Creatures Who Create

3,300 total words    

13 minutes of reading

On the radio the other day I heard an oldie called “The Boys of Summer” by Don Henley and got to thinking about nostalgia and obsession, two of my favorite subjects. This is an intriguing song that mixes them in equal measure as the singer considers his lost love. It contains the following lyric: “Out on the road today I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac/ A little voice inside my head said/ ‘Don’t look back you can never look back’/ . . . Those days are gone forever, I should just let them go but/ I can see you, your brown skin shinin’ in the sun . . .”

Henley remembers when followers of the Grateful Dead hitchhiked from concert to concert rather than driving anything much, let alone a Cadillac. I can remember that too, and I can also feel the bite of time and change, acquisition and aging. I am grateful for my maturity and success, such as they are, yet I regret that my entire generation, including myself, has not done better than we have. Done better by others, better by the earth, better by the future. Can we find a means of redemption through rectification, restoration, or restitution, I wonder? Is our chance gone, and should we just let it go? But. That is the sting in Henley’s lyric.

Something pulls us—a remembered image of beauty, a longing, a predatory impulse directed at the past. Alongside the voice that says don’t look back, there is another that says it’s never too late. A site where this ambivalence is currently manifest is the conversation about bringing back lost species, now referred to as “de-extinction.”

We live amidst the Sixth Great Extinction of life on earth, and we live under the sign of molecular biology and biotechnology. The first should remind us that we are creatures, like the other inhabitants of the web of life, plain members of biotic communities. The second impresses upon us the idea that we are creators, with the power to engineer, redesign, and restore life. Creature and creator come together in the de-extinction question. The Center for Humans and Nature, in collaboration with The Hastings Center, a leader in studying the ethics of biomedical research and technology, and the American Museum of Natural History will be addressing it on October 14 at a conference in New York City. (For more details see the last page/back cover of this issue.) Following that conference, the Center for Humans and Nature and The Hastings Center plan to undertake a project aimed at developing ethical guidelines in this area.

For several years scientists have had the ability to reconstruct the genomes of many extinct species from their DNA in well-preserved museum specimens and some fossils. And the sub-field called synthetic biology has edited living genomes, but so far only for small sets of genes in micro-organisms. But since 2005 the tools and techniques of synthetic biology have been becoming less expensive and more sophisticated. So the next step beyond the synthetic manipulation of small genomes in micro-organisms is in the offing today.

“De-extinction” typically refers to the capability to use the reconstituted genome of an extinct animal and convert it into viable DNA using the DNA of the closest living relative of the extinct species as a kind of a biological platform. Nuclear transfer would then produce a modified embryo for host gestation and birth. (There are also a number of other techniques that might be used to achieve the live birth of a creature with DNA that has not walked the earth for a long time.)

Possible applications include the following. The passenger pigeon (extinct since 1914) might return via its relative, the band-tailed pigeon; the penguin-like great auk (extinct since 1852) may be restored on the basis of the closely related razorbill; or the woolly mammoth (extinct since about 2000 BCE) theoretically could be restored using living Asian elephants as DNA proxies and surrogate parents.

The uncertainty today is whether—and how soon—it will become practical to edit whole arrays of vertebrate genes, and to know exactly which genes are the ones to edit. Complete de-extinction techniques do not yet exist, but work being done at places like Harvard University and the Roslin Institute in Scotland suggest that the power to reverse extinction may be within our grasp before 2020.

The advent of de-extinction via synthetic biological techniques takes us to a new point of contact and convergence for molecular biology and conservation biology. Important new scientific research, environmental conservation and restoration interventions, and the clarification of key ethical issues can emerge from this historic convergence. It is important to seize this moment and to begin ethical dialogue early, as the science and technology themselves are emerging, rather than wait until after the fact and then comment on ethics from the grandstands.

Until now, it is fair to say that molecular biology (especially synthetic biology) and conservation biology have gone their separate ways and had little mutual dialogue. The prospect of de-extinction has now launched a new conversation between them. Scientifically these fields work on different scales: the evolutionary and ecological perspectives of conservation biology are quite distinct from the biochemical and DNA-based orientation of synthetic biology.

