciences, UCSC)

Beth Shapiro (Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, UCSC)

3:30-3:45       Break

3:45-5:45       Panel II: Science, Media and Spectacle: How Does Media Support, Threaten or

                      Change the De-extinction Agenda?

Panelists:

Allen Thompson (Associate Professor of Philosophy, Oregon State University)

Brian Switek (Freelance Science Writer and Author, Phenomena-National Geographic)

Jake Metcalf (Assistant Director, Science and Justice Research Center, UCSC)

Commentator: 

Donna Haraway (Distinguished Professor Emerita of History of Consciousness, UCSC)

5:45-6:00       Conclusion

Wednesday April 23, 2014 | 2:00-6:00 pm |Engineering 2, Room 599

A UCSC campus news article appears here.

"De-Extinction: Building Future Worlds with Extinct Organisms?"
SJWG Rapporteur Report
23 October 2014
Rapporteur Report by Lizzy Hare and Tracy Ballinger
This symposium sought to extend conversations about de-extinction to questions about
justice. Symposium organizers Jake Metcalf, Lizzy Hare, and Tracy Ballinger asked symposium
speakers to consider the question: What kind of future world(s) do we want to make, and what
role, if any, should engineered species have in it? The symposium was split into two panels. The
first panel, Conservation and Biotechnology: For Whose Good?, featured Oliver Ryder (Director
of Genetics and Kleberg Chair at San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research and
Adjunct Professor of Biology, UC San Diego), Paul Koch (Dean of Physical and Biological
Sciences, UCSC), and Beth Shapiro (Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology,
UCSC). This panel explored what we should expect as biotechnology is brought to bear on
conservation problems, and how these disciplines’ visions of a more just future for humans, nonhuman
species, and ecosystems might converge or diverge.

Science & Justice Research Center director Jenny Reardon provided opening comments.
She asked us to consider how we have come to this moment of world-building, and to what is at
stake.

The first speaker, Oliver Ryder, presented examples from the Frozen Zoo, which is a
biobank that is collecting and archiving frozen tissue, DNA, gametes, and even viable diploid
cells from threatened and endangered species. The Frozen Zoo and similar projects aim to
facilitate the genetic rescue of critically endangered species by expanding genetic diversity and
increasing a population base. Ryder suggested that genetic rescue projects are preferable to
“true” de-extinction, and that really what needs to be done to save species is to save ecosystems
and habitat. Technological interventions, such as captive breeding, genetic rescue and
translocation can help, but will not ultimately prevent extinction of the species’ habitat simply
does not exist.

Paul Koch began his presentation with the reminder that extinction is forever. Even if deextinction
technology was able to produce a perfect genetic match with the extinct species
(which it will not) that was successfully brought to term using the help of a compatible surrogate
(which is unlikely) we still face a significant challenge with regard to proper socialization. He
reminded us of the case of the California condor which developed a troublesome affinity for
humans despite extensive efforts to properly socialize the chicks. While this might seem a minor
nuisance, it could ultimately be a significant social challenge. He asked us to imagine, for a
moment, how conservation efforts would handle the public relations difficulties that might come
from hundreds of thousands of de-extinct passenger pigeons swarming the skies over our cities
and defecating on our cars. Because de-extinction would create organisms “inspired” by the
dead, Koch asked the audience to consider de-extinction as an “act of artistic creation.” Because
of this, he suggested that de-extinction needs to justify itself, especially because most of the
supposed benefits of de-extinction could be achieved at a lower cost and with a higher
probability of success if they are done through rewilding efforts. Like some perspectives on deextinction,
re-wilding accepts that the nature/culture dichotomy is no longer a useful way to view
the world, because humans have made significant changes to virtually every landscape, and
therefore it is humans’ moral obligation to care for that world, even if it means treating it as a
managed landscape. Creative landscape management can work to preserve species and
ecosystem services, thus over time reducing the need for intensive efforts like de-extinction.

Beth Shapiro echoed many of the same concerns as the panelists before her. She began
by reiterating the infeasibility of de-extinction projects. In many cases, the kinds of cells that
would be necessary simply aren’t available. Chimeras, hybrids, or other forms of organisms
“inspired by” extinct species would be a best-case scenario. Even if this “best-case” scenario
was made possible, there would continue to be other issues. Like Ryder and Koch, Shapiro
pointed out that in many cases we still have not addressed the cause of the extinctions. Habitat
loss continues to be an issue for most threatened species, and global climate change will only
exacerbate this issue. The case of the California condor is a good example of the challenges that
are faced when efforts are made to release animals from captivity that have never been in the
wild and lack proper socialization and behavior training. Curiosity has been invoked as one of
the driving forces behind these efforts, but we need to seriously consider whether curiosity is a
sufficient justification for the suffering and tremendous expense of de-extinction efforts.

