Bring the Dinosaurs Back!

No, not really.

Although I’ve not seen the most recent Jurassic World film, I still find the idea intriguing. Years ago, my husband and I became instant fans of the short-lived TV show Terra Nova (2011) in which humans from the polluted future travel to the distant past to establish new communities side-by-side with the dinosaurs. It was a cool concept, and the dinosaurs looked pretty awesome. Yet to co-exist alongside dinosaurs proved incredibly difficult for the colonists despite their technology, and as a result, they constructed large walls to separate themselves from large predators. Some things never change.

Last year, I taught Alan Weisman’s The World without Us for a section of my university’s introductory Life of the Mind class, and we had a lot of great conversations about ecological issues and humanity’s relationship with the rest of the world. We analyzed arguments for and against deforestation and learned about the Bialowieza Puszcza in Poland. We spent a few class periods talking about Chernobyl and watching clips on its present inhabitants. We watched Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance (1982), directed by Godfrey Reggio with music composed by Philip Glass, and then we talked about how technology impacts our lives and how technology has the potential to benefit the environment.

A side note on Chernobyl: I found it especially intriguing that several of the documentaries on the disaster emphasized the idea that “life is much more resilient than we thought,” and only a few really got into the emerging aberrations on the local animal populations. Several documentaries (and Weisman’s book) opened by focusing on the return of song birds to the area, and I initially was surprised by this emphasis across sources. But the more that I think about it, it makes sense. Why did early miners bring canaries? To test the air down in the shafts. If birds, with their much more fragile bodies and faster metabolism, can survive and even flourish in an area such as Chernobyl, so too can humans in the perhaps-not-so-distant future. Why do Snow White and Cinderella talk with birds? Because they resemble us in a variety of ways. As Claude Lévi-Strauss notes, birds:

form a community which is independent of our own but, precisely because of this independence, appears to us like another society, homologous to that in which we live: birds love freedom; they build themselves homes in which they live a family life and nurture their young; they often engage in social relations with other members of their species; and they communicate with them by acoustic means recalling articulated language. (qtd. in Dorothy Yamamoto, The Boundaries of the Human in Medieval English Literature 34)

In other words, the birds are a microcosm of human society. Perhaps we seek assurance that the disaster at Chernobyl was not as horrific as we first thought (and several documentaries attest to the initial opinion that life would never return to the area), that we as human caretakers are not complete failures. While I understand the benefits of positive thinking, I worry that too much focus on the fact that animals and plants are returning to the area will cause too many to turn a blind eye to the reality of the nuclear aftermath. For example, the Washington Post offered the headline “Chernobyl Area Becomes Wildlife Haven” in 2007 (see here) and in 2013, the Wildlife News reported that “Chernobyl nuclear disaster site becomes a wildlife area, including over a hundred wolves” (see here)–although they did acknowledge the presence of mutations (and elsewhere I’ve read about shortened lifespans among birds, the lack of biodiversity, etc.). I doubt that our nuclear footprint will ever disappear from that Chernobyl.

But back to dinosaurs. Weisman introduced our class to the idea of “re-wilding,” a practice which would re-introduce large predators and other animals to areas where their relatives had become extinct. For example, Paul Martin discusses whether  African or Asian elephants could thrive in the American Southwest (Weisman 100-101), and Dave Foreman, the director of The Rewilding Institute, works to establish “megalinkages” that would reconnect habitats for wide-ranging species such as wolves (Weisman 348; see more here).

There are some who advocate for Pleistocene re-wilding, which allows for the restoration of “animals that disappeared 13,000 years ago from Pleistocene North America” (see here). I readily admit that I was absolutely ecstatic to learn that “dire wolves” were once real, existing outside of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice on the North American continent. I was also intrigued by the arguments surrounding the decimation of these species. Some argue that natural phenomena such as ice sheets stranded wildlife populations, causing species to either evolve or die out. How is this different from the impact of human expansion on wildlife populations today? Does it matter who or what (that is, humans or ice sheets) is creating the new, challenging environments?

