BW: “While I was at Concordia, I took a PhD course on something called bioart, or the ways in which artists and designers are getting involved in biotechnology and doing surprising things with it: creating semi-living sculptures from tissue engineering or cloning bacteria in art installations, for example.
I didn’t know about synthetic biology — a field that makes de-extinction possible. Then my professor, Tagny Duff, sent me the website of a designer she thought I’d like, a woman named Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, who’s asking questions about how to properly ‘design’ life with synthetic biology.
I became interested in synthetic bio, doing a masters and then a PhD on it. Then de-extinction came along, and it sat at the nexus between my original training — conservation biology — and synthetic biology, my more recent fascination. I started getting into the ethics of it, did some documentary work and then started writing the book.”
In Undoing Forever, a radio documentary you did for the CBC, you discuss passenger pigeons, extinct birds that used to travel across North America in flocks of billions. The effect it had on the environment couldn’t have been negligible. What would some of the consequences of bringing it back be?
BW: “The passenger pigeon is the most populous bird species that humans are known to have ever interacted with, and we hunted it out of existence in less than 50 years. The ecological impact was enormous. What they did very well was cause forest disturbance. Lots of things can do this — hail storms or fires — but bringing the passenger pigeon back might be able to fulfill that ecosystem service that is no longer there in such quantities.
Yet there are other impacts that it might have, as well. There are many more people living in the northeastern United States now than there were when the passenger pigeon went extinct in 1914. Would it not be frightening to hear these thundering wings above if we roosted them back in huge numbers? And what about the bird droppings on people’s cars? These are things that quickly come to mind.”
Where do you stand on de-extinction?
BW: “I stand in the corner that says: ‘We need a lot more research that shows how this will actually pan out.’ We need examples of this working to actually be able to determine anything.
Right now, there’s a lot of theory, there’s a lot of cheerleading, there’s a lot of hype. And all of that is healthy for generating debate, but we don’t have a lot of evidence-based research on how this will actually work.”