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De-extinction

This word has emerged, seemingly from nowhere, in the past couple of weeks, led by the cover story in the April 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine. Most of its appearances have been in news items connected to a conference in Washington DC on 15 March on the practical and ethical issues of reviving extinct species — to de-extinct them.

A new organisation, Revive and Restore, formed by the Long Now Foundation with the help of the National Geographic Society and advised by a group of respected scientists, has been created to examine the potential for a new branch of zoology: de-extinction.

The Times, 8 Mar. 2013.

Genetic science is rapidly getting to the stage of being able to regenerate animals and plants from preserved specimens. The conference heard that a team led by Professor Mike Archer at the University of New South Wales has created embryos of the extinct Australian gastric brooding frog, which incubated offspring in its stomach and gave birth through its mouth, though the embryos survived only a short time. The extinct Pyrenean ibex was cloned in 2003 but the baby died shortly after birth. There are proposals to bring back the Tasmanian tiger, the American passenger pigeon and the mammoth. The subject divides the scientific community. Some opponents consider de-extinction to be valueless, while others feel it will divert attention and resources from preserving living but endangered species.

The earliest scientific usage I’ve found is in a quite different context, in a paper on cosmology published in 2008. As so often, a SF/fantasy author got there first, in a story about a magician:

Again he hesitated — and was brought up short by the coalescing vapor. Suddenly thirteen black cats faced him, spitting viciously. Bink had never seen a pure cat before, in the flesh. He regarded the cat as an extinct species. He just stood there and stared at this abrupt de-extinction, unable to formulate a durable opinion. If he killed these animals, would he be re-extincting the species?

The Source of Magic, by Piers Anthony, 1979.

Page created 30 Mar. 2013

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Last modified: 30 March 2013.