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Author Interview – Q&A with Britt Wray

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Following on from Inside Ecology’s book review of Britt Wray’s “Rise of the Necrofauna – The Science, Ethics and Risks of De-Extinction”, the Author provides more detail on her thoughts behind the book and the subject of de-extinction…

Rise of the Necrofauna Britt WrayFor those of us who don’t know, what exactly is “de-extinction”? And why should we care about it?

De-extinction is a scientific movement aimed at creating close proxies of extinct species through various kinds of selective breeding, cloning, and genome engineering. This isn’t about resurrecting extinct species per se, at least not in the sense of bringing back perfectly identical copies of the woolly mammoth, Tasmanian tiger, or passenger pigeon, for example. Instead, this state-of-the-art science attempts to create new animals that very closely resemble those species and perhaps eventually introduce them into the wild. The core tenet of the field is to restore ecosystem dynamics that vanished when particular species disappeared, which some experts argue has made those ecosystems’ productivity suffer. But there are myriad ethical, legal, cultural, technological, environmental, and biological issues involved, and these require very close attention and planning. We should care about de-extinction because it is forging ahead, and bringing all those issues with it.

What inspired you to write about this topic?

I studied conservation biology in university and what I learned during that time made me deeply concerned about our current
extinction crisis. So when I heard about de-extinction several years later, I was enthused and intrigued. I hoped this new field might do some real good for the way we relate to the extinction crisis and perhaps even come up with solutions to help mitigate it. At the same time, however, de-extinction really troubled me. It sounded like another grand technofix, wowing us with its novelty but distracting us from the real work we should be doing to protect endangered species and ecosystems. I was wildly curious. Who was behind this? What kind of world did they hope to create? What were the potential promises and pitfalls involved? I set out to find answers to these questions and more.

Your book has a unique title. What do you mean by “Necrofauna”?

Necrofauna is a made up term, which I first heard used by the futurist Alex Steffen in the context of the phrase “charismatic
necrofauna.” The phrase refers to the idea that de-extinction might play favourites by only “resurrecting” extinct species that humans find highly desirable, while ignoring all sorts of other, less charismatic species. In conservation, we use the phrase “charismatic species” to describe the biases that determine which endangered species humans care most about. But in the case of de-extinction, we’re talking about the charisma of dead, extinct species. That’s why the prefix “necro”—meaning “death”—is there.

With the development of new gene editing technologies such as CRISPR, de-extinction research has been getting a lot of media attention recently. Does the science warrant the hype, or is this just a passing trend?

De-extinction is certainly more than a passing trend. Perhaps, in the future, we won’t be talking about CRISPR with as much fervour as we do now; however, CRISPR is just one tool in the toolbox of a much larger genetic revolution. The hype about de-extinction stands on a firm foundation. Our ability to precisely “edit” life at the genetic level has all sorts of implications that span across medicine, agriculture, human enhancement, conservation, and beyond.

What is the biggest misconception about de-extinction?

There are a few big ones. One I hear often is that we should pursue de-extinction simply because it would be “cool” to see a mammoth in real life. But there needs to be sound ecological reasons in place before we go through with such a risky endeavour. There are many animal welfare issues wrapped up in de-extinction, as well as potential legal ramifications, uncertainty around how to protect these species from going extinct a “second” time, potential lack of available appropriate habitats, and countless other considerations. Each candidate’s case needs to be diligently thought through, planned, and, most of all, rejected if a species is not a wise choice for de-extinction. It’s extremely tempting to forget the potential consequences of this emerging field and fall for the sci-fi aspect of “resurrecting the dead.” Which brings me to another big misconception: the idea that we can actually “resurrect” these wild creatures. We can’t. But what we can do is certainly “cool” to think about. Exploring the implications of following through on these possibilities is what my book is all about.

Rise of the Necrofauna Britt Wray

About the Author (book): Britt Wray is a radio broadcaster and writer and has worked as a host and producer on programs for CBC Radio. She holds a BSc in Biology and is a PhD candidate in Science Communication with a Focus on Synthetic Biology at the University of Copenhagen.