23 May Reviving Extinct Species


The passenger pigeon was once the most numerous large bird in North America. Flocks a mile wide, and hundreds of miles long, filled the sky and blocked the sun as they passed overhead.

Then Europeans happened. By 1907, teeming billions had been reduced to three birds in the Cincinnati Zoo. In 1914, Martha, the last passenger pigeon on Earth, died. Her stuffed remains are now in the Smithsonian Museum.

On Tuesday evening, I attended a talk by Stewart Brand who, with biologist (and wife) Ryan Phelan, has started an audacious project to revive the passenger pigeon from Martha’s DNA. This is just the beginning – they have a list of species which are candidates for ‘de-extinction’. By the end of the century, Stewart expects that wooly mammoths will, once again, roam their old haunts.

Like Stewart, their project, Revive & Restore, is scientific, visionary and almost giddily optimistic.

One day, an impoverished world may remember Revive &Restore, along with their collaborators and the Frozen Zoo, as saviors. Over the next few decades, Stewart’s group may bring back a few species in controlled habitats, but it will take a shift in global culture and consumption for wild populations to survive.

I am struck by poignant sadness, above all. While a small group of scientists attempts to reverse the impact of humanity’s greed and stupidity, the rest of the world is still at it. As Revive & Restore invest their effort and ingenuity to make species live again, poachers slaughter elephants and thousands of species will vanish due to habitat eradication. This year, the West African Black rhinos went extinct before our eyes. 
R&R are lighting candles while, everywhere, darkness is falling. They strive to save while the world destroys, repeating the behavior that made rescue necessary.