Should we bring passenger pigeons back to life?

[Programming note: I'm not going to belabor how sublime and resplendent the weather was during my stretched weekend in Miami, because I think it's obnoxious when people gloat about temperature differentials, or, worse, launch into a discussion about SPF30 vs. SPF50, or worse yet, complain about stuff that only the blessed, the affluent and the extremely privileged can possibly suffer, such as the difficulty of applying sunscreen between one's own shoulder blades, or the way beach sand gets tracked into your rental car and winds up in the luggage. And those dang pelicans splashing in the water in search of a meal, startling you awake when you're dozing off on a beach towel. And so on. In any case I flew in last night to Ice Station Zebra and it was hard to believe, driving home on I-95 from BWI, that I had not gone back a month in time, or to a different country in a different hemisphere. I was on the lookout for Robert Peary and his sled dogs.]

[Today's challenge: Remembering my passwords. This is why I try never to take a break from the laptop. Five days offline and suddenly I can't remember how to do anything. Most of my passwords are subconscious muscle memory -- so what happens when the muscles forget? When they, you know...relax??]

I enjoyed (on the beach!) the story in the Times on the de-extinction movement. There’s talk of reviving mammoths and other recently extinct megafauna. Among the most recently departed species being eyed for de-extinction is the passenger pigeon. In the span of a few decades the passenger pigeon went from trillions of birds in sun-blotting flocks to just a lone survivor in a zoo, a bird named Martha. And then there were none. So, the Times tells us, Stewart Brand and other technophiles and visionaries want to use laboratory techniques to cook up a simulacrum of a passenger pigeons and eventually reintroduce them (a process known as rewilding).

But I seem to recall, from back in my Why Things Are days, that passenger pigeons are odd ducks: They do well only if numerous. They breed in massive colonies that can cover hundreds of square miles. Reduce them to smaller colonies and their population will further crater. This is not blaming the victim: It’s merely an observation that Noah needed more than just the two on that ark. That’s how they roll: In colonies of millions or even billions. This makes the passenger pigeon a somewhat delicate beast.

[Update: It has been pointed out to me this morning that my very newspaper, The Washington Post, ran a long story last year that went into detail on this precise point. From the story:

Passenger pigeons could get away with such behavior because of their incredible numbers. When a flock arrived at a nesting area, predators could gorge themselves for weeks. Each pair of nesting pigeons would produce two eggs, at least one of which usually ended up on the ground. But even with the constant work of foxes, bears, possums, raccoons, hawks, eagles, snakes and other meat-eaters, enough of the young pigeons survived to fly away.

This system works great with a flock of 5 million birds. But according to Kirk Mantay, a biologist specializing in habitat restoration, if only a few thousand pigeons show up, the whole system falls apart.

Read the whole thing.]

How would the revived bird manage to flourish in a highly populated country with a reworked landscape? Who wants a breeding colony of billions of pigeons showing up for three months? The Times article touched on this:

How will we decide which species to resurrect? Some have questioned the logic of beginning with a pigeon. “Do you think that wealthy people on the East Coast are going to want billions of passenger pigeons flying over their freshly manicured lawns and just-waxed S.U.V.s?” asked Shapiro…

Daniel Simberloff, a legend in conservation biology, raises a powerful objection:

“Technofixes for environmental problems are band-aids for massive hemorrhages…. De-extinction suggests that we can technofix our way out of environmental issues generally, and that’s very, very bad.”

Let me jump back in time all the way to last week and repeat something written in this space about evolution: “The process is chaotic, multi-variable, and involves many species co-evolving in changing landscapes. It’s incredibly dynamic and unpredictable.” This makes me suspect that the re-introduction of a species would require more than just lobbing the creature into the ecosystem.

In the Times article, Brand mentions that the movie “Jurassic Park” has fueled public support for de-extinction. Except … didn’t that little experiment turn out badly?

In the Michael Crichton novel, the Ian Malcolm character is a mathematician who studies chaos theory and who correctly predicts that the complex security system of the dinosaur island will fail, because complex systems do (pulling this from memory and from an essay, recently read, by Stephen Jay Gould). Here’s Gould’s essay in The New York Review of Books, quoting Crichton’s Malcolm:

And now chaos theory proves that unpredictability is built into our daily lives. It is as mundane as the rainstorm we cannot predict. And so the grand vision of science, hundreds of years old—the dream of total control—had died, in our century.

Gould harrumphed loudly at the idea that you could resurrect a dinosaur:

An amalgamated code of, say, 50 percent dinosaur DNA and 50 percent frog DNA would never foster the embryological development of a functioning organism. This form of reductionism is simply silly. An animal is an integrated entity, not the summation of its genes, one by one. Fifty percent of your genetic code doesn’t make a perfectly good half of you; it makes no functioning organism at all. Genetic engineers might get by with a missing dab or two, but large holes cannot be plugged with DNA from a different zoological class (frogs are amphibians, dinosaurs are reptiles, and their lines diverged in the Carboniferous Period, more than 100 million years before the origin of dinosaurs). The embryological decoding of a DNA program into an organism represents nature’s most complex orchestration. You need all the proper instruments and conductors of an evolutionarily unique symphony. You cannot throw in half a rock band playing its own tunes by its own rules and hope for harmony.

On the Achenblog we’ve spent a lot of time discussing complex systems that fail (anyone remember Deepwater Horizon?), and also the new ideas in the environmental sector about managing and re-engineering ecosystems. This is a topic both broad and deep — and a couple of years ago I skimmed the surface in a story in The Post:

More and more environmentalists and scientists talk about the planet as a complex system, one that human beings must aggressively monitor, manage and sometimes reengineer. Kind of like a spaceship.

This is a sharp departure from traditional “green” philosophy. The more orthodox way of viewing nature is as something that must be protected from human beings — not managed by them. And many environmentalists have reservations about possible unintended consequences of well-meaning efforts. No one wants a world that requires constant intervention to fix problems caused by previous interventions.

I don’t know how this is going to turn out. But clearly: We live in interesting times.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach · February 26, 2014