On a frigid January night, a Harvard genetics professor with a billowing white beard stood stage left in a theater on Manhattan's Upper East Side, an icon of the environmentalist movement in a fleece vest beside him. Both men were staring down a toothy problem: How could they convince their counterparts on the stage, along with the 300 people who'd filed into Hunter College's Kaye Playhouse for a debate, that the world should bring back velociraptors or, at the very least, an extinct pigeon?
The theme from the 1993 blockbuster “Jurassic Park” was playing in the background, chiseling away at their argument before the debate even began. In the film, based on the 1990 Michael Crichton bestseller, dinosaurs are brought back from extinction to fill a theme park. “That film took sides. The experiment blows up. People get hurt,” moderator John Donvan told the crowd during introductions. “But not before actor Jeff Goldblum declares, ‘Scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.’ And then, a dinosaur eats Jeff Goldblum.”
Actually, a dinosaur does not eat Goldblum’s brainy and brawny mathematician character, but chaos certainly reigns in the movie and its myriad sequels because of de-extinction. Those images are what George Church, 64, of the billowing white beard, who helped launch the Human Genome Project, and Stewart Brand, 80, of the fleece vest, who is a founder and editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, would need to overcome to win this evening’s debate.
The official motion for the night, “Don’t Bring Extinct Creatures Back to Life,” was chosen by Intelligence Squared, a nonprofit that turns academic-level debates into popular live events and podcasts. The Jeff Goldblums of the evening, arguing for the motion — and against Church and Brand — were Lynn J. Rothschild, 61, an evolutionary biologist and astrobiologist with NASA, and Ross MacPhee, 70, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History across Central Park.
Brand started on the offensive. Controversy around de-extinction, he said, is “made up.” He wasn’t arguing they should resurrect carnivorous dinosaurs. Instead, he said, de-extinction could be achieved through hybrids, animals created from both living, endangered species and extinct ones, using CRISPR — an acronym for a relatively new tool that has been likened to “playing god” because it allows scientists to remove and replace genes. Eventually, CRISPR could be used to bolster agricultural production or to replenish wildlife that’s slowly disappearing.
That is the goal of the Revive & Restore project, a California nonprofit co-founded by Brand that seeks to “enhance biodiversity through new techniques of genetic rescue for endangered and extinct species.” The group is working to reintroduce the extinct passenger pigeon back into the wild by removing genes from modern band-tailed pigeons and replacing them with passenger-pigeon genes.
Restore & Revive would like to do something similar with woolly mammoths, editing the extinct creature’s genes into those of modern Asian elephants. In that case, though, the goal is to help increase the population of endangered Asian elephants, which has been decimated by a herpes virus. “We’re not just curing extinction,” Brand told the audience. “The technology that de-extinction is leading the way in is now being used by us and by others to prevent extinction.”
In 2018, Brand and Church traveled to northeast Siberia, where Russian scientists are attempting to re-create a grassland ecosystem known as the mammoth steppe, named after its predominant and extinct herbivore, the woolly mammoth. As the number of mammoths dwindled, dense foliage took root and erased grassland. To restore it, scientists have used bulldozers to knock down trees and shrubs, and brought in herbivores, including elk and moose, to graze and to keep the foliage at bay. Church said mammoth-and-Asian-elephant hybrids could once again inhabit Siberia. He also urged everyone to “loosen up” about the prospect of hybrids. “There’s a lot of hybridization that occurs in mammals. ... I am partially Neanderthal,” he said, referring to estimates by scientists that about 20 percent of Neanderthal genes can be found in modern humans.
(Oddly enough, no one mentioned during the debate that Jack Horner, a Montana State University paleontologist and science adviser on the first “Jurassic Park” film, is also working on a hybrid called “chickenosaurus.” “As far as I’m concerned, we should discover everything. There shouldn’t be any limits on it,” he told NBC News in 2018. “After we discover something, then you can put some limits on it.”)
But a hybrid mammoth, roaming Russia once again, raises all sorts of questions, Rothschild and MacPhee said: Could a breeding population ever be established? Would this hybrid be released into a world with no natural predators? How would a mammoth know how to be a mammoth without other mammoths around? “You’ve got all the problems of not having a mom, and not having people — other organisms to learn from, and not having the right microbiome and so on,” Rothschild said. “And so, each of these individuals, I believe, will be suffering for something that we could be solving a different way.”
During a Q&A, an audience member asked the four onstage if someone with great wealth could be moving forward with the technology, possibly for commercial purposes, while scientists were still debating whether they should. Brand said there was “exactly nothing” happening in the de-extinction world that had commercial purposes. MacPhee, in response, said he was pleased he wasn’t “the most naive person on the panel tonight.” He asked: “You don’t think there’s a future in having saber-toothed tigers that you can use for hunting purposes?”
Rothschild took the argument even further, wondering whether someone could attempt to de-extinct a Neanderthal for commerce or simply in the name of science. The idea, Rothschild said, was “morally repugnant.” “We have enough trouble with humanity recognizing that we have roughly equal intellects across the races. And to purposefully re-create a species that we know is going to be inferior in some way is just asking for enormous trouble,” she said in her closing argument.
“So back in the day when the Homo sapiens was interbreeding with Neanderthals, you would have discouraged that?” Brand joked. The audience laughed. But in the end, based on the votes tallied before and after the debate, more people came around to MacPhee and Rothschild’s side than Church and Brand’s. For once, the Jeff Goldblums won.
I circled back to Brand a month later in search of a serious answer to Rothschild’s ethical concerns about bringing back Neanderthals. “I’d guess that Neanderthals would be accepted as humans today (at least in our open-minded and nurturing communities),” he replied in an email. But he was skeptical anyone would want to revive them because it would be a step back instead of forward for humanity.
I asked if he planned on seeing the next “Jurassic Park” film, which is due out in 2021. He was a maybe. He said he prefers science films that are less “dystopic,” but added: “Engaging the public with any scientific details is good.”
Jason Nark is a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.