Rise of the Necrofauna

Oh science. Why do you have to go screwing up all our best, overblown, dramatic news headlines with pesky facts?

I don’t think Britt Wray is trying to crush anyone’s hopes and dreams in Rise of the Necrofauna, but if you are a massively committed proponent of bringing back Woolly Mammoths or dinosaurs back a la Jurassic Park, you’re going to be in for a disappointment. Apparently, to fully clone these animals and bring them back exactly like they were isn’t going to happen. The DNA available, when there is any,  is too wrecked and likely to remain that way. Heck, it’s tough enough to resequence a Passenger Pigeon and we even have some close relatives to work with and borrow from. Most professionals in the de-extinction biz are going for “close enough” rather than bang on. The best scientist need to beg, borrow and steal from existing wildlife to even start a process to bring back long dead approximations of animals.

I’m butchering the science, but you get the point. This is a very sciency book and as much as I feel Wray probably had to dumb it down for lay people, there are still a lot of science words with complicated meanings and context buried in them. I won’t pretend I understood most of it.

I think the philosophy behind de-extinction (a word, by the way, that means way different things to way different people and there are ongoing arguments about what words to use to describe bringing back dead animals), is the most interesting part and maybe the part that will hold up the science.

Consider: why did an animal die out in the first place? If the issue of why and how hasn’t been resolved, basically you might be giving life only to have animals die again. It’s hard to teach animals how to be the way they are supposed to be when there are no other ones around to do the work on that. Maybe humans should pay the price for having an animal die out in the first place. Actions have consequences and one of the arguments against de-extinction is that if we think we can just revive a species we won’t try to protect them in the first place. There are a lot of for and against arguments, as you’d expect.

Here’s something else to think about. We tend to think of extinction as being when the last of a kind dying out. But extinction starts way sooner than that. Wray quotes Thomas van Dooren, a philosopher in the subfield of extinction studies and senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales. He says: “It’s a long, slow, unraveling of ways of life that happens long before the death of the last individual.” And that’s a really sad and poetic way of looking at extinction. It’s sort of hopeful too. It means there is time to reverse extinction before it happens. That’s another argument against de-extinction: instead, focus on what we have and keeping it alive.

What I found the most interesting is how much science labour and conservation work going on behind the scenes that gets lost in the flashy headlines. Like the family in Russia trying to preserve the tundra (and would appreciate a mammoth to help) because if it thaws, carbon emissions are going to go through the roof.

Wray has pulled together many scientific threads from all over the world for her book, so it’s worth picking up. Unless all you really want is to be told that yes, T-Rex is coming back.

Britt Wray was at Event 44 (To Be or Not To Be) at the 2017 Vancouver Writers Festival.

PS: I think Britt Wray may win for best book title: Rise of the Necrofauna is pretty darn compelling. Be Ready for the Lightning is a close contender though. I’ll withhold final judgement. I can’t decide at the moment.

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