DE-EXTINCTION: Stewart Brand & Richard Prum with Hans Ulrich Obrist and & Brockman

DE-EXTINCTION: Stewart Brand & Richard Prum with Hans Ulrich Obrist and & Brockman

Part I: Edge, Live in London 2014
Stewart Brand, Richard Prum, Hans Ulrich Obrist [10.31.14]



STEWART BRAND is the Founder of the "The Whole Earth Catalog" and Co-founder of The Long Now Foundation and Revive and Restore; Author, Whole Earth DisciplineStewart Brand's Edge Bio Page

RICHARD PRUM is an Evolutionary Ornithologist at Yale University, where he is the Curator of Ornithology and Head Curator of Vertebrate Zoology in the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. He is working on a book about duck sex, aesthetic evolution, and the origin of beauty. Richard Prum's Edge Bio Page

HANS ULRICH OBRIST: We are very, very delighted to now introduce the next section. It’s a whole entire section. We call it the Edge-Serpentine section. It’s our long-time, long-term collaboration with John Brockman. We’re incredibly grateful for John. Ever since the Experiment Marathon in 2007, we have regular collaborations between the Serpentine marathons and Edge. In 2007, with Experiment Marathon and Olafur Eliasson, we asked the participants to come up with a formula for the 21st century and John Brockman asked the entire Edge community to do so, and it created a wonderful collaboration.

We have an entire section guest curated by John, bridging our marathon to science. We are very, very delighted that this continues here today, for the first time, not only with one section, but with two sections. John suggested for the Extinction Marathon, first of all, a conversation between Stewart Brand and Richard Prum, which he and I will moderate. Then we’d have a second chapter, which will involve different scientists who are part of the Edge community: Chiara Marletto, Helena Cronin, Steve Jones, Jennifer Jacquet, and also Molly Crockett, who will be in conversation and also make presentations connected to the topic of extinction.

John Brockman is a cultural impresario who has worked in the art world with science, with software, and the Internet. In the ‘60s he coined the word  "intermedia" and pioneered the notion of intermedia connecting environments in art, theater, and commerce. It’s very interesting that in 2014 his seminal book, By the Late John Brockman, has been re-edited and re-published and exists now as an e-book, and soon is also again available as a printed book. In ’73, Brockman founded Brockman, Inc., the literary agency, and then in ’96 he founded the nonprofit Edge Foundation. He is the publisher and the editor of Edge: "To arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge" as he always says. We really believe Edge is one of the great platforms to go beyond the fear of scientific knowledge, which, as you know, is also what the marathons try to do.

John invited Stewart Brand. Stewart doesn't need an introduction. He is one of the most well-known, great thinkers of our time. He finds things and found things. He’s the co-founder of Revive and Restore, the serial inventor of so many, many things he's founded. It’s a long list: The Long Now Foundation, The Well, the Global Business Network. He’s also the founder and editor of The Whole Earth Catalog, which is a very big inspiration for the art world. Recently there has been an exhibition in the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, which completely was inspired by The Whole Earth Catalog. He’s also one of the co-founders of the Clock of the Long Now, which is also a book. His many books include also the Whole Earth Discipline, How Buildings Learn and The Media Lab. He is trained as a biologist and, as he told me earlier today very importantly, also as an ecologist at Stanford, and we are very excited that he is here.

We are also very excited that John invited Richard Prum, who is the William Robertson Coe Professor of Ornithology at Yale University, and the Curator of Ornithology at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. His research interests include avian evolution, mating behavior, song, feather evolution, and also development as well as mate choice. He has conducted fieldwork throughout the world, and he is currently working on a book on the aesthetic evolution. Together with Brand and Prum and John Brockman we will now be discussing the topic of de-extinction. Please give a very, very warm welcome to John Brockman, to Stewart Brand, to Richard Prum.

OBRIST: John, the very beginning when we started our research for the Extinction Marathon, you immediately came up with this idea of this conversation, so maybe we could start with you introducing a little bit of how this idea came about.

JB: Stewart and I met in 1965. We’ve been in touch for forty-nine years. He’s had some great ideas, some stupid ideas. I’ll let you decide about this one. Extinction’s in the air. Stewart is the founder of the very wonderful, Long Now Foundation, which is a center of cultural activities in San Francisco in very much the same mode as Serpentine is in London. Under the aegis of Long Now, he and Ryan Phelan started Revive and Restore, and that organization is exploring possibilities of bringing back or studying the efficacy of even trying to bring back various species, hypothetically, from the passenger pigeon to the woolly mammoth. I’ll be interested in finding out what progress they’ve made.

Coincidentally I met Richard Prum recently, and we did an interview on Edge, which is on the front page of Richard is a bird person. He’s the ornithologist birdsong expert. Just last week at Yale he organized an extinction conference in which, for the first time in 150 years, a symphony by a composer named Heinrich was performed dedicated solely to the plight of the passenger pigeon. We’ll start here, and we’ll start with Richard.

