In 2009, a group of Spanish scientists announced they had briefly resurrected a Pyrenean ibex, a kind of mountain goat that had been extinct for nearly a decade, in the womb of a surrogate animal. More recently, the Harvard University geneticist George Church has taken steps to splice mammoth genes into Asian elephant DNA, in the hopes of one day creating new mammoths in artificial wombs. And on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, the lowly heath hen, which officially went extinct in the early 20th century, might soon experience a genetic second-coming itself.
Not everyone thinks all of this resurrection is a good idea, of course, and recent scientific advances in cloning, genetic engineering, in-vitro fertilization, and captive breeding are driving a roiling debate over de-extinction — from its potential for unintended ecological consequences, to its power to distract from the more immediate perils facing species that are still with us.
A less frequent criticism: De-extinction is a Nazi-era concept.
If that sounds preposterous, consider that the roots of our current fascination with de-extinction science can be traced at least as far back as the 1920s — and specifically to early Nazi Germany, where scientists produced what was arguably the world’s first example of such magic: the aurochs.
This muscular, wild, and aggressive European breed of cattle was the ancestor of domestic cattle, and by the 17th century, it had vanished due to overhunting. But by the early 20th century, German culture, including its scientific community, was awash in explorations of Darwinism, death, and nature — ideas that would fester into preoccupations with racial purity, survival, and geography. As natural science and National Socialism began to intertwine, resurrecting the undomesticated, unruly aurochs — a sinnbild der Urkraft, or “symbol of primal force,” and an example of the primordial wildlife that embodied true Germanic ideals — became a measure of Nazism’s power itself.
The geographers Clemens Driessen and Jamie Lorimer document this history in a chapter of the book “Hitler’s Geographies,” published last year. As they explain, at the center of these efforts were two brothers, Lutz and Heinz Heck, directors of esteemed zoos, in Berlin and Munich respectively.
The brothers were interested in the possibility of resurrecting the aurochs through back-breeding — essentially recreating an extinct phenotype through selective breeding — and they traveled the continent searching for suitable domestic species carrying the aurochs’ key traits and genetic lineage, from Spanish fighting bulls, Hungarian steppe and Scottish Highland cattle, to Holsteins and Alpine breeds. Lutz in particular came to view de-extinction of the aurochs as crucial to National Socialism and the Nazi party’s ideology. He also saw it as integral to recreating the mythical German landscape of ancient times, when the Aryan race was pure and unthreatened.
“The reshaping of this dull and strange landscape into a German one must be our most important goal,” Lutz wrote. “For the first time in history the imprinting of a cultural landscape will be consciously taken up by a people.”
By 1937, Lutz had joined the SS and the Nazi party, which began to support his de-extinction efforts. Later, both Heinz and Lutz joined Heinrich Himmler’s scientific research organization, called Ahnenerbe, which was dedicated to the study of the Aryan people. Driessen and Lorimer detail how Lutz began calling for the transformation of newly conquered lands in the east in order to recreate the primordial forest described in the epic Germanic poem “Nibelungenlied.” Lutz and Hermann Goering, founder of the Gestapo and president of the Reichstag, became friends and went hunting in traditional dress and armed with spears to try and recreate the heroism of ancient German mythology. When Lutz released his back-bred aurochs into a reserve in 1938, he wrote that, “the extinct Auerochs has arisen again as a German wild species in the Third Reich.”
In Driessen and Lorimer’s view, the aurochs project gave Nazi notions of racial purity a spatial dimension “in which the right environment, achieved through landscape conservation and design, is just as important for [German society] as racial hygiene aimed at purging the heredity base.”
Lutz’s aurochs mostly died in the bombing of Berlin at the end of the war, but his brother’s examples in Munich survived, and the siblings’ efforts have been carried into the present under the guise of a much different endeavor known as rewilding — or the recreation of extinct wild landscapes. Aurochs-like descendants of “Heck cattle” are now present in rewilding preserves in Spain, Croatia, Portugal and the Netherlands. Other rewilding projects have been proposed in North America and the Middle East, as well as Russia, where future mammoths, resurrected from extinction, might one day roam.
Contemporary de-extinction advocates often present resurrection of extinct animals as a conservation strategy. George Church of Harvard has gone so far as to suggest, in an interview with New Scientist magazine, that reanimated mammoths could help combat global warming. “They keep the tundra from thawing,” he was quoted as saying, “by punching through snow and allowing cold air to come in.”
But the conservation biology community itself remains highly skeptical of such arguments. In March, six biologists published a cost-benefit study in the journal Nature: Ecology & Evolution that argued de-extinction could produce highly negative consequences for existing species. “If conservation funds are re-directed from extant to resurrected species, there is a risk of perverse outcomes whereby net biodiversity might decrease as a result of de-extinction,” the authors reported.
Other conservationists have argued that de-extinction efforts are newspaper fodder, irrelevant to the formidable political, economic, scientific, and ethical challenges of conserving threatened habitats and species in existence today.
For my part, I see worrying parallels between our present interest in de-extinction and the efforts of the Heck brothers nearly a century ago. This is not to suggest that we are similarly entranced by Social Darwinism, or that today’s resurrection science efforts are bound up with fascist notions of national identity and the need to nurture fantasies of a racially pure past (although the rise of the alt-right would suggest that such forces are by no means extinct themselves).
Still, in this modern world, where genetic ingenuity is advancing as surely as the mercury is rising, we are confronted with other existential threats — from dwindling biodiversity and denuded landscapes, to the droughts, storms, and rising seas that accompany anthropogenic climate change.
Under these circumstances, de-extinction would seem to offer an enticing covenant not altogether unlike the one that so enchanted the Heck brothers and their Nazi patrons. It’s the notion that we might somehow fix the world by manufacturing an idealized version of the past, and then through sheer technological wizardry, drag it into the here and now. Scientists and the public should bring the full force of their scrutiny and skepticism to bear on such wild dreams. Elephants and sage-grouse and so many other creatures that are still with us are threatened with extinction, and we should focus our efforts on saving them.
The mammoths and heath hens of the past can wait.
M.R. O’Connor, a 2016-17 Knight Science Journalism fellow at MIT, writes about the politics and ethics of science, technology, and conservation. Her first book, “Resurrection Science: Conservation, De-Extinction and the Precarious Future of Wild Things,” was named one of Library Journal and Amazon’s Best Books of 2015.