Birds, birds, birds

This is Martha.  Martha is extinct.
This is Martha. Martha is extinct.
From the Smithsonian~
Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.
The pungent oranges and bright, green wings
Seem things in some procession of the dead,
Winding across wide water, without sound.
The day is like wide water, without sound,
Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet
Over the seas, to silent Palestine,
Dominion of the blood and sepulchre.
~Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning”

Okay, so it is more like complacencies of the flannel jammy pants and hot tea in front of the computer, and it is snowing, and the cockatoo is eleven chickens in the yard, but otherwise, Wallace Stevens hits the mark as usual.  My thoughts have gone dancing across centuries, prodded by this completely fascinating story on NPR about the quest of scientists to bring back extinct species.  The story indicates that it’s called “resurrection biology,” but that the usual term is “de-extinction.”

It boggles the literary mind that anyone would prefer “de-extinction” to “resurrection biology.”  The phrase “resurrection biology” gives me chills.  It’s powerful, evocative.  It implies action and intention.  “De-extinction,” on the other hand, just sounds like a word that isn’t another word, a passive thing that defines itself solely by opposition.  It’s not it’s own entity, but simply the opposite of extinction.  And, as we’ve all been taught to recognize, extinction is A Very Bad Thing.  “Resurrection biology” also looks cool in writing.  “De-extinction” looks like something somebody made up on the fly.  It’s an awkward word, both on the page and on the tongue.

At the time, I thought, “Oh, come on, scientists, I love you guys and your penicillin and interwebs, but seriously, can’t we have a little imaginative resonance in anything anymore?” As I reacted to the dissing of the gorgeous and semi-Miltonian “resurrection biology” in favor of “de-extinction,” I wondered if I was just being a picky word-nerd.  It wasn’t until later, after I’d percolated the story a bit in my mind, that the importance of the distinction between the terms struck me.

Of course, words are important.  Words have power.  The words we choose to express ourselves, to make sense of our world, are tiny windows to our souls, clues to our identity, both actual and perceived.  If we call it “de-extinction,” then it becomes an imperative.  Extinction is that Really Bad Thing we did to all those cute and fascinating critters.  We screwed up.  We messed with Nature, and we owe it to the natural world to bring back the species for whose disappearances we’re responsible.  Stewart Brand, the scientist interviewed in the story, makes the excellent point that the loss of a species is a tragedy that unsettles us profoundly.  There is certainly a deep sense of ethics undergirding his work to bring back extinct species.  But the sense of urgency underlying the impetus for de-extinction is worth examining.  To say, “we made passenger pigeons extinct, and therefore we should make them de-extinct” seems to me a very simplistic line of reasoning.  Should we do something merely because we can? [coughfrankensteincough] Does the moral imperative of atoning for our past sins outweigh the specter of the ones we may commit in the future?

Brand says that of course we won’t be bringing back velociraptors (dangit).  The plan seems to be to bring back species that have existed alongside humans.  Passenger pigeons are first on the list.  We killed them, and therefore we ought to bring them back.  So far, so good.  But the science required to accomplish this involves manipulating the genes of another closely related existing species. the band-tailed pigeon.  This, for me, is where the logic starts to get a bit fuzzy.  Because we destroyed one species (because, hey, there were a heck of a lot of those things and we can shoot all we want), we will now mess with another species to get the extinct one back (because, hey, there are a heck of a lot of these things and we can experiment on them all we want).  In order to atone for screwing with passenger pigeons, we will now screw with their closest living relative.

I wonder, too, what makes it okay for us to manipulate the genes of a living species, to transform it into another that’s dead.  Is it okay for us to manipulate the genes of other creatures without their consent?  Is it okay for us to make band-tailed pigeons, which God and/or nature, depending on your beliefs, have crafted through thousands of years of evolution to be band-tailed pigeons, filling a very specific niche in the ecosystem, into extinct passenger pigeons?  Okay, so presumably we won’t be making all the band-tailed pigeons into passenger pigeons.  But what gives us the m0ral authority to take even one life and turn it into something else?  [coughislandofdoctormoreaucough] Would a band-tailed pigeon want to be a passenger pigeon?  Would it be okay for an alien race to take just a few of us and alter our genes so that we resembled a species they’d killed off through their own colossal arrogance and greed?  Is it ever okay to mess with a species because it’s “lower” than us?  [coughwaroftheworldscough]

As the story points out, the science isn’t perfect, either.  Brand says that “the passenger pigeon has 1.3 billion base pairs in its genome. Now there’s work to do. You have to figure out exactly what genes matter. So there’s genes for the short tail in the band-tailed pigeon, genes for the long tail in the passenger pigeon. So along with the red eye, peach colored breast, flocking and so on. You add them all up – the result won’t be perfect. But it should be perfect enough, ’cause nature doesn’t do perfect either.”  But how do we know what’s “perfect enough”?