RICHARD PRUM: In a similar event recently we have been trying to draw, like today’s marathon, various cultural and scientific threads together into a common story, or common understanding of the process of extinction, and what extinction means to the culture. In the case of this symphony by Heinrich, it was a beautiful opportunity. It turns out that Anthony Philip Heinrich was a bohemian immigrant to America in about 1800. He ended up in Kentucky where he was a friend of John James Audubon. He was also a composer, and he ended up composing lots of very programmatic, classical music. He was the first symphonic composer in America, and between 1837 and ’57 he composed a piece about the passenger pigeon. He observed the migration of the passenger pigeon in the American wilderness of Kentucky as it was at that time, and he wrote this fantastic piece. It was performed once in Prague in 1858 and hadn’t been performed again since.

We were involved in this de-extinction of an artwork—a newly extinct artwork—about the passenger pigeon. Luckily the DNA of the work was still present in the original score, so the players didn’t have that much difficulty bringing it back to life. One of the most extremely interesting things about it was that it was a naïve work. It composed before the passenger pigeon was endangered in any way. The passenger pigeon was the locus of this very American work, and in that sense it added a whole new dimension to the extinction of the passenger pigeon and what’s been lost on the continent. It was an exciting event.

STEWART BRAND: Do we get to hear some?

PRUM: We have some of the first clips, but we don’t have them uploaded. Maybe during the next break we can pump it into the environment.

BRAND: That would be great.

JB: One thing: when you talk about passenger pigeons, people don’t realize there would be a four-mile swath of blackness overhead that would continue for four days. The question of bringing back a species like that impacts everybody, not just environmentalists.

BRAND: That’s interesting.

JB: So speak to that.

BRAND: Mind if I say a thing or two about this diagram? What’s going on is it’s becoming possible to bring back some extinct species. I brought this diagram because there is a continuum between being a species that is doing fine and a species that’s in trouble, a species that’s seriously endangered, down to a very small population whose DNA—their gene pool—is starting to get inbred, and then extinction. The DNA is still recoverable, but it grows less and less recoverable over time. The oldest intact DNA we found so far is from about 700,000 years old, and that was frozen in ice. It was in pretty good shape.

Dinosaurs—we have the Velociraptor here in this diagram—they’re not coming back. You can’t clone from a stone as they say. But the DNA that’s in some fossils and museum specimens, it's as if the score of that symphony had been ripped up, rained on, and thrown together a whole bunch of other scores. In other words, it’s been contaminated. With massive computer power now, we are now able to basically decode that problem and reassemble the genome of the extinct animal, and this has been going on for a while.

In some ways, for example, we know the genome of the Neanderthal better than we know contemporary humans'. We are increasingly looking at animals, like the woolly mammoth, which has way more base pairs than we do. We have about 3.2 billion base pairs in our genome and the woolly mammoth as four billion. The passenger pigeon has only 1.3 billion. With the reassembly of those genomes—remember it’s just data, it isn’t DNA yet—we can write DNA as well as read DNA. Writing DNA and then being able to edit genomes, being able to edit DNA leads you to the next stage we’re now at, which is that you can take the closest living relative of the woolly mammoth—the Asian elephant—or the closest living relative of this once massively abundant bird, the passenger pigeon, that relative is a band-tailed pigeon, which, in the usual IUCN list is considered not a problem at all and lives on the opposite coast from the passenger pigeon.

What you do with the closely related species is a couple of things. First, you can use it as a reference point for reassembling the genome of the extinct species. Then you can look at the differences between those two genomes, and the differences will tell you what made one a passenger pigeon and what made the other a band-tailed pigeon, and now with the genome-editing techniques that are coming along, such as one called CRISPR, you can take the different genes from the extinct animal, edit them into the equivalent gene space in the living genome, and then potentially recreate an altered version of the living animal to basically duplicate the extinct animal. You’re turning an Asian elephant, probably through a series of generations, back into woolly mammoths. You’re turning band-tailed pigeon, which is living, back into living passenger pigeons.

None of this has been done yet, but the technology has been proved at each of the various points of difficulty along the way. What we now have is persuasive evidence that it can be done. Ryan Phelan, my wife, who's the executive director of Revive and Restore, two years ago we took on. Let’s just go ahead and see if it can be done. Bring back the woolly mammoth. Bring back the passenger pigeon and get the whole public discussion going on what we think about that. Is it the right thing to do? What does it mean in terms of conservation? That’s part of what will be our discussion today. But to make sure that it’s a conversation about something real. Just to give a point of progress, there’s two teams working on those two animals.

The passenger pigeon is being worked on by Beth Shapiro’s team at UC Santa Cruz, and George Church, who’s one of the world’s leading bioengineers at Harvard is leading what they call the Mammoth Revivalists team. Just to give an indication of how far along they are, they have identified three genes of the woolly mammoth that were important for living in the cold climate of the arctic. One is for long, woolly, red hair; another is for six centimeters of subcutaneous fat, which would keep it warm in the cold climate; another is for hemoglobin blood cells that are well-adapted for the cold climate. They have moved those genes into living elephant cell lines.

This paper has not been published yet, so you’re hearing about it ahead of the publication. They are in the process of showing that those woolly mammoth genes in the living elephant genome cell line can express the traits of the woolly mammoth. We may have a mouse, which we’ll show that it can grow mammoth hair. You don’t go very far with that. They’ve already shown that you can develop the hemoglobin cell, and the next will be the subcutaneous fat. When that set of proofs is done, then a paper comes out which will, I think, change everybody’s mind about the practicality of this.

