We’ve seen a number of books lately dealing with what has been called the “sixth extinction,” referring to the ongoing mass extinction event, and ways in which we might deal with the crisis. Elizabeth Kolbert’s forthrightly named The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History and Beth Shapiro’s How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-extinction are two excellent examples of such titles (I’d also include, though not quite as directly related, Michael Tennesen’s The Next Species). Now you can add Resurrection Science: Conservation, De-extinction and the Precarious Future of Wild Things by M.R. O’Connor to the list.
While all three begin with the same premise — that we are currently living through a mass extinction of many species — and do to some extent overlap, each has its own particular angle. Kolbert’s book gives a good sense of historical context on a geological timescale, explaining the first five events and then moving into current issues. Shapiro, meanwhile, is much more focused on de-extinction and in particular the detailed science behind it. O’Connor also discusses de-extinction, but focuses far less on the science and much more on the philosophy of the concept, exploring the idea through the prism of conservation ethics, balancing the abstract and abstruse segments with concrete case studies and examples of creatures on the knife’s edge of extinction. And more so than the other two, O’Connor seems torn about the conflict between concern for nature/animals and compassion for one’s fellow human being, saying that one of the questions at the core of conservation ethics is, “What is a species worth?”
The starting point for O’Connor’s sense of conflict was the discovery of a new species — a spray toad — at the base of a waterfall in Tanzania, which held up construction of a major hydropower plant, where less than half of its city residents and only 2% of its rural inhabitants have access to electricity. As she writes, “I felt my own sympathy for the cause of conservation challenged by the little warty toad in electricity-starved Tanzania.” This prompts her to seek out Holmes Rolston III, whom she calls “the father of the field of environmental ethics.” Thus begins a journey that will take her across the world and back in time, either literally or through research, as she explores eight creatures, including the southern white rhino of Africa, the North Atlantic right whale, Florida panthers, the White Sands pupfish, the passenger pigeon, and even our own cousins the Neanderthal.
Along the way she examines basic questions such as what is a species (the complexity and multiplicity of answers may surprise you), how fast does evolution take place (another possibly surprising answer if you haven’t paid attention lately), is an extinct animal recovered by genetics the same animal, is an animal no longer in its natural habitat (because we’ve destroyed it) the same animal, does the possibility of de-extinction mean we will care less about conservation and preservation, do captive breeding programs or the possibility of de-extinction via genetics offer any hope, and others.
The excursion is fascinating, especially in that O’Connor focuses much more on the philosophical/ethical questions than I’ve seen in books on the same topic, though she never wends so far afield from the real world that the reader feels a sense of detachment. And while she does deal with the science, it is with a relatively light touch and the science-challenged will certainly have no difficulties.
Just as important, O’Connor never loses touch with the human side of things, offering up vividly sharp portraits of several important players, philosophers and scientists, but especially the non-academics, such as the man who for decades was the best-known hunter of mountain lions in the Southwest and Mexico and who later became the go-to person for saving the Florida panthers, the widow whose personal project led to both a major archaeological find and an entire rethinking of what happened with the North Atlantic right whale, or the wife who moved to one of the most remote places on the planet.
O’Connor’s passion for nature is evident throughout, which makes her balanced approach all the more impressive. The questions she poses are deep, but the answers are few — at least so far. Instead, O’Connor leaves us to ponder on our own the ethics and morality of what is occurring and what is coming down the road, even as the science, and the extinctions, keep churning forward. Resurrection Science is a thoughtful, fascinating look at our world, our impact on it, and the choices we will soon be asked to make. Highly recommended on its own, and as part of the group of similarly themed books mentioned above.