The story goes on to discuss the possibility of bringing back such critters as woolly mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses, and Brand argues that while some people will object (and he seems a bit mystified that anyone in their right mind would), they’ll all be overcome with teary emotion when they see a baby woolly mammoth.  Yes, I bet they’re cute little suckers.  But is that a reason to bring them back?  What will their lives be like?  Yes, their existence would inspire emotion and wonder.  Human nature being what it is, I expect it would also inspire poachers and a thriving black market trade in tusks and pelts.  In the case of woolly mammoths, we would not be returning them to a world they knew.  We would be introducing them into an alien environment rife with new diseases, altered climate, and fresh perils.

This was the point in the story at which, sitting in my car, I yelled, “JURASSIC PARK, PEOPLE!!”

Brand says we won’t bring back dinosaurs.  Brand, however, seems to have a sense that science should have a few practical limits.  Not everybody with power feels similarly constrained.  But he’s also arguing that we can and should bring extinct species back because habitat exists, just waiting for them.  The thing about nature, though, is that it doesn’t wait.  Anybody with a vegetable garden knows this.  If I till the soil in the fall in preparation for spring, weeds start to grow.  Nature abhors a vacuum, and is brilliant at filling it.  Any potential woolly mammoth habitat that ever existed has since been filled by other species, competing and reproducing and dying and filling their environment with all the gorgeous messiness of life.

Yes, it is wondrous and fascinating and heady that we have the potential power to bring back extinct species.  But, at the least, I think we should call it what it is:  resurrection biology.  De-extinction is the undoing of what has been done, the setting right of old wrongs.  De-extinction implies a moral imperative:  we messed up, therefore we MUST set right, and we can do this simply by doing the opposite now of what was done long ago.  But to reintroduce an extinct species into an environment that has not simply lain fallow since its extinction is not to restore things to their previous state.  Reintroducing an extinct species into a modern environment has far-reaching implications, both scientific and moral, even theological.

I admit that as a writer of fiction, I don’t understand all of the intricate genetic science involved.  But I do understand this–that science is the brain, and the humanities are the conscience.  Both are important, and both are necessary.  Neither ought to exist without the other, or Very Bad Things will happen.  Capability does not equal justification, and past wrongs cannot simply be righted by doing the opposite now.  History reminds us of this in a thousand examples.  You can’t ever really make reparations for slavery, for the Holocaust, for the sacking of the Americas.  The old scars are ingrained too deeply, and no amount of money or apology will undo the fact that human beings perished horribly in concentration camps and on plantations, that countless people trace their lineage back to rape, that disease wiped out entire civilizations.

I want to say that we should not do this thing.  I want to say that it terrifies me, that it is wrong.  But I know that, alone, I do not have the wisdom.  So what I really want, in the end, is conversation.  I want us to talk about this, to discuss it, to study the science and to read Mary Shelley and Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, and to for freaking goodness actually talk about why it is that we are SO COLOSSALLY OBSESSED with zombies.  To immerse ourselves in history and Greek tragedy and Shakespeare, to not only know intellectually but to feel, in the deepest parts of our hearts and souls, what happens when we overreach. [coughparadiselostmacbethmobydickblahblahblahblahahem]

I want us to understand that what we are proposing cannot properly be called de-extinction, because de-extinction is impossible.  I want us to own the fact, to sit down and wrestle with the knowledge, that what we are proposing is, in truth, resurrection biology.

I imagine the skies darkening again with the flight of countless passenger pigeons, and my imagination both thrills and quails at the thought.  I see them, in my mind’s eye, stretching from horizon to horizon, their bodies blacking out the sun. I stand and watch them, marveling at the power that has wrenched them from extinction, trembling with the certainty that we cannot cheat death, especially when we have acted as its agents.

