Genetic Crossroads

The intersection of biotechnology, reproduction and society

Cloning Again: Reviving the Idea of Re-creating Species

There's a new push for "de-extinction" using GM and cloning techniques.

A high-profile, all-day, all-star event in Washington, DC on March 15 will focus on "de-extinction." It's an independently organized TED event — TEDxDeExtinction — hosted by National Geographic, and organized by Stewart Brand and Ryan Phelan as part of the "Revive and Restore" project within The Long Now Foundation. It claims to be "the first-ever public exploration of the subject of reviving extinct species."

The 25 announced speakers are a distinguished bunch, including a lot of scientists. Big names include George Church (of recent Neanderthal notoriety) and Robert Lanza (long-time cloning maven for ACT), but also there will be researchers reporting on their work to clone, revive or re-create:

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  • European aurochs
  • Pyrenean ibex
  • passenger pigeon
  • American chestnut
  • Tasmanian Tiger
  • California condor
  • and the woolly mammoth

Also invited are conservation biologists, some of whom are likely to have qualms about the concept; at least one journalist (Carl Zimmer); and law professor Hank Greely, who dislikes the neologism "de-extinct" but generally supports the idea, as long as it isn't tried with hominids.

Mammoths are clearly on the program, featured in Scientific American's blog post on the conference (and in the subhead of the reprint at Salon). Neanderthals are not listed, but National Geographic just put up another long article about re-creating them, complete with medical justifications. For instance, it quotes anthropologist John Hawks:

We're looking at an ancient population that had thick, dense bones and strong muscles. If you could find some way to tweak the human biology in a way to make it more Neanderthal-like, that might treat osteoporosis and muscle wasting.

(The Editor's note at the end of that piece says that the TEDxDeExtinction conference will be streamed live on NationalGeographic.com, and provide the cover story for their April issue)

Meanwhile, some contrary opinions about efforts to clone Neanderthals are being expressed, including Greely's essay and this prediction from Yale geneticist James Noonan:

What's more likely to happen is you're going to get really sick or lethal mutations. You're going to get a lot of dead proto-Neanderthals.

Simultaneously, the London Natural History Museum has launched an exhibit called "Extinction: Not the End of the World?" which seems to be trying to generate press, partly by looking at the extinction of humans. And there will be a conference in Cambridge, UK, in April on the topic, "How will Synthetic Biology and Conservation Shape the Future of Nature?"

Stewart Brand, long-time environmentalist turned techno-enthusiast, shares a knack for publicity with George Church, the personal genomics and synthetic biology champion, and Robert Lanza, the cloning expert. In this effort, they are combining to both build and ride a wave of attention. It bears watching. And those of us who disagree with the vision of an entirely artificial environment filled with simulacra of species should not let it go unchallenged.

Pete Shanks is the author of Human Genetic Engineering: A Guide for Activists, Skeptics, and the Very Perplexed.

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