The new dialogue emerging within the biological sciences will likely produce disagreement and controversy as well as collaboration. The sensational, if not bizarre, cultural imagery of de-extinction (shades of Jurassic Park) is sure to produce debate and mixed feelings within the general public. What psychoanalyst Willard Gaylin once called “the Frankenstein factor” is still present in the worry that the creatures we create always seem to manage to get out from under our control.[1] It is essential that ethical questions about the implications of this new human power be addressed carefully. Both scientific decision-making and public judgment need to be informed by a thoughtful consideration of moral values.

In fact, over the past couple of years the ethical dialogue has increased. In late 2012 a meeting of notable molecular biologists and conservation biologists was held at the National Geographic Society, and in early 2013 a public discussion was provided by the “TEDxDeExtinction” forum. De-extinction fits with a broader issue that conservation biology has been concerned with for many years, namely, the reintroduction of existing species back into an area they had previously inhabited. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has been a leader in thinking through the biological and social implications of moving species around on the ecological chess board, and it revisited the issue in 2013 when it issued new Guidelines on Reintroductions and Other Conservation Translocations.[2]

This de-extinction discussion is taking place against a background of increasing concern over many years about massive species extinction and loss of biodiversity on a global scale. In some areas, such as agricultural applications of biotechnology and genetic engineering, the conservation perspective has been opposed to the agenda of molecular biology. But while these applications of molecular engineering may undermine genetic and biodiversity in some cases, the means to use biotechnology to enhance or restore biodiversity and ecosystem resilience may also be possible. This would form the basis for a new consensus in the life sciences and among science policymakers.

Conservation biologists are facing the question whether humankind should really want to bring extinct species back, and if so, which ones? (Strictly speaking, de-extinction via synthetic biology does not quite bring the original species back; instead it introduces some of the genomic traits of an extinct species into a contemporary one, creating a genetically new animal.) In order to answer this question, conservation biologists are already using the 2013 IUCN guidelines as a template for the process of determining which species will be good candidates for de-extinction.

Another question involves the ecosystem effects of reintroducing animals from an extinct species. If we bring them back, what are we bringing them back to? Virtually all scientists now agree that the interaction between genomes and environments is key to the evolution and functioning of all life, and certainly all vertebrate life. The ecosystems that extinct animals once dwelt within are themselves greatly changed. Could the re-introduced animals survive and flourish, and what effects would they have on other inhabitants of a contemporary ecosystem? Over the years, much of the restoration work of conservation biology has been to counter the damage done by the careless or inadvertent introduction of non-native and disruptive species of plants and animals into ecosystems that have not co-evolved with them: kudzu vines in the southeastern United States; wild rabbits in Australia.

This could be an argument against de-extinction, but it could also be an argument in favor of it. The hope of some proponents of de-extinction is that newly re-introduced animals may have a restorative influence on currently degraded and unhealthy ecosystems. An example of this restorative ecosystemic effect is the re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park in 1995. This reduced the impact of grazing animals, such as elk, which allowed Aspen trees to grow back, in turn attracting beaver, whose dams created new ponds soon teeming with aquatic life.

The complex conversation continues with questions about the allocation of scarce conservation and restoration resources. Will allocation be biased in favor of high media profile and extremely expensive de-extinction projects? Will such projects gobble up funds that might do more good if they were used to protect currently endangered species and protect diverse habitats?

Asking about the potential effects of de-extinction on ecosystems is one thing, but environmental ethicist Ben Minteer broadens the discussion by asking about the potential effects of using de-extinction biotechnology on human ethical attitudes. Doing so, he suggests, is yet another expression of human arrogance and the will to power, and it will reinforce that attitude just at a time when we need instead to cultivate a sense of limits and humility. “Attempting to revive lost species,” Minteer writes, “is in many ways a refusal to accept our moral and technological limits in nature. . . . That is why there is great virtue in keeping extinct species extinct. Meditation on their loss reminds us of our fallibility and our finitude. We are a wickedly smart species, and occasionally a heroic and even exceptional one. But we are a species that often becomes mesmerized by its own power.”[3]

Another aspect of the situation from the point of view of the conservation movement has to do with the relative effectiveness of public messages of caution and of hope and improvement. Conservation leaders such as Kent Redford of the Wildlife Conservation Society believe that de-extinction can convey what he calls a “lesson of hope.”