The birds fly overhead, their shadow stretching across the landscape of a nation.  They will fly for days, a vast, fluttering cloud like a dark annunciation.  Their wings seem things in some procession of the dead.

We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.
-Wallace Stevens

7 thoughts on “Birds, birds, birds

  1. I think your points are right on target. Science can unlock the power of the atom but it’s ethics, philosophy, and history that we turn to understand the what this new knowledge means (nuclear medicine or nuclear weapons). Even if we can perfectly resurrect an extinct species its successful re-introduction to an ecosystem would be highly unlikely as its niche no longer exists. This means it goes extinct again or invades another niche potentially driving a current occupant to extinction (and then what do we do?). If we really care that much about extinction, shouldn’t our efforts be focused on preventing it in the first place?

    Humans are fascinated with doing things because we can. We love challenges and love finding creative solutions which is one of the magnificent things about our species. However without a compass to guide our investigations, to help us determine if we even should do something in the first place, we can become lost in our own hubris and find ourselves looking back saying “Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea after all.”

    And I haven’t forgotten about the zombies.

    1. Gavin, thanks so much for your very thoughtful response. I love the metaphor of the compass, and I really appreciate your point about focusing on preventing extinction in the first place rather than perpetually messing up and rebooting. And I am very, very thankful for scientists like you who are deeply ethical human beings and who retain their sense of wonder at the world in which we live.

      And seriously, we have got to do something about all these zombies. It’s just getting ridiculous. I don’t think Tim’s Zombie Strike Nerf gun can handle all of them, though it does make me sleep a little better at night knowing that if we are attacked by styrofoam zombies, we are not defenseless.

  2. Agreed and thank you. Tim sent me a link to an earlier post on the zombie phenomenon which I WILL reply to once I get the time. Like all great apocalyptic literature and film zombies allow us to look at human nature when the normal societal constraints no longer apply. I think zombies in particular appeal as a causative force because they can represent a number of very real contemporary fears (our mindless consumer culture, the fear of pandemics, our lack of faith in societal institutions, our inability to put aside individual wants for communal needs, immigration, and even terrorism).

  3. You know..if you were a professor….i would be entirely enraptured your entire class? I love how you lay things out in your logic and reasoning…and the wit you use to get those across. It is just like i want to sit and listen to you lecture because I would find it highly entertaining and interesting and informative.

    But you are quite right. The human race already does too much just because they “can” and I remember that scene in Jurassic Park when Jeff Goldblum says, “Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” That’s the problem. We are always worried about the can that the should gets lost until it makes it to places like the Geneva convention…Because things have already gone south, that now they have to have treaties and conventions to keep it from happening again. yes it impedes science but sometimes science should be impeded so that they can remember why something happened in the first place.

    1. Wow, Becka, that is high praise indeed! Thank you very much.

      And about Jurassic Park…..sheesh! Seriously, did these people somehow miss that whole book/movie phenomenon? When the guy started talking about bringing back woolly mammoths, I just kept envisioning how many cave people they probably gored and trampled to death. But that won’t happen to us, because, well, you know, we’re, um, yeah.

  4. Being word-nerdy ourselves, the unpoetic ‘de-extinction’ seems more apt than ‘resurrection biology’. The former more clearly suggests the restoration of a species while the latter brings to mind reanimating a single individual.
    As for the wisdom of attempting it, what ecological niche is a restored species supposed to occupy? Presumably we extincted it for what seemed compelling reasons the first time?

    1. I hadn’t thought about the word “resurrection” as pertaining to an individual, though now that you bring it up, it does seem to carry that general connotation in our religion, mythology, literature, etc. An interesting facet of the interview I heard on the subject was the discussion of Martha the passenger pigeon, in which Martha herself was continuously referred to as a unique, named individual, which of course anthropomorphizes her and adds pathos to her tale.

      I wonder about the niche issue; the interviewee said that there was habitat just waiting for animals like woolly mammoths, though I doubt it’s just been sitting there idle for thousands of years twiddling its metaphorical thumbs. And I guess part of the problem–and a huge part of what motivates scientists like Brand to want to bring back extinct species–is that we really didn’t have reasons for killing them off, really didn’t think about the consequences of our actions. But the issue does get especially fuzzy for me when he starts talking about bringing back species, like the mammoths, for whose extinction we may not be at all responsible in the first place.

      Thanks so much for your response, and for giving me more to think about.

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