WATCH: Scientists in California Are Trying to Bring Back Extinct Animals

Q&A with Long Now Foundation's Ben Novak

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"Extinction is Not Forever: Q&A With The Long Now Foundation's Ben Novak," produced by Zach Weissmueller. About 10 minutes. Original release date was June 24, 2015 and original writeup is below.

"Conservation has done 40 years of 'Save the pandas, save the rhinos; if they go extinct, everything's going to hell.' It's been a lot of doom-and-gloom, without a lot of emphasis on, 'Here's a problem. How do we solve it?'" says Ben Novak, lead researcher on a project aiming to bring back the passenger pigeon from extinction.

Novak's work is part of a broader campaign of "de-extinction" being funded by The Long Now Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to fostering, in its own words, "long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years." The Long Now wants to bring back other species, too, and even has a team devoted to de-extinctifying the woolly mammoth.

Novak and his team are studying DNA from taxidermied museum specimens and planning to insert key genes into the genomes of band-tailed pigeons. 

"The bird we create will, hopefully, be a bird that looks like a passenger pigeon, acts like a passenger pigeon, could fool anybody into thinking, 'That's the original passenger pigeon.' But at the genetic level, it's a band-tailed pigeon that's been adapted into being a passenger pigeon," says Novak. The process will also involve teaching the birds to behave like passenger pigeons did, possibly by pairing them with homing pigeons dyed to look like passenger pigeons.

The last passenger pigeon died in 1914. So why bother bringing back a bird that clearly couldn't cut it in the modern world? Novak says his primary motivation creating a more robust ecosystem by reintroducing greater biodiversity.

The passenger pigeon existed in million- or even billion-bird flocks that Novak believes had a profound effect on the ecosystem of the Eastern United States when they would roost and feed in trees, breaking branches and clearing out huge tracts of forest along the way. These massive "disturbance cycles" would clear the way for new growth and reinvigorate the ecosystem in the same way that controlled burns of forest do today.

Novak says that undertaking research on projects like this is difficult in a world filled with anti-GMO hysteria and notes that the project has already drawn ample criticism from individuals and groups who fear a Jurassic Park-esque catastrophe on a global scale.

"I got an email telling me to 'Pull out now before our monster pigeon destroys the world,'" says Novak.

In response, he points out that humans successfully wiped out the species in the 19th century using muzzle-loaded shotguns and nets. In an age of satellite GPS tracking, he says we likely have little to fear from the pigeons.

A critique he takes much more seriously comes from certain segments of the conservation movement that see "de-extinction" as a flashy distraction from more traditional, proven methods of saving endangered species and reviving ecosystems. But Novak rejects that sort of zero-sum thinking and believes he's only bringing another potential solution to the table.

"The real, moral fiber of the conservation movement for the past 40 years has been, 'Extinction is forever, so prevent it,'" says Novak. "In my mind, 'extinction is forever' should've never been the foundation of motivation to begin with, because it implies there's a finite end to solutions."

Watch the video above for the full interview with Novak, and scroll down for downloadable versions. Subscribe to Reason TV's YouTube channel for daily content like this.

Approximately 10 minutes. Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Shot by Alexis Garcia. Music by Chris Zabriskie. Additional stock footage drawn from the Creative Commons.

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  1. I look forward to our T-Rex overlords.

    1. I’ll get working on an army of hungry house cats.

  2. You know who else tried to bring back extinct animals….

    1. Dr. Moreau?

  3. I’m wondering if some species became extinct because of how delicious they were. I think we need to explore this avenue.

  4. The one thing California should bring back from extinction is common sense. But I fear that’s gone forever.

  5. Frankenbirds!!!

  6. One advantage in developing this technology is hundreds of years from now when we start terraforming other worlds, we’ll be able to engineer species that can best and most quickly adapt to those worlds.

    1. Rockets are greenhouse gas disasters and expensive. We need that money down here to take care of people. You don’t think we’re getting off this planet anytime soon, do you?

      This doesn’t look like bringing back an extinct species to me. They are creating an analog that hopefully is close enough. Seems to me what they should be doing is finding old PP DNA and using another pigeon as the surrogate a la wooly mammoth.

      1. Let them smoke enough dope, who knows what fun ideas they’ll come up with.

        “Heh, heh, we talk a lot about buffalo wings, now guess what *I* created?”

    2. Good point.

      Besides that, when we terraform other worlds we won’t need to send a Noah’s Ark type space ship, just a few bioreplicators and the genomes of the species we will build on the new planet.

  7. Seems like this technology would be better directed towards creating people that fly, or man/bear/rattlesnake hybrids, or women that smell like bacon. All those things would be awesome. You know what is not awesome? Pigeons. Pigeons crap everywhere.

    1. man/bear/rattlesnake pig hybrids,

      1. Meant to add a FIFY. Being distracted by an annoying coworker

        1. Yeah, I had thought of that but then they would be too tempting to eat:)

  8. “”I got an email telling me to ‘Pull out now before our monster pigeon destroys the world,'” says Novak.”

    A giant pigeon…I like it…alert Spielberg…this would *have* to be better than Jurassic World.

    “A giant hunk of guano! Everybody take cover NOW!”

    “Where are the tiny chicks who summon Mothra? He’s the only one who can save us!”

  9. Something about reinventing a wheel…

  10. From what I hear of Passenger Pigeons they were an intolerable nuisance and we’re well rid of them.

    I don’t get this “every species is sacred mantra” that the nature worshipers keep droning.

    1. “From what I hear of Passenger Pigeons they were an intolerable nuisance and we’re well rid of them.”

      I am imagining fake passenger pigeons lined up on a baking dish, each one stuffed with garlic and onion and an orange slice in its beak…..

      Wooly mammoth? It would be amazing to see a living one, and probably more amazing marinated and roasted.

      1. Soak that mammoth overnight in a lake of marinade and grill him over a small forest fire. Sounds good.

    2. I don’t get this “every species is sacred mantra” that the nature worshipers keep droning.

      Agreed. Extinction is nature’s way of making room for better shit. 99.9% of all the species that walked the earth are now extinct. This is as natural as nature gets.

  11. As long as they are filling in the gaps with frog DNA.

  12. STEVE SMITH BLAME RAPING ON LONELINESS

    HOPE THIS WORK BETTER THAN ICEMAN MOVIE

  13. God help us, we’re in the hands of engineers.

    1. Tony is invoking the name of God to save us from science. I’m pretty sure this is a sign of the impending apocalypse.

    2. Thank an engineer for making your IP network delivered message possible, Tony.

      Now kill all the engineers so we can just stop the world and get off.

  14. So Warty will not be the last of his species? So far, the attempts to get a hybrid that involve a human volunteer (Epi’s mom) have not produced a viable birth. The last attempt came out at 11 months and looked like the quivering masses in the Enterprise’s transporter when it malfunctioned.

    Perhaps even libertarians might consider that there are some places scientists shouldn’t attempt to go.

  15. “The bird we create will, hopefully, be a bird that looks like a passenger pigeon, acts like a passenger pigeon, could fool anybody into thinking, ‘That’s the original passenger pigeon.’ But at the genetic level, it’s a band-tailed pigeon that’s been adapted into being a passenger pigeon,” says Novak. The process will also involve teaching the birds to behave like passenger pigeons did, possibly by pairing them with homing pigeons dyed to look like passenger pigeons.

    Social engineering really is for the birds.

  16. Sciencing away extinctions never gave a bureaucrat CONTROL.

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