CLARIN

The False Promise Of Resurrection Biology

Scientists have the technology to bring extinct species back to life, give or take a few missing DNA strands. But should they?

Northern muriqui, critically endangered of extinction
Northern muriqui, critically endangered of extinction
Claudio Campagna

-Op-Ed-

BUENOS AIRES — About a quarter of the world's 80,000 known animal and plant species are endangered, and of these, approximately 5,200 are perilously close to extinction. Some may even slip into the abyss as you read this article.

Why is this happening? Because of what we humans are doing to the environment. What does human-mediated extinction mean? It means the gradual killing off — directly or indirectly — of all representatives of a life form, down to the very last member. Through environmental destruction across five continents and overfishing in the oceans, our species is displacing numerous other species and pushing them toward annihilation.

Is this extinction at the hands of humans a moral problem? Basic principles deem it immoral to treat humans as a means to an end. And yet, our lifestyle depends on doing just that. Who can doubt that something strange, peculiar and unacceptable is happening when a bird, a frog or an insect ceases to exist? Still, there are some people who justify those losses with a classic cost-benefits argument: It's us or them.

The world needs to develop, they tell us. Too many people are poor, they say. Certainly. But to remedy this evil, nature is being shut out and restricted to ever narrower confines, or annihilated through the relentless extraction of resources. Why not slam the door instead on the world's 60 richest individuals, who have been amassing the wealth of fellow earthlings and capital worth tens of billions of dollars? It must be easier to ask the natural world to pay up.

De-extinction

Amid the confusion of values, some people are proposing a "solution" they call "de-extinction." The idea is to engineer the resurrection of creatures using genetic techniques, resuscitating species, in other words, by creating laboratory individuals very similar to those previously pushed over the cliff of existence.

By trying to fix the harm done — rather than take real measures to prevent it — we're confusing things even more.

Which mystical sect is pushing for this solution? A very reputable one apparently: science.

Without wanting to offend anyone, it sounds an awful lot like more familiar scriptural narratives about the conception, birth, death and resurrection of our own Jesus Christ. Here, DNA is extracted from the corpse of a member of an extinct species to create a "code book." If the book has pages missing, it can be completed with pages from a similar, live species. The imperfections are corrected and the code installed in a cell, which begins to multiply. If the creature is a mammal, the information is implanted in a surrogate mother's uterus, and if an embryo develops and is born, the species is considered de-extinct. If it dies, it has become extinct twice.

It's bad enough that we fail to understand the implications of pushing a life form toward its disappearance. Now, by trying to fix the harm done — rather than take real measures to prevent it — we're confusing things even more. It's a Greek tragedy without an ending.

Ecological and ethical doubts

De-extinction isn't happening yet. It's still just talk. But whether it moves forward or not, it will never be a useful tool in conservation. The doubts around it are ecological and ethical. What if the creature's original environment no longer exists? Even if it were reasonable to apply de-extinction to particular cases, these would be exceptional. And before that were ever done, one would have to meet the needs of thousands of still-living species facing extermination because of humans — among them the 5,200 now in precipitous decline.

I am hearing things like, if we were the cause, we must make amends for the wrong we have done. My conclusion here is precisely about language and its use. Those who favor the "miracle of science" justify themselves by saying this is just a manner of speaking. We're not literally talking old-fashioned "miracles," they say.

Great scientists are molecular engineers who create and activate futures

But as scientists keep repeating their spiel, they hammer home the notion of extinction as a temporary condition. That is how language works. It sets the scene for thoughts to become performance. It generates a public. And it earns applause.

Today, the great scientists are molecular engineers who create and activate futures. These are the same practical minds who in the past put stone, fire and atomic energy to use. They are intelligent and well-meaning, but will push the limits like capricious divinities.