Another intriguing idea comes from Paul Martin, who argues that the extinction of Pleistocene creatures was caused when humans arrived on new continents such as North America (Weisman 72). Humans had the necessary technology to hunt large native animals. As these animals had not developed fear of humans or survival strategies, unlike those animals in Africa who evolved alongside humans, they were easily hunted to oblivion (there are many counterarguments to Martin’s theories, but I won’t go into them here).

Of course, some see this as part of a larger divine plan. According to Thomas Jefferson,

Such is the economy of nature that no instance can be produced of her having permitted any one race of her animals to become extinct.” (Weisman 67)

To what extent might our current—and popular—perception of extinction be influenced by this Deist / Christian concept? That we are the sole cause of extinction, and thus violating the laws of Nature (or of God, et cetera)? Or that we have been empowered to do so (“Might makes right”), that Nature has given us her blessing (that Nature would not allow us to cause a species to go extinct unless it were part of a larger plan)? As Weisman notes, “Charles Darwin would describe how these extinctions were part of nature itself” (67). Does this mean we should sit idly by as animals die out as a result of our expansion and excessive consumption of natural resources?

What prompted this post was a segment on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS that aired this morning. Normally, Fareed is background noise for me, but this morning, he asked this intriguing question:

Could we bring back the woolly mammoth? And if so, should we?

His guest was Beth Shapiro, an evolutionary (paleo)biologist at UC Santa Cruz and author of the book How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction (you can follow her on Twitter here).

Shapiro started out by debunking the idea of extracting viable dinosaur DNA from amber (sorry, Jurassic Park!). DNA deteriorates quickly, and amber is too porous, allowing bacteria to enter and consume the genetic matter. But bringing back mammoths? That’s an entirely different matter. Their DNA, much younger than that of dinosaurs, has been preserved in ice, and even better, they have close relatives–the Asian elephant–still existing today. We could bring back mammoths.

But I think what I appreciated most about her commentary was her response to Fareed‘s second question: “And if so, should we?” “If we do this,” she explained, “we couldn’t create just one mammoth.” Elephants are social creatures, as were mammoths, and to create just one would be cruel (just think about the Creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus and his drive to find–or create–another like him). In addition, elephants do not do well in captivity, Shapiro pointed out, and they are cruel to their offspring in such environments. We don’t know enough about how to take care of them; how, then, can we expect to be able to accommodate herds of mammoths?

Fareed and Shapiro also discussed bringing back other animals–such as the Tasmanian tiger or the Passenger pigeon. This would be different from bringing back the mammoth largely because these more recent extinctions resulted from direct human action. For example, Tasmanian tigers were hunted to extinction because they were thought to prey on farmers’ livestock; the Tasmanian government offered bounties for the carcasses of these creatures. As Shapiro pointed out, an ecological vacuum is created. These animals existed in a biosphere that had evolved alongside them. When we remove this one species, what happens? How many animals can we eliminate from our world before we initiate a massive ecological collapse?

In the case of wolves in the US, we know what happens when an animal is driven from its natural environment by humans:

I was blown away the first time that I saw this video. I knew that wolves were important in nature, but it was fascinating to see the diverse and widespread impact that they had on the ecology of Yellowstone–the “trophic cascade” that they created.

And so, I agree with Shapiro that although we can bring back the mammoth, we shouldn’t. Not yet, anyway. If research can ever conclusively show that humans were the primary cause of their extinction and we learn more about the social needs of mammoths and elephants, then I’d be okay with resurrecting this particular species. I have no need to see dinosaurs tromping down the street in my neighborhood, though.

In the meanwhile, I hope scientists (and the politicians who fund them) continue to find ways to bring back species that have been made extinct more recently through the actions of humanity. While I recognize that change is a constant–in language as well as in ecology–I’m not sure that I agree with Jefferson or Darwin that extinction is a part of nature or the implication that we should accept the loss of such creatures. If we are “above” nature, as some argue, then we have an obligation to protect nature. Augustine and others constantly sought ways to rise above the mortal, fleshy world, to find, in Augustine’s words, a “City of God,” but I don’t believe we can (or should) seek to separate the mind and the body, so to speak.

And if we are just another facet of nature, we are attacking ourselves through our predations on other species. We are the Ouroboros, the snake eternally devouring its own tail.

Drawing by Theodoros Pelecanos, in a 1478 copy of a lost alchemical tract by Synesius (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ouroboros)

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