Now you can clone mammals; you cannot clone birds, so there will be other things that have to be proven about making birds come back. Basically, the technique there involves persuading the gonads of a related bird to replicate the gonads of the extinct bird and lay eggs of the extinct bird. You might have a chicken, for example, and through the process of using primordial germ cells, develop a chicken with passenger pigeon gonads that lays passenger pigeon eggs. That'll be coming in the next few years. In the meantime, we’ve got time to think about it.

PRUM: If we consider the prospect of de-extinction, before we can decide whether it’s happened, we have to have a clear concept of what extinction really is.

We’re clear that death is the death of an individual organism. Extinction is the end of what? It's another kind of individual. It’s the end of a historical individual—the taxon—either the lineage of the passenger pigeon, or mammals, or trilobites. These are all different historical individuals. Extinction has this special quality because it means the end of a thing that has a restriction in space and time to a particular place, in this case to the information. Now, the taking of band-tailed pigeon and bringing relevant genes into it through molecular mechanisms is going to get us a thing that even might resemble a passenger pigeon in many critical ways, but it won’t bring back that whole species, or that whole individual. We’re conjuring a chimera, a chimeric animal, which may be expedient and may be ecologically meaningful, but it won’t be the passenger pigeon. Will it?

BRAND: I think a more useful term is a hybrid in the sense that chimeras, typically, parts of them are one thing and parts of them are another. This is more like what happens in nature all the time with hybridization. On the American east coast, the coyotes have been traveling east for quite a while now, and they pick up wolf genes along the way. There's now an animal on the east coast, which is not a wolf and is not a coyote, they refer to it as the eastern canid. It’s basically evolving into existence as a species before our eyes, and it's conveniently big enough to take down a small white-tailed deer. They’re starting to behave in packs a little bit, which coyotes never used to do. That’s more the kind of thing that will emerge from this de-extinction process. Also it will happen, as it did with the eastern canid, by stages.

PRUM: That gives rise to more of an ecological restoration than a de-extinction. A great example of this happening is in the eastern United States. The peregrine falcon went extinct through the use of DDT east of the Rockies and all the way up into Quebec etc. This form of bird disappeared. It was reintroduced in the beginning of the late ‘70s and ‘80s and is now pretty much thriving.

BRAND:  But it’s not the original bird at all. It’s a hybrid of a bunch of other peregrine falcons.

PRUM:  Indeed. The guys who did it were mostly falconers, so the birds that they used were from all over the world. They had, in some cases probably, good reasons for obscuring the source of the birds because many of them were smuggled and illegal. What we now have in the eastern United States is a mosh-up of global peregrine falcons, and yet there is one that nests about a kilometer from my house in New Haven.

BRAND:  What’s it eating? It's probably eating mock pigeons.

PRUM:  It’s eating pigeons. When I see it, my pulse races regardless of its genetic mixture.

BRAND:  Richard, tell a story from this gathering you’ve just had, because I gather the guy who works for us, Ben Novak, talked about the passenger pigeon. I think he made an assertion in his slides, which I’ve seen, that the passenger pigeons used to be such a big event in the eastern deciduous forest in the U.S. that presumably the predators that specialized in them, like peregrine falcons, were also prospering. Then we hunted the passenger pigeons to death. Presumably the obligate predator would go down under the circumstances, and this may have been part of what made the eastern peregrine falcon more vulnerable to going extinct when DDT came along. When it was brought back, by then the cities were big enough and had enough rock pigeons that the peregrine falcon started turning up in town, which was probably not their habitat before. Do you buy that story?

PRUM:  Well, it’s definitely true that the peregrine that’s been restored to the United States is an urban bird, and the reason it’s an urban bird is because that’s where the pigeons are, because they’re introduced rock doves. Of course, rock doves were common before but definitely still restricted to ...

BRAND:  So when the passenger pigeons come back, then the peregrine falcons will be out in the forest like they used to be.

PRUM:  I think Ben Novak, who works for Long Now Foundation, was absolutely correct. There is no forest pigeon in the eastern United States right now. That pigeon went extinct. Restoring it, if one could, would add …

BRAND:  If this is the case, it says something. A term that comes up around extinction a lot is it leaves a gap in nature. Then the ecological question is, "Yes, but don’t those gaps fill in?" A niche is an opportunity for lots of other species to just take over whatever that creature used to do, and yet if it’s the case that there’s no forest pigeon in the whole eastern deciduous forest, when we killed off the passenger pigeon it left a gap. And the gap is still there 100 years later.

PRUM:  I think the history of introduced plants and animals around the planet shows that the gap concept is too rigid. Any ecosystem is susceptible to invasion. In some cases, because of an exotic animal or plant that can cause a lot of havoc, in some cases they’re susceptible to the reintroduction of a species that used to be there. Wild turkey in the eastern United States is another one that’s been successful at coming back. Is there a gap? That’s more for theoretical ecologists who argue over these things, but the current work on that would be from invasion studies. Invasions are happening; they have a big, chaotic and damaging effect on lots of ecosystems. That's plausible, invasion can happen.

BRAND:  Especially from predators. You’re restless. What are you restless about?

