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Review: Two books broach the tricky science and ethics of bringing beasts back from extinction

The next quarter century is poised to deliver a number of technological wonders that, until now, have existed only as plot devices for science-fiction stories.

For example, we may soon witness the birth of the first human with artificially modified DNA. Ethical considerations aside, the means for doing this are widely available thanks to the advent of gene editing. It may only be a matter of time before someone, somewhere, gives it a try. Similarly, news reports in the coming years could bring tidings of alien life beyond our solar system. Whether such life really exists is not yet known, but the astronomical tools for remotely sensing it are already on the drawing board.

Lately, the future scenario that has science writers most preoccupied is the prospect of bringing back the woolly mammoth.

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It is a rare child who gazes upon the fossilized skeletons of these ice age behemoths and does not instantly crave to see one in the flesh. And because some children grow up to be molecular biologists in the 21st century, it appears this desire is now something we must consider seriously – as two new and very different explorations of the subject make clear.

Unlike the Jurassic jungles of the dinosaurs, the world that the woolly mammoths once inhabited is essentially our own. The great pyramids of Egypt were already built when the final representatives of the species are thought to have succumbed to hunters on a remote Arctic redoubt known as Wrangel Island. Whoever was last to watch one of these magnificent beasts lumbering across the tundra was closer in time to us than Hammurabi.

Having so recently departed, mammoths cast a poignant shadow on our collective human conscience, a paleo-nostalgia that has persisted like a glowing ember from our Stone Age campfires. And as Ben Mezrich chronicles in Woolly, an international community of scientists, armed with the tools of modern genetics, is now actively trying to coax that ember back into a burning flame.

In recent years, samples of DNA-bearing mammoth flesh and blood have emerged, largely intact, from the Siberian permafrost where the shaggy creatures made their last stand thousands of years ago. From this raw material, combined with modern elephant DNA as a template and reference, it may yet prove possible to resurrect the mammoth. Science is "no longer limited to reading the secrets and mysteries hidden within nature," Mezrich announces. "Science is now capable of writing those secrets."

Woolly is presented as a "dramatic narrative account" that skirts the borders of a Hollywood treatment already in the works. At the centre of the story is George Church, a 63-year-old Harvard professor of genetics who has become a central player in the development of synthetic biology, the nascent art of building bespoke life. With a bushy white beard and an outsized intellectual footprint, Church is the real title character tramping through the pages of Woolly. On that score Mezrich deserves credit for shining a light on the character and childhood influences of one of the most fascinating scientists working today.

But there are, so to speak, some elephants in the room that Mezrich's cinematic prose can't outrun. Foremost among them is the fact that the story remains unfinished. Indeed, it may have barely begun, given the significant technical hurdles that lie in the path of those who are laying the groundwork for a mammoth second coming. These include the faithful reconstruction of a mammoth genome from scattered genetic fragments and the development of an artificial uterus in which a mammoth fetus could gestate. Mezrich optimistically sets the anticipated climax of his story four years from now. In doing so he places real people, – Church and other scientists at the heart of his tale – into a speculative near-term future that is just around the corner. This is not a journalistic look at de-extinction in which a tantalizing possibility is balanced with skepticism, but a quest that requires the principal characters to succeed in order to make the story fulfill its narrative arc.

In contrast, Britt Wray's Rise of the Necrofauna offers a more in-depth take on de-extinction, as the broader field has come to be known. And it more directly grapples with a fascinating bioethical debate: If a woolly mammoth or any other, more recently extinct creature, could be reconstructed from its cellular foundations up, should we do so? Would the anachronistic outcome of such an experiment represent the pinnacle of the conservation movement, or an extraordinarily misguided act of scientific hubris?

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For Church and his colleagues, the argument in favour of bringing the mammoth back is ecological. The Arctic tundra is essentially a mammoth playground, as this reasoning goes. It is a landscape that needs its natural keystone species back in order to restore biodiversity and build resilience against climate change.

Wray is clearly less convinced than Mezrich, although she lets University of Chicago geneticist Vincent Lynch deliver the key objection. "Ever since the mammoths started to become less abundant in the environment, the environment started adapting to their absence," he argues. In other words, you can't go home again, and an elephant genome that has been manipulated to mimic what the mammoth once was is not actually a mammoth, no more than a Beatles tribute band is the real Fab Four.

Wray delves into the ethical and legal implications of reviving other celebrated victims of humanity's conquest of the biosphere, including the passenger pigeon, which once populated the skies of Eastern North American in the billions. Would the return of such a sight, along with all the bird droppings that go with it, amount to an ecological wonder, Wray asks, or "a frightening pest?"

Beneath such a question lies a fascinating and nuanced discussion about what we ought to be doing as de facto stewards of the planet's biodiversity. Wray's cast of characters includes Church but also a much broader and more representative sample of researchers in the United States, Canada and Europe who regard these matters seriously and rarely deliver black-and-white answers.

But the take-away message is clear enough. De-extinction, is on the table and sooner or later it may happen because we won't be able to stop ourselves from the attempt. As Hank Greely, director of Stanford University's Center for Law and the Biosciences tells Wray, matter-of-factly: "Most of what we do in our lives, we do because we hope for something cool at least, awe-inspiring at best."

Mammoths may have lost the battle for survival, but they've never lost their cool factor. In our imagination at least, that is why we can't let them go.

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Ivan Semeniuk reports on science for The Globe and Mail.

Michael Redhill says Giller Prize will help him 'row my own boat' (The Canadian Press)
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