On the other hand, conservation biologists understand the importance of precaution with endangered species, and the notion that “extinction is forever” has been an important tenet of their work. The possibility of undermining this sense of precaution and loss concerns conservationists, and even de-extinction proponent Stewart Brand acknowledges the question whether de-extinction as an option might pose a kind of moral hazard, providing an excuse for practices that endanger a species because if they do disappear, “we can always bring them back later.”[4]

An emerging perspective that may form the basis for ethical guidelines on de-extinction has been summarized recently by Philip J. Seddon, Axel Moehrenschlager, and John Ewen:

Restoration of an extinct species is not a trivial matter to be focused on single charismatic species while extant species are at risk of extinction. To have any credibility, the business of DeExtinction must have loftier goals than mastery of the daunting technical aspects. . . . Some view DeExtinction as a “quest for redemption,” a “moral imperative” to right past wrongs, to reverse species extinctions caused by humans. . . . The goal of DeExtinction should be . . . the restoration and enhanced resilience of ecosystems in the face of changing environmental conditions. Extinction of large consumers can have significant impacts on ecosystem functioning. Thus, restoration of ecosystems will require the restoration of species able to perform those vital ecological functions.[5]

In closing, I want to return to the insight expressed by Minteer and consider one of the ways it might be developed further. He points out that we need to be reminded of our fragility and vulnerability. The celebration of human power and creativity through the use of biotechnology, even when it has good environmental results, tends to make us forget our natural limits. I try to put this important, if subtle, kind of moral blindness in sharp relief by distinguishing between the stance of creator and the stance of creature—the human drive to reshape and improve nature, and the human need to accommodate our existence to natural limits and givens. These are two fundamental human orientations toward both the social and the natural world. The creator perfects and redefines necessity; the creature creatively adapts to necessity and achieves a modus vivendi with it. We clearly do have the ability and the drive to refabricate (remake, correct) the world. For its part, the creaturely mode of being human grows out of our capacity to repair (re-mend, heal) it. As creatures, our power to materialize our desire and imagination is tenuous, even when that desire is a worthy one, like the awe stirred by image of restored passenger pigeons once more darkening the sky in their multitudes.

We should look askance, as Minteer suggests, at anything that undermines the patience and humility fitting for a created being, or that undermines our willingness (and the intelligence) to set limits on our own behavior. We should beware the temptation to take such pride in our creative power that we come to value it for its own sake. The interplay of perfecting and accommodating is not unique to human beings—perhaps it characterizes all forms of life on earth—but with humans these modes of being are distinctive, and our technology greatly expands their scale and effects.

Many of the contending positions in the debate over de-extinction—and over synthetic biology and biotechnology more generally—identify moral responsibility exclusively with one or the other of these two modes of being human. Some maintain that the human ethical vocation is to superintend life; others say that our ethical vocation is to abide life. My own view is that we are both creators and creatures and that each of these two aspects of the ontological situation of humankind is necessary and vital. Neither should be (or could be) eliminated, but the essential tension between them must be maintained.

Consequently, being human involves a paradox and a predicament. The paradox resides in the fact that we are at once dependent on the world of natural life yet powerful enough to break away from it by creating an artificial world and a technological simulacrum of natural life. Heretofore in history manifested only in limited ways and on local scales, this human power to manipulate the natural and to create the artificial has reached the threshold of world-transforming potential on a global scale.

The predicament of being human is to be inclined one way by the exercise of power over being and another way by the patience to let being be. That is an essential tension in human history. Ecological governance is the fashioning of a social and institutional housing within which this tension can live and be kept in some kind of equipoise. The fabricating power of the human as creator must be bridled, lest its obsession destroy us. The patience and accommodation of the human as creature must be made active in support of the human and natural good, rather than being passive, reactionary, or merely nostalgic.

***

The articles in this issue of Minding Nature are thoughtful considerations of hunting as a sport and a pastime, the meaning and experience of it, the relationship between humanness and predation. Many of them explore the connection between hunting as a pastime and past time (or lost time): hunting and humanness are coeval. The narratives of human life contain stories of many forms of predation. Like sexual obsession in “The Boys of Summer,” hunting is a rich arena of experience in which to explore the ambivalence of our humanness: the wild and the domesticated, the raw and the cooked, the creaturely giving of life and the taking of it.

