Move over Jurassic Park, there are real scientists exploring ways to bring back species that have become extinct, species like the passenger pigeon, the auroch, and the wooly mammoth. The prospect is exciting to people who believe we should restore what we have destroyed but others are less sanguine about the idea. In Rise of the Necrofauna: The Science, Ethics, and Risks of De-Extinction, Britt Wray seeks to answer the many questions that should be considered before the first critter is made unextinct.
Wray organizes her examination of de-extinction around eight questions that make up the chapter titles. How is de-extinction done and why is it important? Who are the contenders? Why create the wooly mammoth? Can we bring back billions of passenger pigeons and should we? How could we regulate this? Can the things we learn from de-extinction be used to save endangered species? Is some knowledge too dangerous? This touches on the whole fear that as soon as we know how to do something, someone is bound to go and do it. These fears are only exacerbated by He Jankui’s reckless intervention in editing the genes of twins in China. Seeing his actions defended so nonchalantly by George Church who is one of the leading scientists in de-extinction adds to the unease I feel about this.
Wray examines each question carefully and answers them all with room for readers to agree or disagree with her own thoughts. She is not a dogmatic writer, sharing her own ambivalence and uncertainty.
I enjoyed reading Rise of the Necrofauna. I found it particularly interesting reading it so soon after reading The Re-Origin of Species by Torill Kornfeldt. Both books are about de-extinction. Kornfeldt’s is more personal in its approach while Wray’s is more focused on organizing her research and interview around specific questions. One of the fascinating things is how different scientists seem very different in how they interacted with the writers. For example, the man behind the ambitious Pleistocene Park seemed more of a gonzo scientist in Wray’s book and more serious in Kornfeldt’s book.
While it’s clear the de-extinction is not just around the corner, it’s around the next corner after that. We need to think about the implications and possible consequences now, before it happens. This book is a thoughtful introduction to the questions we must answer soon.