Candidates for De-Extinction

Woolly Mammoth Replica in Museum ExhibitIt’s no secret that humanity’s success on this planet we call Earth has come at a high cost. Since our ancestors began migrating out of Africa some 70,000 years ago, their passage and settlement have left marks on the natural environment and its species. In short, our ability to grow has always meant extinction for other species, be they other forms of high-order primates (such as Neanderthals) or animals hunted for their pelts and meat (such as wooly mammoths).

In fact, the Neolithic Revolution, which began some 15,000 years ago with the adoption of farming, was believed to have been motivated by the mass extinction of animals that were once hunted by our ancestors. And since that time, countless more species have been pushed to the brink or killed off entirely by our ever-expanding, consuming, and polluting ways. However, recent innovations in biology and bio-medicine might just be able to reverse this trend.

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Last Friday, at a at a National Geographic-sponsored TEDx conference, scientists met in Washington, D.C. to discuss which animals we should bring back from extinction, as well as the means and ethics involved in doing so. They called it “de-extinction”, and considered which species they would consider restoring to existence. The conference resulted in a list of 24 species that were selected for restoration, as well as some guidelines for the selection process.

Those chosen were based on the following criteria and future selections will be determined the same way:

  1. Are the species desirable — do they hold an important ecological function or are they beloved by humans?
  2. Are the species practical choices — do we have access to tissue that could give us good quality DNA samples or germ cells to reproduce the species?
  3. And are they able to be reintroduced to the wild — are the habitats in which they live available and do we know why they went extinct in the first place?

As you might imagine, dinosaurs didn’t make the cut. In addition to no longer serving and important ecological function, the habitats they once had access to are long gone (Earth’s climate and ecology have changed drastically since the Cretaceous Period), and most importantly, we no longer have access to their DNA.

TEDxDeExtinctionYes, despite what Michael Crichton told us, the DNA of dinosaur fossils is so far degraded that something like Jurassic Park would never be possible. And of course, despite being beloved by humans, they aren’t exactly safe customers to have around! But rest assured, the list of candidates is still very long.

Of the 24 species selected, the majority were families of birds which were pushed to extinction due to hunting, deforestation, urban sprawl, pollution, and loss of habitat. In addition, the famous Auroch, a species of cattle that is commemorated in myth but which actually existed until 1627. And then there’s the equally famous DoDo bird, the fearless bird which was rendered extinct by Portuguese settlers in its native Mauritius.

woolly-mammoth1And then there’s the venerable Wooly Mammoth, the great shaggy member of the Elephantidae family which went extinct some 4000 years ago. Not only is this animals demise directly associated with humanity’s ascendance to the top of the food chain, it is something which may now be entirely reversible. Thanks to frozen, preserved carcasses of Mammoths, which are still found in the north to this day, scientists have access to well-preserved strands of their DNA.

And as already noted, the issue of cost, ethics and desirability featured pretty prominently in the conference. For starters, those present had to consider whether or not it would be a good idea to bring animals back from the brink seeing as how it was human agency that led to their extinction in the first place. Is the world any better off than it was hundreds or even thousands of years ago? Would these animals find new purchase, or just end up dying off again?

sabre-tooth-tiger-_1117360cSecond, there was the question of housing them and reintroducing them into the wild. Not only is it a question of them being able to find habitats again, it’s a question of whether or not we can ensure the kind of transition that would be needed. Sure, we’d all love to see Sabre-Tooth tigers alive and well again, but its not like we can just clone them and send them back out into the wild. Who’s to say how their reintroduction will impact species that are currently roaming about in the wild?

And of course, there was the consideration of what all this tampering amounts to. Given that human agency is responsible for all this loss of life, would resurrecting them simply be more of the same? Would we be, in effect, playing God and tampering with forces best left to nature? All good questions, and they force us to consider an alternative proposition.

Perhaps what would be best for the natural world and its remaining species would be for us to stop behaving so irresponsibly. Perhaps we should focus on sustainable living, cleaning up pollution, ending climate change, and getting our own population under control before we start trying to repopulate other species. Still, it is an intriguing possibility, and provides some reassurance that no matter how much damage we end up doing, that we might be able to undo some after the fact. Perhaps we just need to wait…

Too bad about Jurassic Park though. In the course of everything else discussed at this TED conference, I’m sure that the announcement that dinosaurs were as good as gone shattered the dreams of many an eccentric billionaire!



The Singularity: The End of Sci-Fi?

singularity.specrepThe coming Singularity… the threshold where we will essentially surpass all our current restrictions and embark on an uncertain future. For many, its something to be feared, while for others, its something regularly fantasized about. On the one hand, it could mean a future where things like shortages, scarcity, disease, hunger and even death are obsolete. But on the other, it could also mean the end of humanity as we know it.

As a friend of mine recently said, in reference to some of the recent technological breakthroughs: “Cell phones, prosthetics, artificial tissue…you sci-fi writers are going to run out of things to write about soon.” I had to admit he had a point. If and when he reach an age where all scientific breakthroughs that were once the province of speculative writing exist, what will be left to speculate about?

Singularity4To break it down, simply because I love to do so whenever possible, the concept borrows from the field of quantum physics, where the edge of black hole is described as a “quantum singularity”. It is at this point that all known physical laws, including time and space themselves, coalesce and become a state of oneness, turning all matter and energy into some kind of quantum soup. Nothing beyond this veil (also known as an Event Horizon) can be seen, for no means exist to detect anything.

