[Update: Includes mention of Carl Zimmer's excellent cover story in the current National Geographic, which I missed on my first go-around. Also, see Zimmer's Twitter stream, @carlzimmer, for a lot of discussion.]
An interesting day-long conference Friday with a lot of glittering scientific and environmental presenters got only a smattering of coverage, as far as I can tell. I was surprised; the conference promised not only to include a lot of interesting science, but also to raise a lot of tricky scientific and ethical issues. And it was webcast live all day Friday by its host, National Geographic, meaning reporters could have easily covered from anywhere.
Some might have been put off by the name, as I was. "TEDxDeExtinction," with its speed-bump capitals and slashing x's, works better as a graphic element than a word. And I think we should drive the manufactured "DeExtinction" out of existence before it invades habitat better suited to naturally occurring words.
Although the conference didn't get much coverage, some of the coverage it did get was quite good. For a broad overview of the conference and the issues, see Carl Zimmer's cover story in the April National Geographic, a companion piece to the conference. It's essential reading if you're at all interested in the subject.
Elsewhere at National Geographic, Brian Switek, who blogs for National Geographic's Phenomena, wrote a nice scene-setter exploring the issues raised by reviving extinct species. Where, for example, would an Ice Age woolly mammoth live in a warming world? If Yellowstone officials can't get local farmers to accept wolves, how will they persuade them to accept recreated sabercats? At the same time, he acknowledges that some such efforts might be worthwhile, such as the recreation of Clarke's Shasta ground sloth, which could have benefits for some deteriorating ecosystems.
Switek links to a good piece by Stuart Pimm who argues against reviving lost species. He makes a point that resonates with me: What sense does it make to restore extinct animals when so many current animals are what we might call pre-extinct–about to disappear into the kingdom of the extinct? Shouldn't we save the living first, before raising the dead? "Molecular gimmickry," as he refers to reviving lost species, "seduces granting agencies and university deans into thinking they are saving the world. It gives unscrupulous developers a veil to hide their rapaciousness, with promises to fix things later."
Matt Ridley at the Wall Street Journal gives us a bit of background on the webcast. It was organized, in part, by a new organization called Revive and Restore, founded by Stewart Brand and Ryan Phelan, "a husband-and-wife team with a track record of starting unusual but successful organizations." You might recognize Brand as the creator of the Whole Earth Catalogue, an icon of the counterculture of the 1960s. They are working with George Church of Harvard who thinks it might be possible to recreate the passenger pigeon, according to Ridley.
Hannah Waters at Scientific American writes that reviving lost species is "trying to restore nature to a balance that doesn't seem to exist," and we've "picked a rather arbitrary point in time to return it to: the moment when people first started paying attention." But that's not what really bothers her. "The main thing that bugs me is the blatant narcissism and anthropocentrism behind it."
Take that, you deextinctioneers!
This is juicy stuff, and it represents a missed opportunity for those who didn't cover the conference. It's not too late, however, to do a little catching up.