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'Resurrection Science' asks: What is a species worth?

Although the idea of restoring a long-lost species may excite the imagination, O’Connor makes us question what exactly we would bring back or – once it was back – where that species would live.

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    Resurrection Science:
    Conservation, De-Extinction and the Precarious Future of Wild Things
    By M. R. O'Connor
    St. Martin's Press
    272 pp.
    Darryl Dyck/AP/File
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In the remote Udzungwa Mountains of central Tanzania, a tiny, brown toad found itself at the center of the conservation debate. A proposed hydroelectric dam vital to power-starved Tanzania threatened to destroy the only habitat of the Kihansi spray toad. Efforts to save the toad would cost millions of dollars and potentially impede construction of the dam. At its core, the effort to protect the amphibians centered around the question of what is a species worth, especially when its natural environment no longer exists? 

This question becomes the driving force behind journalist M.R. O’Connor’s new book, Resurrection Science. Starting with the spray toad, O’Connor tells the story of eight endangered or extinct species, ranging from desert pupfish to Neanderthals, using each to explore the issues at the heart of wildlife protection. Throughout these tales, O’Connor often admits to challenging her own deep-rooted beliefs and her balanced portrayal of the issues will force even the most dogmatic of readers to reconsider their own ideas.  

As the title implies, the book examines efforts to bring back extinct animals. Just to get it out of the way, scientists currently lack any viable method that could bring back dinosaurs a la Jurassic Park. T-Rex enthusiasts still have only Michael Crichton and their own imagination. Researchers are, however, exploring the possibility of bringing back species that vanished more recently, such as passenger pigeons, woolly rhinoceros, and Tasmanian tigers. 
O’Connor explores the science behind such efforts, but she focuses predominately on the moral and philosophical challenges that face de-extinction scientists and conservationists. The book consistently comes back to the central question of what constitutes a wild animal in the first place? Its genetic coding or characteristics determined by external factors such as environment? 

In one of the most compelling chapters, O’Connor visits a “frozen zoo” hidden inside the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The facility houses more than 100,000 biological samples kept frozen at negative 160 degrees Celsius using liquid nitrogen. Rather than relying on possibility of finding ancient mosquitoes trapped in amber to get the DNA of extinct species (which worked only in the fictional world of Jurassic Park), facilities like these provide a genetic catalog that scientists can use to study or potentially revive endangered and even extinct species in the future. 

Although the idea of restoring a long-lost species may excite the imagination, O’Connor makes us question what exactly we would bring back or – once it was back – where that species would live. In Hawaii, a type of crow known as the ‘alalā has gone extinct in the wild. Although small populations exist in captivity, living in cages has changed the birds’ behavior. In the wild, they had complex social networks and what some naturalists described as a “culture.” Much of this has been lost now that the birds live in controlled environments and it remains unclear if it can be regained if the crows are able to be released into the wild once again. 

Animals de-extincted from a “frozen zoo” might be genetically identical to their ancestors, but behaviorally they may be all but unrecognizable. “We can’t put culture in liquid nitrogen, the same way we can’t bank the forests the ‘alalās come from. No one would say that freezing the DNA of humans preserves what makes us human,” writes O’Connor. 

Aside from the animals, the humans working to protect them provide "Resurrection Science" with an indispensable cast of characters. Readers meet a reclusive outdoorsman who once hunted mountain lions in Texas to the verge of extinction but later used his tracking skills to help restore the Florida panther population. Other memorable characters include a passenger pigeon enthusiast who managed to become one of the leading figures in de-extinction science and an autodidactic widow who, with little to no support, helped scientists uncover lost secrets about the North Atlantic right whale. 

O’Connor avoids the temptation to veer too deeply into technical descriptions of science that could alienate a general audience. Still, in several sections a lay reader may find the book to be slow moving, but O’Connor is quick to provide payoffs. Any piece of complicated information she puts forth later becomes a key to comprehending some of the most fascinating parts of the book and allows for a more meaningful understanding.As climate change and sprawling human cities remove or indelibly alter the earth’s last remaining wild spaces, O’Connor offers a critical toolkit to help readers understand the challenges of wildlife preservation. "Resurrection Science" is the rare book that leaves readers happily without any convenient answers, but filled with important questions they will ponder long after they’ve finished it.

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