That focus on hunting also moves us into broader reflections on human being and the place of humans in nature. In one way or another, each of the authors are saying that the relationship between human beings and the wild (more than only wildlife and more than wilderness areas) is fundamental. If we forget or deny our own wildness, we thereby forget or deny our own indebtedness to the world.

William Blake asked what immortal hand or eye could frame the fearful symmetry of the tiger, and in her article Mary Stange inquires about the meaning of this symmetry. She stresses the ways in which hunting throughout human history has shaped culture, art, and religion. Hunting is a connecting link between ourselves and our ancestral past. She also reflects on some interesting clashes of perspective between the hunting community and the environmental community over the years. Finally, she notes the marked increase in the number of women who hunt during the past twenty years or so. They have an interestingly different take on the relationship between hunting and violence than do male hunters.

Jan Dizard weaves the ethics of hunting in and through personal, cultural, and historical considerations. He singles out several important reasons to hunt beyond the practical and utilitarian needs it has served throughout much of human history. These include a participatory experience of nature, a “sensuous connection to place,” and a responsibility for and kinship with wildlife. Like Stange, he notes the primal origins of our predatory inclinations. He also traces the history of the notion that wildlife is to be treated as a public trust, not as a commercial enterprise for private exploitation. He believes that this ethic is now eroding, however.

Closely related to the discussions by Stange and Dizard is Malcolm Brooks’ review of A Sportsman’s Library by Stephen J. Bodio. This book is a wonderfully eclectic set of reflections on life and books in the outdoors and in the wild. According to Brooks, reading Bodio is like having E.B. White meet Aldo Leopold, with Hunter S. Thompson looking on.

In their respective contributions, Andrew Weber and Florian Asche explore the meanings and importance of the wild in our humanness and in our creative minds. In his brief essay, Asche argues that modern times have divested the wild from this wellspring of humanity, have taken the hunter out of hunting, as he puts it, and greatly diminished us in the process. Weber, for his part, draws deeply upon Thoreau and many more recent thinkers as diverse as Buckminster Fuller and Loren Eiseley. His wide-ranging discussion eloquently announces the urgent need for a reorientation in our thinking about the planet and about ourselves.

Rounding out the issue is Jeffrey Grygny’s review of Environmental Philosophy in Asian Traditions of Thought, a new collection of essays edited by J. Baird Callicott and James McRae. Grygny brings his own expertise in Asian thought and religion to bear in making the diverse contributions in this book on Indian, Chinese, and Japanese thought accessible to a general audience.

Anja Claus has the Last Word, bringing us back full circle to the connection between our experience of the wild and our experience of place.

There is one overriding theme in this issue of Minding Nature: Following the classical injunction, Know Thyself, cannot be done abstractly. It must be done, like the hunt, concretely and sensually. Self-knowledge is knowledge in-placed and in time, embodied and indwelling. We are creatures who create, but creatures all the same.

[1]. W. Gaylin, “The Frankenstein Factor,” New England Journal of Medicine 297 (1977): 665-67.

[2]. “New Guidelines on Conservation Translocations Published by IUCN,” August 12, 2013, available at https://www.iucn.org/news_homepage/news_by_date/?13377/New-Guidelines-on-conservation-translocations-published-by-IUCN.

[3]. B. Minteer, “Is It Right to Reverse Extinction?” Nature 509 (2014): 261.

[4]. S. Brand, “The Conservation Perspective on De-extinction,” Huffington PostThe Green Blog, March, 25, 2013, available at www.huffingtonpost.com/stewart-brand/de-extinction-conservation-_b_2948007.html?view=screen.

[5]. P.J. Seddon, A. Moehrenschlager, and J. Ewen, “Reintroducing Resurrected Species: Selecting DeExtinction Candidates,” Trends in Ecological Evolution 29, no. 3 (March 2014): 140-47, doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2014.01.007, epub February 8, 2014.

  • Bruce Jennings

    Bruce Jennings is Senior Fellow at the Center for Humans and Nature where he engages in research, writing, public speaking, and consulting. He is the editor of the Center’s journal, Minding Nature.

Related Stories & Ideas

Scroll to Top