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Rise of the Necrofauna: The Science, Ethics, and Risks of De-Extinction

by Britt Wray

“To this day I have never troubled about the ethics of the matter. The study of Nature makes a man at last as remorseless as Nature.” So says the eponymous vivisector in H.G. Wells’s 1896 novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau, an early example of science fiction as cautionary tale. In issuing a warning about the dangers that accrue to a hubristic attempt to manipulate nature, Wells echoes an earlier, similar work: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In that book, the titular doctor – before becoming enamoured with the possibilities of revivifying dead tissue through the process of galvanism – attends a lecture by a famous chemist named Waldman, who suggests that scientists of the day “have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its overshadows.”

In her invigorating new book, broadcaster and science writer Britt Wray invokes Frankenstein as a touchstone for a discussion of the science surrounding the possibility of de-extinction – that is, the movement to use genetic engineering, cloning, and the manipulation of DNA to enhance biodiversity by recreating species that have been lost. Wray uses the word “necrofauna” to describe such potential lifeforms; other terms she offers are “resurrection ecology,” “species revivalism,” and the delightful “zombie zoology.” Rise of the Necrofauna takes up where Wells and Shelley leave off, exploring human interventions into the natural world that those authors could only have dreamed about.

If the idea of resurrecting extinct species still seems like the stuff of fantasy, Wray would like to assure her readers that, on one level at least, it is. “If taken without scrutiny,” she writes in her introduction, “the term de-extinction as it is widely used suggests that reversing extinction might actually be achievable. That idea, however, is a sham. In no way can we ever undo the erasure of an entire way of life.” What might be possible is the use of genetic editing to create hybrids that would contain properties of extinct species.

Wray points to the bucardo, a type of ibex that went extinct in the year 2000; in 2003 DNA from the last known bucardo (a 13-year-old named Celia) was implanted in a goat’s egg and successfully brought to term. (The resulting animal died 10 minutes out of the womb.) The geneticist George Church muses on the possibility that a “few dozen changes to the genome of the modern elephant” would be enough “to create a variation that is functionally similar to the mammoth.” And a so-called “genetic rescue” outfit called Revive and Restore (the name of which sounds like a nefarious conglomerate in an early David Cronenberg film) has embarked on a flagship project to repopulate the earth with passenger pigeons, a species that went extinct in 1914.

All of this offers great promise – heightened biodiversity could help stave off the effects of climate change and mitigate the anthropocentric degradation being wreaked on the environment. But it is also fraught with peril and ethical dilemmas. What species are suitable contenders for resuscitation? How do scientists ensure that the resulting animals are viable and, on the other hand, do not pose a threat to other species in the areas where they are released? And how do we prevent the rise of profiteers who aim to peddle designer species or create animals specifically for use in canned hunts?

Wray refuses to shy away from these questions. “Learning about de-extinction has sent me into the heart of an ecosystem that’s colonized with even more mixed feelings than there are mixed genes,” she writes in the book’s closing pages. While cognizant of the dangers inherent in what remains – at least for the moment – a fringe science, Wray also admits to a belief that humans are not morally bound to refrain from altering natural ecosystems. But it is incumbent upon those who do so to be diligent in their efforts to control and contain the results.

Neither an evangelist nor a doomsayer, Wray walks a fine line. She does not subscribe to Wells’s pessimism and points out that Shelley’s message is frequently misconstrued: “[T]he story does not actually suggest that there are some things only God should know,” Wray writes. “Rather, it shows us why we have to take responsibility for what we have created.” In forwarding this argument, Wray perhaps downplays the more obviously venal aspects of human nature, and neglects to consider the immutable law of unintended consequences. And she ignores Dr. Moreau’s moral agnosticism and Waldman’s hubristic grandiosity, both of which tend to appear in any confluence of experimental science and technology.

If Wray herself remains cautious about the ethical ramifications of her material, Rise of the Necrofauna is liable to act as a kind of Rorschach test for her readers, who will react with excitement or anxiety depending upon their relative comfort with the potentials and perceived morality of modern genetic science. At its best, the book acts as neither a guide nor a warning, but a contour map of this burgeoning – and undeniably fascinating – field. Wray’s text ultimately echoes Joel Sartore, a photographer for National Geographic: “I don’t have to tell people what to think; I just want them to think. Is that so much to ask?”

Correction: The print version of this review indicated that Britt Wray coined the term “necrofauna.” That term was coined by futurist Alex Steffen. Q&Q apologizes for the error.