After many years of featuring as a Hollywood plot device for the Lost Jurassic Worlds, the project of resurrecting an extinct species now seems to have actually come off the film lot and into the lab. It’s in the spotlight now particularly since the last male white rhino, named Sudan, died this March in Kenya.
Two techniques for resurrection
Shortly after this sad event signalled the end of the final chapter in the story of the world’s most endangered mammal species, teams of scientists came forward to propose solutions. A first suggestion proposed by researchers from the San Diego Zoo Conservation Research Institute was presented in May. Using genetic engineering techniques, they sequenced DNA from Northern White Rhino cells available in a sample material bank (Un zoo congelé [A frozen Zoo]). Following this sequencing operation, they published a study in the scientific journal Genome Research, in which they claimed to possess sufficient genetic diversity to resuscitate a viable population of rhinos.
Earlier this month, it was the team led by Professor Thomas B. Hildebrandt who published an article in the journal Nature offering a different kind of hope, this time through the adaptation of existing medically assisted reproduction techniques. In fact, the latter team have succeeded in fertilizing the oocytes of a Southern White Rhinoceros with part of their stock of Northern White Rhino sperm. They were thus able to create hybrid embryos which they claim could be re-implanted into a female rhino carrier. If this experiment is successful, then the researchers will ask the Kenyan authorities to allow them to take oocytes from the last two Northern White Rhino females. They can then carry out their procedure and fertilise those eggs.
The real challenges of biodiversity
Critics may argue that if they are carried through, these experiments will not actually make it possible to return the species to its natural environment, only to keep it in captivity, in order to continue attempts to preserve it. In addition, as Stéphane Marchand, editor-in-chief of Paris Innovation Review, points out “Should we do it? What’s the point? De-extinction is an increasingly realistic genetic engineering feat, but it is also controversial. Devoting resources to the resurrection of extinct species would inevitably detract from the already insufficient resources allocated to living species.” According to him, New Zealand has done the math: reintroducing 11 extinct species into their former habitat, would require the same amount of funds as protecting 31 species still present in the wild.
Nevertheless, these two experiments demonstrate the extent to which science has developed the required resources to tackle the problem of biodiversity. And contrary to received wisdom, we see from this that technology could itself be a factor in preserving biodiversity, and in a proactive way. It is important to stress this because popular belief would have it quite the reverse, that man and technology are the root cause of the disappearance of many species. However, as is well known, awareness of this problem is relatively recent, as it was at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 that it was defined as a major objective of sustainable development. This commitment is no less radical for being recent, since according to sources compiled by the World Bank, the proportion of protected areas, national parks and reserves rose from 8.2% in 1990 to 14.8% in 2014, the equivalent in surface area of a country the size of the USA. The same is true for protection of the deep ocean, which has doubled during the same period and now represents over 12% of the total surface area of the oceans (1).
But some biodiversity advocates believe that we never go far enough and that we could always do more for a natural world that we do not yet fully understand. So, in an interview, Bruno David, President of the National Museum of Natural History, compares an institution like the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) – which has been raising awareness on climate related issues for 30 years – and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), created 6 years ago, to do a similar job for biodiversity. According to him, this organisation, “which “reports on pollinating insects, on birds, on mammals (…) can only proceed by aggregation. It’s a bit like aging: if you look in the mirror every day, it’s not obvious, but after ten years it’s staring you in the face! Most people live in cities and think that biodiversity still exists. Are there fewer and fewer birds? That’s normal, you get used to it. Biodiversity is an impressionist painting, whereas climate is more like a painting by Ingres.”
The nature of the problem
This artistic metaphor to explain the relationship of climate change and biodiversity speaks volumes. It does indeed seem to have more in common with aesthetics than science. The following analysis comes from an article by Jonathan Dubrulle. This young agricultural engineer asks: “What if biodiversity were only a social construction, a depiction of an aesthetic ideal, creating an anthropomorphic vision of nature?” To support his thesis, he reminds us that human activity is not the enemy of biodiversity, quite the contrary, and that it makes no sense to claim, as Nicolas Hulot, French Minister of the Environment, did recently, that “Man has become a weapon of mass destruction against nature”. In fact, first through trade, then through plant and animal breeding, and finally through agriculture, human activity has always been in at the beginning of the emergence of new species.
As we can see, the nature of the biodiversity problem is mainly ontological. Should we make the fight for biodiversity a conservation project aimed at curbing human technological development in order to save an idealized vision of nature or could we claim that this same technology is not the enemy of biodiversity and that, quite the contrary, it can even be an agent of its preservation? Where to put the cursor?
Natural selection and negative selection
Finally, it would be wrong to blame mankind alone for the extinction of species. As everyone knows, species can fall prey to natural selection and, as the philosopher Raymond Ruyer reminds us, to another, much more unforgiving factor, “negative selection”: “For the human species, for peoples and their cultures, just as for plant and animal species, natural selection seems neither moralistic, nor artist, nor perfectionist: “The most beautiful things have the worst fates” The bravest are killed in war, aristocrats of all kinds are eliminated. The generous and the capable give their lives for the selfish or the stupid. The spelling errors of life and living culture have their chance, as long as they are the faults of living people who want to live and assert themselves, who may speak badly, but who claim the right to speak just like everyone else, in their own way. The only ones to bear the brunt of unforgiven sins are those who are absent, never born, the fault of their parents, who have given up speaking the biological language, for good or for ill – that is to say, who have not ensured their reproduction.” (2)
Now negative selection affects all natural species, including man. From this point of view, the science and technology that humanity can command to combat species extinction shows how actively humanity contributes, with all the means at its disposal, to this goal. So one thing is certain, whether it is a matter of resuscitating species in a laboratory, through biotechnology or experimental embryology, or creating new ones ex nihilo – it is clear that this is still a chimerical (in the science meaning of this word) project carried out by human technology, in support of the creativity and thus the diversity, of life.
1. Steven Pinker, Enlightenment now, p.133, Figure 10-6, Protected areas, 1990-2014; source, World Bank, 2016 and 2017
2. Raymond Ruyer. “The next hundred centuries. »