No, this isn’t going to be about medical resuscitation in the ER. This week I came across a non profit project called “Revive and Restore”, carried out by The Long Now Foundation. Its stated mission is to “enhance biodiversity through the genetic rescue of endangered and extinct species.” Yup, they promote the idea of reviving extinct species of birds and animals using genetic technology. No, not dinosaurs—no matter what the movies say, there’s never been any viable dino DNA found. But there are good samples of woolly mammoth and passenger pigeon, and lots of others, and living relatives of these species that could conceivably be used as surrogate parents for the cloned offspring. Why do it? According to the Foundation, it’s to increase our planet’s biodiversity and genetic diversity, and to learn more about the processes required for “de-extinction” in order to help preserve endangered species.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault on the Norwegian island of Spitzbergen was created to preserve genetic diversity of plant life. These days, the focus of commercial agriculture on specialized and bio-engineered crops significantly increases the risk of newly-mutated blights and diseases that could wipe out entire crops on an international scale (perhaps even on purpose, from bioterrorism). The seed vault should provide at least some safety net to enable a recovery from such a disaster. A similar collection of DNA from animal and fish species would be a very good idea. The American Museum of Natural History and the U.S. National Park Service already work together to add samples of endangered species from American parks to the Museum’s existing DNA bank. We should be storing samples of each known species’ DNA, adding new ones as they’re discovered and identified.
As an SF author (and therefore an amateur futurist), here’s why I think so.
The World Wildlife Fund suggests that humans may be causing species extinction thousands of times more quickly than the natural extinction rate. And that’s just from things like overhunting, overfishing, and destruction of habitat. Now along comes climate change, with a frightening potential to force human migration because of changing climate patterns. The combination of these factors will be devastating to plant and animal species. And because every organism on our planet is linked to others in complex degrees of dependency, every loss of biodiversity is a threat to the planetary ecosystem. We can’t know how much damage is done when a given species becomes extinct, but we can no longer afford to be complacent about it, or the human race could soon find ourselves alone on a dying rock.
Along with the danger from our own race, Earth continues to be vulnerable to the same things that caused mass extinctions in the past: massive volcanic eruptions, cataclysmic asteroid or comet impacts, deadly gamma ray bursts from dying stars, or exposure to fatal levels of cosmic radiation during flips of the Earth’s magnetic field. We might be able to find ways to survive such things in the short term, but long term survival would depend on restoring at least some of our home planet’s ecosystem.
Then there’s the reason closest to my geeky heart. Although the idea of colonizing other planets and star systems has formidable obstacles stacked against it, I’d still like to believe it will happen.
And we’ll want to bring our friends along.