Death is still forever, but extinction may not be---at least for creatures that humans drove extinct in the last 10,000 years. Woolly mammoths might once again nurture their young in northern snows. Passenger pigeon flocks could return to America's eastern forest. The great auk may resume fishing the coasts of the northern Atlantic.
New genomic technology can reassemble the genomes of extinct species whose DNA is still recoverable from museum specimens and some fossils (no dinosaurs), and then, it is hoped, the genes unique to the extinct animal can be brought back to life in the framework of the genome of the closest living relative of the extinct species. For woolly mammoths, it's the Asian elephant; for passenger pigeons, the band-tailed pigeon; for great auks, the razorbill. Other plausible candidates are the ivory-billed woodpecker, Carolina parakeet, Eskimo curlew, thylacine (Tasmanian tiger), dodo, Xerces blue butterfly, saber-toothed cat, Steller's sea cow, cave bear, giant ground sloth, etc.
The Long Now Foundation has taken "de-extinction" on as a project called "Revive & Restore," led by Ryan Phelan and Stewart Brand. They organized a series of conferences of the relevant molecular biologists and conservation biologists culminating in TEDxDeExtinction, held at National Geographic in March. They hired a young scientist, Ben Novak, to work full time on reviving the passenger pigeon. He is now at UC Santa Cruz working in the lab of ancient-DNA expert Beth Shapiro.
This talk summarizes the progress of current de-extinction projects (Europe's aurochs, Spain's bucardo, Australia's gastric brooding frog, America's passenger pigeon) and some "ancient ecosystem revival" projects---Pleistocene Park in Siberia, the Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands, and Makauwahi Cave in Kaua'i. De-extinction has been described as a "game changer" for conservation. How might that play out for the best, and how might it go astray?
In an era of "anthropocene ecology," is it now possible to repair some of the deepest damage we have caused in the past?
Stewart Brand is co-founder and president of The Long Now Foundation and co-founder of Global Business Network. He created and edited the Whole Earth Catalog (National Book Award), and co-founded the Hackers Conference and The WELL. His books include The Clock of the Long Now; How Buildings Learn; and The Media Lab. His most recent book, titled Whole Earth Discipline, is published by Viking in the US and Atlantic in the UK.
Stewart Brand of the Long Now Foundation details what the future might look like for a parcel of land that is being developed by a ecosystem revivalist, who hopes to reintroduce extinct ice age species to Russia.
Once the most abundant species of bird in the world, passenger pigeons were hunted to extinction in only a few decades. But as Stewart Brand explains, scientists are now close to bringing the bird back from the dead.