JB: The earlier speaker mentioned fifty-two percent of species have disappeared in forty years. Is that correct? In terms of Revive and Restore, how does having a meeting and deciding what do you want to bring back and why?

BRAND:  Yes, the criteria, there’s a whole committee that’s being formed by the IUCN to look at criteria for de-extinction, and it’s very similar to the criteria for reintroduction. The criteria for spending a lot of money dealing with any seriously endangered species, and you wind up doing triage, frankly. You wind up saying,  "Well, this one’s not evolutionarily distinct, " as we were hearing from Jonathan Bailey’s talk. Therefore, something close enough to it could probably fill in its gap, it’s not that big a deal to lose it. But losing the thylacine, for example—the Tasmanian tiger—there’s nothing that close, and it will be very hard to de-extinct for that reason. That's a real loss of the whole branch of the tree of life. That’s one of the issues you look at. A lot them there’s practical issues: going extinct recently enough that there’s recoverable DNA, or there’re enough specimens so you get a variety of DNA, so you don’t bring back something that’s going to be immediately inbred. Is there a close living relative, and is there habitat for it when you bring it back? For the passenger pigeon, there’s probably habitat. For the woolly mammoth, there’s no end of northern arctic habitat.

JB:  On a human level, you have a committee. Do people have favorites and lobby for them, and do you have arguments and why? Do people get attached to cute animals to bring back as opposed to ...

PRUM:  They certainly do. I don’t think there’s anybody advocating to bring back smallpox, which is currently extinct in the wild. That’s a legitimate species of wild organism.

BRAND:  The guinea worm is about to go extinct, and nobody’s sorry about that.

PRUM:  The guinea worm is about to go extinct. Some of these things will be celebrated, so there’s lots of de-extinction that’s off the base. The interesting issue is when does it make sense and when is it compelling.

BRAND:  A lot of it, it’s like, you have a whole set of ethical issues and biological issues, both molecular and, more importantly, conservation biology, and then frankly you have funding issues. As architects say, form follows funding. The animals that will draw avid supporters who have avid amounts of money will probably be the first ones that get dealt with. The woolly mammoth is a pretty exciting animal. There’s a long-tailed hopping mouse that might be easier in some ways because there’s so much we know about lab mouse genetics and so on, but there’s not a great big constituency for the long-tailed hopping mouse yet, maybe later.

JB:  Martin Rees is speaking here tomorrow. His big topic is our 50/50 chance of survival because of human errors.

BRAND:  Ask him tomorrow—I’m sorry I can’t be here—if that rate changes over time. Is it always going to be 50/50? I mean, did he say 50/50 ten years ago and still saying 50/50 even though we’ve had ten years of not going extinct? I’m just curious to see what, for him, changes that range.

HUO:  We’ll ask him tomorrow afternoon.

BRAND:  Good.

JB:  Craig Venter talks about, and George Church also, what are the dangers, if any?

BRAND:  The dangers of de-extinction mostly get interpreted in ecological or conservation terms, and mostly by people who are mistakenly worried that nature is really, really fragile. We saw this when a year ago we had a TEDx de-extinction that Ryan organized that had twenty-five scientists holding forth on various aspects of a wide number of projects that are going on—everything from the European aurochs to the Spanish bucardo to the gastric brooding frog in Australia.

Our projects are not the only one. Then the news went out: "De-extinction might happen", and it was great because it went out in a way that people understood it as a scientific issue. They understood we weren’t going to have dinosaurs. There’s no Jurassic park scenario going to play out. But immediately you would see in these wonderful comment lines after every place online, where the trolls emerge and start fretting, and the hand-wringing would be around, let’s see: what if you bring it back and it turns out to be insanely invasive? And, passenger pigeons, there used to be five billion and suddenly there’s five billion birds crapping on everything, it’ll be like kudzu. Well, actually it’s not an invasive. They were in North America for 22 million years. The invasive in this story is us, and we’re the ones who shot them all to death. If we’ve got an invasive to worry about it’s the human one, which is fair. Nature will accommodate these birds coming back. Nature’s not broken.

Another common comment is that there’s obviously no habitat left for these birds, or for the woolly mammoths, because the world has changed since their day. Again, time machine notions of if you were suddenly thrown into the 15th century or the 24th century, you wouldn’t be able to function because you wouldn’t know how to call a cab. It’s not like that in nature, and things blend in and take time in. Nature is not broken just because humans have been farming for 10,000 years. It is very robust.

What are the real dangers? The real dangers are it won’t work. There are many a chance that reintroduction of wild species back into their former habitat that just don’t quite take. On the other hand, there are many reintroductions which work fabulously well, and then you stop hearing about them because they work so well, like the peregrine falcon, like bringing beavers back into Sweden. It looks like there’s hope of getting beavers back truly in the wild in Scotland. When that happens, biodiversity goes up. They’re a keystone species. It’s exactly what you want.

One of the reasons to go ahead with lots of different species is that some just won’t work out. They won’t work out in terms of the molecular biology. They won’t work out in terms of this new hybrid species doesn’t quite make it. There won’t be any more hazard of disease than already exists with animals moving around and so on. One advantage you’ll have with the animals that are brought back through this genetic process is you will know every single base pair in their genome, and if there’s any endogenous viruses in there or something like that, you will know all about them.