In the brief question and answer period after the first panel, Micha Rahder mentioned that
much of the attention around de-extinction has been directed at charismatic species, such as
passenger pigeons and wooly mammoths, but less exciting species might be responsible for
integral ecosystem services. Donna Haraway asked a similar question, wondering about the
microbiological assemblages of extinct species. Shapiro said that this was something that
researchers had considered, but that funders play a large role in pushing for big, charismatic
species. Ryder confirmed this, adding that there is also a bias toward mammals because
researchers have a better understanding of how those might be grown in a laboratory setting. As
for the microbiome of de-extinct species, Shapiro said that it really wasn’t a matter of concern
yet since de-extinction remains such a far-fetched idea.

The Second panel, Science, Media and Spectacle: How Does Media Support, Threaten or
Change the De-extinction Agenda?, featured speakers Allen Thompson (Associate Professor of
Philosophy, Oregon State University), Brian Switek (Freelance Science Writer and Author,
Phenomena -National Geographic), and Jake Metcalf (Assistant Director, Science & Justice
Research Center, UCSC). This panel examined how media spectacle relates to scientific practice,
policy and funding.

The second panel began with Allen Thompson. Thompson proposes that de-extinction be
thought of as “luxury conservation” because most of the considerations of it are technoscience
oriented and, as Koch argued, there are easier, cheaper, and more effective methods for
conservation. Thompson argues that we should instead focus our limited resources on
minimizing future extinctions and increasing the adaptive capacity of extant species. These
efforts might take the form of fairly intensive management strategies, such as assisted migration.
They might also require us to radically reconsider the value of things like novel ecosystems,
which have previously been something conservationists sought to eradicate, but now may be
thought of as valuable because they preserve wildness or resiliency. Thompson ended his talk by
asking us to take the anthropocene concept seriously, and to think about what it requires of
human communities.

Brian Switek offered a change of pace and tone from the other presenters. As a science
writer, he has a good sense of how to engage a diverse audience, and he was successful at
capturing the attention of the attendees with jokes and anecdotes about his work on deextinction.
He talked about how de-extnction has captured public attention in part because it
deals with charismatic megafauna, but also because it serves as a good example of broader
concerns that the public has about science. Most people immediately think of Jurassic Park
when they think about de-extinction, and after some sense of the wonder and spectacle of the
technology, the next thing that people recall is the “Dr. Frankenstein aspect”. That is, people are
concerned that scientists may not be asking themselves key ethical questions. Switek feels that
to some degree, public interest in de-extinction is more about this issue of trust and ethics in
science than it is about a sheer fascination with mammoths. He suggests that we should keep this
in mind during the symposium, and recognize that there is much to learn from the phenomenon
of de-extinction besides actualizing the possibility of making a new species.

Jake Metcalf begins by pointing out that much of the ethical inquiry in media coverage of
de-extinction has been limited to the question of should we or shouldn’t we, as if it were as
simple as pushing a big red button. He explains that framing the question in this way is actually
deceptive because it implies that we have a lot of knowledge about the future, and therefore put a
lot of responsibility on that particular decision. De-extinction disrupts our sense of temporality
and permanence, but it can also teach us about our own sense of care in the present. He asks us
to think about how de-extinction can help us to understand how we might better care for the
world such that threatened creatures or de-extinct creatures are able to thrive. Following up on
some of the ideas that Thompson presented, Metcalf suggests that de-extinction is entangling us
with new, caring bonds.

Final comments were provided by Donna Haraway (Distinguished Professor Emerita of
History of Consciousness, UCSC). She begins her comments by asking, “how can we change
the story?” Her proposed method for changing the story is to “thicken the we” who are included
in the stories. In order to do this, we must ask: who cares, and who and what is at stake? And we
need to cultivate the capacity to respond. This is what she means by response-ability. Haraway
says the present needs to be thicker. If we are imagining futures, let’s imagine wildly and think
critically about our ideals. As an exercise, she asks the audience to imagine a future in which
each person is the caretaker and spokesperson for a given species and may carry some of that
species’ DNA in their genome. Is this a future that we want? At this point, she returns to one of
Reardon’s introductory comments about mourning and loss. Haraway reminds us that death is
very important, and that de-extinction is very much about the denial of death. She encourages us
to think of new narratives with which to think about death, including species death, as an integral
part of life.

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