The past few years have seen a veritable flurry of renewed interest in the idea of bringing extinct species back to life. Multiple books, articles and even a few TED talks have each approached the topic from different angles, or focused on different species. A new book on the topic caught my attention, not only for its approach, but also for the almost haunting art that graces its cover: the skull of a woolly mammoth and the head of a wooly mammoth facing each other across a dark background. “Rise of the Necrofauna” by Britt Wray looks at de-extinction from perspectives that aren't heard as often in the ongoing discussion. Her book stands out from the others for that very reason.
Wray, a science communicator, is ideally suited to the task of writing a book like this. The science of resurrecting extinct species is there, of course, but she writes in a way that's understandable to a non-scientist like myself. The "how" of de-extinction is fascinating; however, many obstacles and improbabilities still stand in the way of success.
The "why" of de-extinction is more fascinating still. Beyond the science are questions of philosophy, legality and morality. Wray speaks with many in the field who've thought about questions that might never have occurred to the average person. If a species is brought back from extinction and successfully reintroduced into the wild, would conservation law consider it an invasive species? Is it morally right to bring back a species and subsequently allow it to be hunted, even if allowing the hunting of a few individuals ensures the survival of the species? Even more fundamentally, is a species brought back from extinction truly the same species that went extinct in the first place?
Given the scientific realities of possible methods of de-extinction, that last question is not an idle one. Some species often mentioned as ideal candidates for resurrection have poorly preserved DNA that would require modification. Other methods – like the efforts to bring back the long-extinct aurochs, the ancestor of domesticated cows – involve selective breeding of existing animals. In either case, the result of our efforts would look very much like the animal that went extinct, but it wouldn't truly be the same.
Beyond that is the question of economics. Successful efforts to bring back even just one extinct species will require a lot of funding, and many years of effort. For that same commitment of time and money, some critics would argue, we could keep other species from sharing their fate. But this may well be a false dilemma. As Wray finds in her talks with researchers, some of the very same techniques that could one day see extinct species re-join our world could well be put to use in efforts to conserve species still with us.
Like the author, I began the book with mixed feelings about the merits of resurrecting extinct species. In spite of my misgivings, a world where mammoths knock down trees in Siberia, preserving the permafrost, or where the passenger pigeon again graces our skies, is a tempting one. In some ways, I want to see that world again.
Reviewer Brady Clemens is the district consultant librarian at Schlow Centre Region Library.