 If, for example, they were susceptible to a disease, this then raises another ethical issue: is it okay not only to bring back a species but bring it back in a new and improved form, which is perhaps immune, no longer susceptible to a disease which has been introduced by us? In the Hawaiian Islands, avian malaria is killing most of the birds. To bring back one of the wonderful extinct species there, likely ‘ō‘ōs or one of those, and not have it tuned so that it was not susceptible, you would need to make it non susceptible to avian malaria in order to bring it back ethically. That’s a change. Is it okay to do that?

JB:  In northern New Jersey, there’s a trend of bears encroaching on populated areas. Traditionally, the black bears are afraid of people and don’t want to mess with them and back off. Say this was an extinct species and you got them going with other genes. Is that genetic learning, makes them afraid of humans? Is that a pattern they learned from their mothers? Say they came back and starting eating everybody?

BRAND:  The pigeons?

JB:  No, the bears.

BRAND: Large predators are a different story. Yes, we could probably bring back the saber-toothed cat. Southern Californians are not hot to have the saber-toothed cat back just yet even though there’s plenty of bruins in the La Brea Tar Pits. The large short-faced bear, which used to be this enormous bear that lived in North America, the cave bears that lived up in the arctic. Once you have lots and lots of mega herbivores back in the arctic, turning the tundra back into grassland and, therefore, solving part of the climate problems that the thawing tundra and the boreal forest is causing, and you take it back to grassland—what’s called the mammoth steppe, which was the largest biome in the world back in the day—and start getting this Serengeti density of large animals, mega herbivores, well, then to manage the mega herbivores you’re going to want some mega carnivores. Then you probably do want the cave bear back. There used to be a lion that lived in the far north.

Large predators? Fence technology is getting better and better. There’s parts of southern Africa now that are managing the lions in part by fencing the farmed areas—settled areas—so that the lions can’t get in there and disturb the cattle, they have to go out and deal with wild animals. These kinds of workarounds are basically what you get to doing conservation increasingly in this century. There’s a couple of schools of thought about that. One is don’t do anything and leave it pristine. Well, there is no pristine, so then you’re left with, okay, do something, and then the whole question of conservation and science is, what things is it okay to do? What things can we afford to do? Then you get into these choices of what ecological systems do you want to have in incredibly healthy shape, either by keeping them that way or by restoring them to that.

Now I think we’re going to see more and more very high-quality restoration starting with island biology. Island conservation has come a long way. We figured out how to totally get rid of some of the predators that were killing all the endemic species. You get rid of all the rats and the cats and the pigs and the goats and dogs and the burros. Then that island is fixed. There’s 650 islands that have been restored to all endemic species, or a few invasives that you don’t care about, which is most invasives. It’s just the invasive predators that are an issue. Long answer. Sorry.

JB:  I’m interested in how this flies in academic research. I realize Stewart and Ryan, they’re not scientists but they’re out there talking to all kinds of scientists, but all these people do different things. They’re in different disciplines. Within the disciplines, how does this play?

PRUM:  The way it plays inside of evolutionary biology is that people think that the technological hassles or hurdles are going to be overwhelming.

BRAND:  Ah, interesting. Say more.

PRUM:  For example, the bird genome has many features that make it particularly difficult to work with.

BRAND:  Such as ...

PRUM:  The chicken genome has been published for ten years, and there are still many micro chromosomes that we still haven’t gotten the sequence of. Those are huge challenges. Everybody’s enthusiastic that continued study will allow us to learn things, and academics are always up for that. But what in particular? Is this going to be achieved, or will these hybrid forms, chimeric forms be successful? Woolly mammoth may be the first because it ...

BRAND:  Say why.

PRUM:  Mammals and mammal genetics. Most of what we know about genetics comes from biomedical science. And since we’re interested in curing people who are mammals, that means we know a lot more about mammal genetics and manipulation of mammal genetics than we do for birds or other kinds of organisms even though things like worms or flies may be simpler to work with, to manipulate in many ways. I wouldn’t be surprised if they could come up with a woolly mammoth-like thing that had appropriately red hair and appropriate amounts of body fat, an Indian elephant come up there. Now of course, in a warming planet, where is that organism going to live? That’s another issue. We already have living African elephants being probably restricted to game parks of a very finite size in the next couple decades. That means even our current biodiversity will be hemmed in into essentially large, maybe ecosystem scale, zoological parks but still very fragmented and heavily managed. That animal would, of course, have this very precarious existence.

BRAND:  One thing about the woolly mammoth, there’s a lot of question of did we kill them all with spears, or was it climate change when the Ice Age ended and there was an interglacial under way which we’re now in the thick of? Would they have gone extinct anyway? The important thing you learn from genomic studies is the history of the animals. One of the things that we learned from genomic studies, as well as fossil records of woolly mammoth, is that they did just fine through a great many Ice Ages and interglacials before. The first interglacial in which an invasive species armed with spears showed up was the one they didn’t make it through. As woolly mammoths, there was enough cold climate in the far north that the mammoth steppe probably moved north and south a bit, but it didn’t completely disappear.

