Are You Ready for the Return of Lost Species?: Stewart Brand on the Dawn of De-Extinction

The Earth is los­ing life forms at a dis­turb­ing rate. The biol­o­gist Edward O. Wil­son has esti­mat­ed that at least 27,000 species per year are dis­ap­pear­ing from our plan­et. That’s an aver­age of 74 species a day, or three every hour. Researchers warn that if we stay on this track, the Earth will enter its sixth mass extinc­tion–the first since the one that killed off the dinosaurs.

With ani­mal and plant habi­tats being crowd­ed out by a human pop­u­la­tion that has passed the 7 bil­lion mark and is grow­ing at a rate of 70 mil­lion peo­ple per year, sci­en­tists attempt­ing to stem the tide of extinc­tion have their work cut out for them. The vast major­i­ty of efforts, of course, are aimed at pre­serv­ing endan­gered species and mak­ing sure more species do not become endan­gered. But one man is spear­head­ing a bold project to actu­al­ly bring back species we have already lost.

Stew­art Brand first came to noto­ri­ety in the 1960s, as one of Ken Kesey’s Mer­ry Pranksters and as the cre­ator of the Whole Earth Cat­a­log. In 1996 he co-found­ed the Long Now Foun­da­tion, ded­i­cat­ed to fos­ter­ing long-term think­ing in our accel­er­at­ing cul­ture, with its “patho­log­i­cal­ly short atten­tion span.” One of Brand’s pet projects at Long Now is Revive & Restore, a pro­gram to coor­di­nate genet­ic research into bring­ing back present­ly extinct species. Brand spoke about the project (see above) on Feb­ru­ary 27 at a TED con­fer­ence in Long Beach, Cal­i­for­nia.

Revive & Restore’s first project is to bring back the pas­sen­ger pigeon, a bird that died off in 1914 but was once so abun­dant that migra­to­ry flocks in North Amer­i­ca would dark­en the sky. The pas­sen­ger pigeon was cho­sen as the ini­tial project because it is bet­ter-known than many extinct species and because the bird’s DNA (tak­en from muse­um spec­i­mens) has already been sequenced. But Brand promis­es that the pas­sen­ger pigeon is only the begin­ning. “The fact is,” he says, “humans have made a huge hole in nature in the last 10,000 years. We have the abil­i­ty now, and maybe the moral oblig­a­tion, to repair some of the dam­age.”

Passenger Pigeon Audubon .jpg

Pas­sen­ger Pigeon (Ectopistes migra­to­rius) by John James Audubon, 1824. Water­col­or, pas­tel, graphite, gouache, black chalk and black ink on paper. The image depicts a behav­ior known as “billing,” in which one bird shares food by regur­gi­tat­ing it into the bill of anoth­er. The male, with it’s more col­or­ful plumage, is shown stand­ing on the low­er branch, with the female up above.

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Comments (3)
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  • Earnest Prole says:

    Its a gram­mat­i­cal error in the cap­tion thats real­ly irri­tat­ing

  • Georgina Spyres says:

    halfway through the TED talk I real­ized that this chap is goog­ley-eyed lost in the sci­ence! and the audi­ence thinks that being able to play with life like this is com­i­cal. syn­thet­ic biol­o­gy is not con­ser­va­tion biol­o­gy… For­get about the issues of cloning, genet­ic mod­i­fi­ca­tion… what is the point of bring­ing back ful­ly EXTINCT species when hunt­ing, habi­tat destruc­tion, pol­lu­tion and cli­mate change, I repeat cli­mate change, are still quite the real­i­ty? Yes, cap­tive breed­ing, pro­tect­ed areas, local com­mu­ni­ty col­lab­o­ra­tions, good news mar­ket­ing… the ques­tion he is real­ly ask­ing is not “do you want extinct species back?” but “do you want us to clone and genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fy extinct species and release them into the wild?” What are the con­se­quences? Do we know?

  • Mike Springer says:

    Good points, Georgina.

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