I was reading The Re-Origin of Species when He Jiankui announced he had edited the genes of two babies to make them resistant to the AIDS virus. When noted geneticist George Church rushed to his defense, it made sense considering what he had to say in this book. After all, he’s trying to create a mammoth. People were surprised by Church’s defense of He, but that’s because they had not read this book.
The Re-Origin of Species is an around-the-world tour of people working on reviving past species using all sorts of different approaches. Some, like Church, are working on searching for mammoth genes, finding fragments and piecing them together like a jigsaw puzzle in order to create a complete piece of DNA they can use to create some Asian elephant and mammoth hybrid that can replace the mammoth in Siberia, restoring the land to good health and perhaps saving the permafrost. Some would rather use what they learn from mammoth genes to alter the Asian elephant so it can live in the colder Siberian steppes since it is losing habitat.
Torill Kornfeldt goes from Siberia to the US to Europe and back to Siberia in her quest to understand the people working on resurrecting extinct species. There are several strategies employed, from trying to recreate the genetic map of the mammoth to trying to cross-breed several living species to create the characteristics of an extinct animal so this new critter could serve the same role in the environment.
There are good reasons to revive lost species or a simulacrum of them. For example, the loss of passenger pigeons may contribute to the massive wildfires in the West. The return of the mammoth could transform the landscape in ways that may save the permafrost and keep it from releasing the carbon and methane that would speed up climate change. Bringing back aurochs, or something like them could create a more diverse ecology in Europe.
I enjoyed The Re-Origin of Species very much. Kornfeldt has the good reporter’s ability to explain quickly and with clarity. She also paints the landscape with vivid imagery. She not only explores the various efforts of de-extinction, but also the conflicts, controversies, and ethical dilemmas. You can almost feel her wavering from one side to the other and she makes a good case for conservationists and de-extinctionists to talk more to each other.
I was fascinated by the idea that large herbivores like the auroch and the mammoth could change the environment in ways that would create a healthier, more diverse landscape. This book reminds us of what we have lost but gives us hope that something new may be found. I found myself thinking many of the ideas, some in conflict with each other, made a lot of sense. Kornfeldt even provides a handy list of pros and cons at the end.
One objection to de-extinction seemed very nonpersuasive to me. Susan Clayborn, a psychologist, thinks it would change our relationship with nature because we would feel less humbled by its vastness and variety. She fears that knowing we could bring back a species would reduce the beneficial effect people receive from spending time in nature. It’s as though she has never heard of dominion theology or seen mankind’s profligate assumption that nature is our servant, one we can exploit without regard for its well-being and health. We have erased many species from the face of the earth, I don’t think restoring a few of them will make us feel much differently.
This is a fascinating and timely book. We are already seeing the effects of climate change. The permafrost is melting. Who knew that we might find some way to mitigate that by looking to long-lost species. Should we bring back lost species? This book won’t tell you the answer, but it will give you the information you need to answer for yourself.
I received a review copy of The Re-Origin of Species from the publisher.
- The Re-Origin of Species: A Second Chance for Extinct Animals at Scribe Publications
- Notes and further reading from the author
- Torill Kornfeldt author site