One advantage is that there’s not a lot of people where the mammoths would live. It's not like Africa now, which is getting more and more people, or any of the temperate zones where there’s already a lot of people. But again, remember people are moving into cities, so we’re now more than half of the world is in cities. By mid century it’ll be something like eighty percent of the world in cities, which is freeing up a lot of countryside. In Europe you have a lot of abandoned farmland, which goes almost instantly to forest, which is now being occupied by wolves finding their way in from Italy and from Russia. The wolves are turning up in the Netherlands of all places. There's a good chance that some of the things going on anyway are opening up potential of a lot of habitat for creatures to have wilderness, especially if we, in semi-wilderness, take the trouble to protect it and monitor it and garden it where needed. Chances look pretty good.

JB:  What are the actual programs in play? The research or ...

BRAND:  On de-extinction?

JB:  Yes, for the agendas of Revive and Restore?

BRAND:  I should add that this technology, not only is working on extinct species—in the diagram, those things that are to the right of the extinction there. But for some of the species that are endangered and have problems with their gene pool, such as the black-footed ferret, we've put some money and time into this beautiful animal in North America that was thought to have gone extinct. Then a small colony was found. They were put into captive breeding, and basically only seven individuals were responsible for all of the offspring. There’s now been several thousand of these animals that have come back. Many have been released into the wild, but coming from that small of a set of parents they’re probably pretty inbred, so now we’re doing the research to see how inbred are they. Is the inbreeding expressing itself in that they don’t reproduce as well, or they have kinked tails or whatever. Then, can you go to the museum specimens of these animals and basically find extinct genes, extinct alleles—variations to the genes—and bring those back in to the living gene pool. In other words, reintroduce genetic variability and, therefore, adaptability and survivability and release from the inbreeding extinction vortexes as it’s called. Even though it’s still a relatively small population of black-footed ferrets let’s say, they would begin to have the genomic variability of their original wild ancestors and, thus, have a much better chance of surviving and avoiding extinction.

There’s lots of animals that are in this category and if taking this approach proves out with things like the black-footed ferret, that becomes then a technique, a real straightforward conservation technique to prevent extinction as well as cure extinction.

HUO:  At the DLD in relation to that, you presented a panel connected to this gene code of the Neanderthal, and I thought it would be interesting to talk about that in context of the extinction.

JB:  This was Svante Pääbo. 

HUO:  Exactly.

BRAND:  And what did he say about Neanderthal and revival?

PRUM:  From what we know of human genetics, it’s clear that we don’t have the manipulative tools, but that’s a very practical prospect, at least as practical as anything that’s been raised. Of course, the ethical issues are huge.

BRAND:  We punt on that one at Revive and Restore because the restore part would be: bring them back and they have to live in caves in southern Spain.

JB:  And Pääbo says maybe we should ask the mammoths what they want or the Neanderthals.

BRAND:  Oh, okay, so Pääbo says bring back a few, teach them a language, probably German in this case, and then ask them, "Is it okay to be alive again?" and "What do you think about there being lots of people like you going to college?" What do you think they'll say,  "Nah." No, they’ll say, "Far fucking out," right?

HUO:  Can you talk a little bit more about these ethical issues?

PRUM:  Sure. Human history or anthropological history shows that there were, for a long time during the last five million years, multiple species of hominines living simultaneously on the planet. We don’t know much about their ecological relationships. In fact, one of the oddities of bringing back the Neanderthal is that it’s here within us. Some large portion of almost every European genome, something like ten percent or something on that order…

BRAND:  Three or four percent.

PRUM:  Three or four percent is known to be Neanderthal content. That implies that Neanderthal didn’t reach a classical extinction. It reached some kind of genetic melding with expanding populations of homo sapiens coming out of Africa in a later wave. But individuals that are genetically identical to that ancient species would have a very…we’d have a whole series of new challenges trying to deal with this new element of biodiversity on the planet that was another hominine species. How to restore their position is basically impossible. What would be their role in the planet? That would be totally challenging. It would make it so that people who work on Neanderthal would refuse to pursue the project.

BRAND:  Anyway, not our immediate problem, but it raises interesting issues. Richard, I’d love to get to some of the work that you’ve been doing on evolution in the context of beauty.

And to make a link, John was raising a point of how you decide. Well, some of the decision of humans now engaging with this quasi-evolutionary process of recreating species that used to exist, we’re going to be looking for what we think of as beautiful species, like woolly mammoth. The passenger pigeon is gorgeous. The male passenger pigeon has got this beautiful orange-ish breast and the iridescent neck and the long, sharp tail and they can fly like hell and, as I point out, he isn’t that beautiful for us, he's that beautiful for her.

PRUM:  It's relevant in a number of ways. My own work includes work on sexual selection and the evolution of mate choice in birds, and trying to understand that as an aesthetic process, not that we think it’s beautiful, but that birds evolve to be beautiful because they’re beautiful to themselves. That is that they’re aesthetic agents in their own evolution. This active role in their evolution explains why the world looks the way it does. What that means is that each extinction is also an aesthetic extinction. As I would describe it, it’s the end of an art world, a world of aesthetic producers and consumers that happen to be non human. I have work in aesthetic philosophy where I propose that various aspect of the co-evolved, ornamentive birds and flowers etc., are biotic forms of art. Guys back there, hit my next slide.

