Should we bring back the woolly mammoth?

Posted on Mar 4, 2014 | 0 comments

passenger pigeons_woodcut from the 1870s shows passenger pigeons being shot in Louisiana

Passenger pigeons were once wildly abundant but their population declined from 5 billion to zero in a matter of decades.

De-extinction. Sounds like science fiction, right? But according to a recent New York Times Magazine article, a whole slew of people are working to bring back extinct species, from the auk to the passenger pigeon to an Australian frog.

Oh yes, and the woolly mammoth. Jurassic Park, anyone?

In the case of recently extinguished species, the process involves cloning cryogenically preserved cell matter. In the case of species that are long gone, it’s much more involved. The genome must be sequenced, and it deteriorates quickly after the animal dies. But many scientists do believe it is possible.

The idea is exciting and scary all at once. But what caught my eye was the rationale. Stewart Brand, founder of the marvelous Whole Earth Catalog, has been beating the drum for the restoration of the passenger pigeon, extinct since 1914, with the idea that de-extinction could provide “a beacon of hope for conservation.”

“The environmental and conservation movements have mired themselves in a tragic view of life,” he wrote. “The return of the passenger pigeon could shake them out of it.”

This so-called tragic view is not irrational. Scientists tell us we are in the midst of a mass extinction, with dozens of species being lost EVERY DAY. In that context, maybe de-extinction could be a “beacon of hope.”

And I agree with Brand that we need some beacons. We become paralyzed when we see a problem as way too big to fix. Environmental degradation and climate change can be overwhelming to think about, and the result, often, is that we decide to do nothing.

But what if, instead of dedicating resources to bringing back lost species (and who knows what their impact would be in a world that has been evolving without them?) we tried to learn from the examples of the species we have successfully prevented from dying out?

When I was writing WASHASHORE, I wasn’t thinking about my book as an environmental lesson. I was simply writing down a story that was compelling to me. But the more I learned about the ospreys and how close they came to being wiped out before a change in human behavior (in this case, discontinuing the use of a toxic pesticide) allowed them to rebound, the more I thought: the story of the ospreys is a powerful environmental success story.

And heaven knows we need some success stories.

So if bringing back the passenger pigeon gives people hope (and if it can be done without creating huge new problems), then great. It’s exciting to think that damage we have done might not be as irreversible as we thought.

But let’s not be distracted from the project of preventing future damage. And if we need some inspiration on that score, the success stories already exist. Here’s one.

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