The same principle holds true in this case, at least that’s the theory. Originally coined by mathematician John von Neumann in the mid-1950’s, the term served as a description for a phenomenon of technological acceleration causing an eventual unpredictable outcome in society. In describing it, he spoke of the “ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.”

exponential_growth_largeThe term was then popularized by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge (A Fire Upon the Deep, A Deepness in the Sky, Rainbows End) who argued that artificial intelligence, human biological enhancement, or brain-computer interfaces could be possible causes of the singularity. In more recent times, the same theme has been picked up by futurist Ray Kurzweil, the man who points to the accelerating rate of change throughout history, with special emphasis on the latter half of the 20th century.

In what Kurzweil described as the “Law of Accelerating Returns”, every major technological breakthrough was preceded by a period of exponential growth. In his writings, he claimed that whenever technology approaches a barrier, new technologies come along to surmount it. He also predicted paradigm shifts will become increasingly common, leading to “technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history”.

kurzweil-loglog-bigLooking into the deep past, one can see indications of what Kurzweil and others mean. Beginning in the Paleolithic Era, some 70,000 years ago, humanity began to spread out a small pocket in Africa and adopt the conventions we now associate with modern Homo sapiens – including language, music, tools, myths and rituals.

By the time of the “Paleolithic Revolution” – circa 50,000 – 40,000 years ago – we had spread to all corners of the Old World world and left evidence of continuous habitation through tools, cave paintings and burials. In addition, all other existing forms of hominids – such as Homo neanderthalensis and Denisovans – became extinct around the same time, leading many anthropologists to wonder if the presence of homo sapiens wasn’t the deciding factor in their disappearance.

Map-of-human-migrationsAnd then came another revolution, this one known as the “Neolithic” which occurred roughly 12,000 years ago. By this time, humanity had hunted countless species to extinction, had spread to the New World, and began turning to agriculture to maintain their current population levels. Thanks to the cultivation of grains and the domestication of animals, civilization emerged in three parts of the world – the Fertile Crescent, China and the Andes – independently and simultaneously.

All of this gave rise to more habits we take for granted in our modern world, namely written language, metal working, philosophy, astronomy, fine art, architecture, science, mining, slavery, conquest and warfare. Empires that spanned entire continents rose, epics were written, inventions and ideas forged that have stood the test of time. Henceforth, humanity would continue to grow, albeit with some minor setbacks along the way.

The_Meeting_of_Cortés_and_MontezumaAnd then by the 1500s, something truly immense happened. The hemispheres collided as Europeans, first in small droves, but then en masse, began to cross the ocean and made it home to tell others what they found. What followed was an unprecedented period of expansion, conquest, genocide and slavery. But out of that, a global age was also born, with empires and trade networks spanning the entire planet.

Hold onto your hats, because this is where things really start to pick up. Thanks to the collision of hemispheres, all the corn, tomatoes, avocados, beans, potatoes, gold, silver, chocolate, and vanilla led to a period of unprecedented growth in Europe, leading to the Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment. And of course, these revolutions in thought and culture were followed by political revolutions shortly thereafter.

IndustrialRevolutionBy the 1700’s, another revolution began, this one involving industry and creation of a capitalist economy. Much like the two that preceded it, it was to have a profound and permanent effect on human history. Coal and steam technology gave rise to modern transportation, cities grew, international travel became as extensive as international trade, and every aspect of society became “rationalized”.

By the 20th century, the size and shape of the future really began to take shape, and many were scared. Humanity, that once tiny speck of organic matter in Africa, now covered the entire Earth and numbered over one and a half billion. And as the century rolled on, the unprecedented growth continued to accelerate. Within 100 years, humanity went from coal and diesel fuel to electrical power and nuclear reactors. We went from crossing the sea in steam ships to going to the moon in rockets.

massuseofinventionsAnd then, by the end of the 20th century, humanity once again experienced a revolution in the form of digital technology. By the time the “Information Revolution” had arrived, humanity had reached 6 billion people, was building hand held devices that were faster than computers that once occupied entire rooms, and exchanging more information in a single day than most peoples did in an entire century.

And now, we’ve reached an age where all the things we once fantasized about – colonizing the Solar System and beyond, telepathy, implants, nanomachines, quantum computing, cybernetics, artificial intelligence, and bionics – seem to be becoming more true every day. As such, futurists predictions, like how humans will one day merge their intelligence with machines or live forever in bionic bodies, don’t seem so farfetched. If anything, they seem kind of scary!

singularity-epocksThere’s no telling where it will go, and it seems like even the near future has become completely unpredictable. The Singularity looms! So really, if the future has become so opaque that accurate predictions are pretty much impossible to make, why bother? What’s more, will predictions become true as the writer is writing about them? Won’t that remove all incentive to write about it?

And really, if the future is to become so unbelievably weird and/or awesome that fact will take the place of fiction, will fantasy become effectively obsolete? Perhaps. So again, why bother? Well, I can think one reason. Because its fun! And because as long as I can, I will continue to! I can’t predict what course the future will take, but knowing that its uncertain and impending makes it extremely cool to think about. And since I’m never happy keeping my thoughts to myself, I shall try to write about it!

So here’s to the future! It’s always there, like the horizon. No one can tell what it will bring, but we do know that it will always be there. So let’s embrace it and enter into it together! We knew what we in for the moment we first woke up and embraced this thing known as humanity.

And for a lovely and detailed breakdown of the Singularity, as well as when and how it will come in the future, go to And be prepared for a little light reading 😉