This has been going on a long time. This is a dinosaur extinct 150 million years ago. Recently we reconstructed the color of this dinosaur by analyzing the nano scale particles of melanin in fossil feathers. This is not a bird. It’s more basal in the tree of life than the raptors, and we can see that it has highly ornamental feathers. In fact, we’re working on work describing the aesthetic function of feathers may have been critical to the evolution of the planar vein. Some birds that are nearly critically endangered, or are critically endangered—this is the male banded cotinga from southeastern Mata Atlantica in Brazil, and it has a unique set of ornaments that are co-evolved with the mating preferences for that species. If this bird goes extinct, we’ve lost an aesthetic community—producers and consumers. This matters. Here’s an outrageous display by a superb bird-of-paradise. This is filmed by Ed Scholes, now at Cornell, who then was at my lab. They eye is actually black when you see him. Now a female is about to visit this male at his display. Now what is she evaluating? Well, this tells us lots of things. One is that the smiley face was not invented by ‘50s and ‘60s popular culture but co-evolved independently in aesthetic art worlds in New Guinea. Right? This kind of aesthetic science leads us to all sorts of understanding about how did that bird make that color. How did it make the super black material around it? It puts something more at stake in our extinction. One of the things related to de-extinction, of course, is that a lot of these cultures are aesthetic cultures. For example, the Hawaiian honeycreepers learn their songs. They don’t learn their songs from mom and dad, they learn their songs from the community.  

BRAND:  Really.

PRUM:  As a result, if we were to bring them back, there would be no culture to bring them back to. This is what Nardi experienced in New Zealand where some of the birds, like the saddleback and some of the wattlebirds, found on these little peripheral islands, to save the populations they often take young individuals and colonize new islands. As they do, they’ve taken young non breeders, so that they don’t endanger the already critically endangered populations. They bring essentially teenagers to new islands and you get this Lord of the Flies effect. They arrive there and they have no culture. What songs? They end up having these incredible, cultural, macro-mutations where the birds on the introduced island sing entirely different songs that don’t even sound like the family of birds they come from. They’ve gone to cultural zero. These are aesthetic components of the social lives of these birds.

BRAND:  They go to cultural zero, but do they then recreate from zero and socialize a new set of aesthetics?

PRUM:  Just like human vocal learning, avian vocal learning involves a babbling stage. They babble. Without having any cultural guidance as to how to do that, they start with babbling and they go to extremely uncharacteristic, un-stereotyped babbling song.

HUO:  We have later on in the marathon Marguerite Humeau, the artist, who has been working on bringing back the soundscapes of extinct animals. That somehow connects. One question I wanted to ask you about extinction is that some of the technology that is used to facilitate de-extinction could eventually have a secondary application for being used to protect endangered species and help them regain their diversity. We touched on this, but I thought it would be interesting to hear from you a little bit more on this utility: how that works in practice, and how we can use technology of de-extinction, or inventions of de-extinction to somehow use to protect endangered species.

PRUM:  Stewart's described the black-footed ferret program, which is the best ...

HUO:  But can you give some more examples maybe? It would be great to hear some more practical examples.

PRUM:  The Florida panther is a large cat living in the United States and down to several dozen, maybe under 20 individuals, in Florida. The population is so small that even if a zoo animal escapes, it becomes a significant genetic input into the animal. It’s extremely bottle-necked, an extremely small amount of diversity. Using museum specimens and these techniques, it would be possible to add genetic diversity to that small population.

BRAND:  The Florida panther is a nice story because they detected phenotypic problems of inbreeding. One of the things we’ll be able to do with these technologies is do increasingly serious, genetic analysis to see how the inbreeding situation is increasing and playing out and what you’re losing along the way. In this case the Florida panthers, people protecting them got desperate enough, they said, "Give the people in Texas a call. Bring in one of those Texas cougars." It’s southern United States, probably pretty close, might even be a subspecies relationship. Who knows? Bring in some. I think they wound up with a female Texas cougar. Bring her and also some male genes into the southern Florida panther population. Instant improvement in the situation.

This has also happened with wolves, for example, in Isle Royale on Lake Superior. One male, one female shows up with an infusion of variable genes, and the whole inbreeding situation gets better for a few generations. It doesn’t take much to get these populations out of the serious problem they’re in. Nobody yet has reached back to extinct alleles from museum specimens or from fossils, but that’s clearly going to happen in the next few years. We'll see how it plays out. Generally, just based on the experiences like what has happened with wolves and the Florida panthers is signs are that it can be very, very effective in restoring genetic variability.

JB:  Stewart, what’s the political feedback you’re getting? The Republicans don’t like science, period, but the left wing doesn’t like GMOs.

BRAND:  There's a nice distinction going on. GMOs are an agricultural story, and people are concerned about how agriculture is organized. A lot of it gets translated in those terms, but it’s increasingly clear that genetic technology, both in terms of diagnosis and potentially treatment for wildlife populations is potentially a very good thing. People who might normally do a knee jerk, "Oh, you’re messing around with genes, don’t do that," or  "you’re playing God, don’t do that," are waiting properly to see if it works.

JB:  How long do we have to wait?