What, in the meantime, are philosophers doing — aside from being dazzled by science? They'd be better off sketching out some much-needed ethical guidelines, because without that, the concept of nature that philosophers presently cherish will disappear.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Preparing a COVID-19 vaccine booster in Huzhou, China.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Ciao!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Brazil's senate backs "crimes against humanity" charges against Jair Bolsonaro, the UN has a grim new climate report and Dune gets a sequel. Meanwhile, German daily Die Welt explores "Xi Jinping Thought," which is now being made part of Chinese schools' curriculum.

[*Italian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Senators back Bolsonaro criminal charges: A Brazilian Senate panel has backed a report that supports charging President Jair Bolsonaro with crimes against humanity, for his alleged responsibility in the country's 600,000-plus COVID-19 deaths.

• Gas crisis in Moldova following Russian retaliation: Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has for the first time challenged Russia's Gazprom following a price increase and failed contract negotiations, purchasing instead from Poland. In response, Russia has threatened to halt sales to the Eastern European country, which has previously acquired all of its gas from Gazprom.

• New UN climate report finds planned emission cuts fall short: The Emissions Gap Report 2021 concludes that country pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions aren't large enough to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 °C degrees this century. The UN Environment Program predicts a 2.7 °C increase, with significant environmental impacts, but there is still hope that longer term net-zero goals will curtail some temperature rise.

• COVID update: As part of its long-awaited reopening, Australia will officially allow its citizens to travel abroad without a government waiver for the first time in more than 18 months. Bulgaria, meanwhile, hits record daily high COVID-19 cases as the Eastern European's hotel and restaurant association is planning protests over the implementation of the vaccination "green pass." In the U.S., a panel of government medical advisors backed the use of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for five to 11-year-olds.

• U.S. appeals decision to block Julian Assange extradition: The United States said it was "extremely disappointed" in a UK judge's ruling that Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, would be a suicide risk of he traveled across the Atlantic. In the U.S., he faces 18 charges related to the 2010 release of 500,000 secret files related to U.S. military activity.

• Deposed Sudan prime minister released: Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has been released from custody, though remains under heavy guard after Sudan's military coup. Protests against the coup have continued in the capital Khartoum, as Hamdok has called for the release of other detained governmental officials.

Dune Part 2 confirmed: The world will get to see Timothée Chalamet ride a sandworm: The second installment of the sci-fi epic and global box office hit has officially been greenlit, set to hit the screens in 2023.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

Front page of the National Post's October 27 front page

Canadian daily National Post reports on the nomination of Steven Guilbeault, a former Greenpeace activist, as the country's new Environment minister. He had been arrested in 2001 for scaling Toronto's CN Tower to unfurl a banner for Greenpeace, which he left in 2008.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Chinese students now required to learn to think like Xi Jinping

"Xi Jinping Thought" ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university, reports Maximilian Kalkhof in German daily Die Welt.

🇨🇳 It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education. The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader. Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself.

📚 Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

⚠️ But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation? The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I'm a footballer and I'm gay."

— Australian soccer player Josh Cavallo said in a video accompanying a tweet in which he revealed his homosexuality, becoming the first top-flight male professional player in the world to do so. The 21-year-old said he was tired of living "this double life" and hoped his decision to come out would help other "players living in silence."

🇸🇩💥  IN OTHER NEWS

Why this Sudan coup d'état is different

Three days since the military coup was set in motion in Sudan, the situation on the ground continues to be fluid. Reuters reports this morning that workers at the state petroleum company Sudapet are joining a nationwide civil disobedience movement called by trade unions in response to the generals' overthrow of the government. Doctors have also announced a strike.

Generals in suits At the same time, the military appears firmly in control, with deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok allowed to return home today after being held by the coup leaders. How did we get here? That's the question that David E. Kiwuwa, a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham, takes on in The Conversation:

"Since the revolution that deposed Omar el-Bashir in 2019, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

Economy as alibi For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council. This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy.

True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19. Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse."

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

471 million euros

Rome's Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, better known as Villa Aurora, will be put up for auction in January for 471 million euros ($547 million). The over-the-top price tag is thanks to the villa having the only known ceiling painting by Renaissance master Caravaggio.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Who wants to start the bidding on the Caravaggio villa? Otherwise, let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com!

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