The New Science of De-extinction
Could scientists bring back Tyrannosaurus, king of the dinosaurs, or the king of the birds, the dodo? And what about the King himself, Elvis Presley? Brian Switek reviews “Bring Back the King” by Helen Pilcher.
The push for de-extinction, Ms. Pilcher says, is going on at various labs all over the world and is focused on everything from gastric-brooding frogs that incubate their young in their stomachs (and went extinct only some 30 years ago) to the passenger pigeon and, of course, our favorite shaggy Ice Age beast. Chapter by chapter she presents a short roll call of creatures that have been name-dropped as candidates for de-extinction, with a few extra centered on various prominent “King” species (“King of the Cavemen,” “King of the Birds” and so on). Celebrity is important here. De-extinction advocates are savvy marketers and know that any animal worth putting their effort into “has to be a well-known, larger than life showstopper,” as Ms. Pilcher writes. So, then, could scientists bring back Tyrannosaurus, king of the dinosaurs, or, in Ms. Pilcher’s pick for king of the birds, the dodo? And what about the King himself, Elvis Presley? Can genetic innovation return us to lost worlds, be they the Cretaceous or Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock” heyday?
The answer, for the most part, is “no.” While Ms. Pilcher, a former reporter for Nature magazine, frames herself as an optimist and praises the persistence of de-extinction advocates “in the face of sceptics and critics who say de-extinction either can’t or shouldn’t be done,” she admits, by the end of the book, that almost all the charismatic fauna that have made her list cannot or should not be brought back. There is no hope of recovering any DNA from Tyrannosaurus, so the king of the tyrant lizards will never have a chance to chomp us. Every living species of elephant is endangered, making any breeding program planning on using them to re-create woolly mammoths—and not living species—a non-starter. The ethical considerations of cloning Elvis or, reaching back further, a Neanderthal rule out those two as possibilities as well. Once we reach beyond the realm of technology into the ethics of conservation, de-extinction falters