BRAND:  One of the great advantages of de-extinction is it does not happen overnight. It’s going to happen by stages; it’s going to happen slowly; it’s going to happen transparently. What drove the plot of Jurassic Park is all this private corporate secret. Maintaining the secrecy of the project is what let it become pathological. What we’re doing, and what science in general does with this process of figuring out the genomic characteristics of these creatures and then starting to just slightly twiddle the knobs, is having it very transparently. Everybody can see how it works, what’s going on, where the money is coming from, what particular kinds of environments and ecological systems these might fit in. From our perspective, a lot of people now have a whole other reason to learn ecology, to learn conservation science, to learn the realities of what’s going on out there with these various projects, and to notice that there’s a powerful new tool finally at hand to engage some of these serious conservation issues. We've got plenty of time to think about it, argue about it, regulate it. The IUCN is putting together its committee. Philip Seddon, who’s running it, is first rate.

JB:  What organization? Spell out the letters.

BRAND: International Union for the Conservation of Nature. We were just at a gathering at the zoo here the other day. They’re celebrating their 50th anniversary of the Red List and, by the way, they are talking about generating a Green List. There’s the worry about body of species, and also they’re doing that with some ecological systems now, a Red List of ecological systems that are in trouble. They want to develop a Green List of ecological systems that are doing better, of protected areas that are very well-protected, and species that are increasingly out of danger—the whales. Enormous efforts were made to save the whales and, by and large, the whales have been saved and are back on track to do well. We’d like to see the great auk, a pelagic bird about yah high, a flightless bird like the penguin of the North Atlantic. That’s a project that may well be the next one that we take on to bring that bird back, and then we’ll blend in with all of this other…

JB:  When you say a project, is this Revive and Restore raising money and executing? Or working with outside institutes or scientific areas?

BRAND:  Yes. Revive and Restore is a little bit of a collaborator, coordinator umbrella organization. One of the cool things about de-extinction is it’s everything from the bench work in the lab to get the genes doing the thing you want to do, to way the hell back out in the wilderness where you’re trying to reintroduce the revived animals. That’s a long process in time that you want some entity to be able to engage all parts of it, at the same time to get the public discourse going on it and to see the process through, so that it doesn’t just look like a stunt that we’re going to bring back one woolly mammoth and admire it, and then it’ll be a sad beast. You know from the start when you’re putting in work on the woolly mammoth that what you have in mind is repopulating the mammoth steppe.

JB:  Hans Ulrich, do we have audience questions?

HUO:  I was wondering if you can maybe take one or two audience questions. We are kind of out of time, but we have time for audience to ask questions. Are there questions for Stewart or Richard or John? If not, we can continue the discussion on Edge, because this is not only live on the space but…

BRAND:  There’s a hand over there. Okay, great. Sing out. Who are you? What do you do, and what are you asking about?

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Birdsong is cultural transmission:  Have there been experiments where you removed any influence of parents or community and then retrained using recorded bird songs. Have the new young learned songs from the recorded bird songs?

PRUM:  One could. If you had recordings of the appropriate species and you had them available, you could recolonize an island with young individuals and use speakers, pumping the culture recorded into the environment so that they would learn it. They learn it from individuals that don’t necessarily interact with their neighbors as they establish territories. That would have worked. What’s interesting about it is they didn’t even think about that. They were trying to save the species without being conscious of the fact that they would disrupt the culture. Now we have multiple islands in New Zealand that have these cultural zero populations of saddleback and other species.

HUO:  There’s one more question. A question here in the second row.

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  Hi there. I’m Gavin, social entrepreneur and ex-banker. If you were in a room with multi-billionaire philanthropists and impact-oriented investors, what would be the top two or three investments you would have them make right now?

BRAND:  This is the real question. The question is if you were talking with multi-billionaires and they’re interested, what do you say next? You get a sense of what they’re interested in. If they’re a birder, you’re not going to talk about woolly mammoths. You will talk about passenger pigeons or other precious birds. They're going to say, "Well, what are we talking about in terms of time? What are we talking about in terms of money?" We’ve been forced through this a couple of times. We don’t have millions of dollars. We get $10,000 at a time. Most of the labs that are doing the work are doing it out of their own budgets at this point. To bring back a woolly mammoth, if somebody said, "Okay, do it. What would that cost?" At this point I would say, to roll the thing, how about committing $2 million a year to this project for ten years. Sign up for $20 million, and we’ll try to get some other stuff along the way—corporate sponsorships or whatever. With $20 million you can probably do a hell of a lot toward bringing back woolly mammoth, or a passenger pigeon, or a heath hen, which is another bird we’re looking at. That one may be easy enough because it’s so closely related to the greater prairie chicken. That might be $5 million, five years. All this will emerge because it’s not engineering yet. It’s still science. It’s still going down a lot of blind alleys that science has to do in order to discover what’s the reality of what works here.

The quality of tools is so high and in place, and the quality of scientists is so high and in place that, as generally with biotech, things are moving more rapidly in terms of capability even than in the Moore’s law driven digital technology world. Things that are basically impossible one year, two years later are just very difficult and expensive, and three years after that are a common practice and just blended into the budget for something else. The first creatures will be expensive. The later creatures will go more rapidly for less money, and then it becomes just another tool in the box.

JB:  Thank you, Stewart, Richard.

HUO:  Thank you, John. Thank you, Stewart. Thank you, Richard.

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