TED Radio Hour
10:01 am
Fri August 9, 2013

Are We Ready To Hack The Animal Kingdom?

Originally published on Thu December 26, 2013 1:46 pm

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Hackers.

About Stewart Brand's TEDTalk

Mankind has driven species after species extinct. Now Stewart Brand says, we have the technology to bring back the species that we wiped out. So should we? Which ones? He asks a big question whose answer is closer than you may think.

About Stewart Brand

The revival of extinct species is becoming a possibility and Stewart Brand plans to not only bring species back but restore them to the wild. Brand is already a legend in the tech industry for things he's created: the Whole Earth Catalog, The WELL, the Long Now Foundation, and the notion that "information wants to be free."

Now Brand, a lifelong environmentalist, wants to re-create — or "de-extinct" — a few animals that have disappeared from the planet. Resurrecting the woolly mammoth using ancient DNA may sound like mad science.

But Brand's Revive and Restore project has an entirely rational goal: to learn what causes extinctions so we can protect currently endangered species, preserve genetic and biological diversity, repair depleted ecosystems, and essentially "undo harm that humans have caused in the past."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

What did hacking mean to you when you first started to write about it? Was it a widely used word?

STEWART BRAND: Yeah. Hacking had been around as sort of a student spare time, waste of time thing to do. And a hack was just a kind of an amateurish, delighted shortcut right through the membranes of standard institutional apparatus.

RAZ: This is Stewart Brand, writer, environmentalist, hacker. And back in 1984 he was in this incredibly weird documentary. It was called "Hackers: Wizards of the Electronic Age," and it kind of explains Stewart Brand's place in the world of hackers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HACKERS: WIZARDS OF THE ELECTRONIC AGE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: One longtime supporter of hackers is Stewart Brand, editor of the "Whole Earth Catalogs."

BRAND: They are shy, sweet, incredibly brilliant, and I think more effective in pushing the culture around now in good ways than almost any group I can think of.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: To make his point, Brand invited a hundred top computer designers to an exclusive hackers' conference in this secluded campsite north of San Francisco.

RAZ: You were like a connector, curator type of person before that became like a fashionable job description.

BRAND: Yeah. Well, curating is a form of hacking because, in a sense, it's a shortcut to getting other people to do the work.

RAZ: And to seeing the work, I guess, right?

BRAND: Yeah, and work in context of each other. What you do is you throw together interesting people and interesting problems and turn up the heat and watch what happens.

RAZ: So this is where Stewart Brand's story really begins. It's a story about someone named Martha and what she has to do with hacking. We'll get to that in a minute, but first, let's meet Martha.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSEUM VISIT)

BRENT BAUGHMAN, BYLINE: Can we see Martha's house?

CHRIS MILENSKY: Yeah, sure. We can walk up that way. She's...

RAZ: We sent our producer Brent Baughman to meet the guy who could introduce us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSEUM VISIT)

MILENSKY: So she resides in case Z11C.

BAUGHMAN: What are we smelling?

MILENSKY: Dead bird. Yeah, birds have - depending on which drawer you open, you'll get some very unique smells.

RAZ: That's Chris Milensky.

MILENSKY: I work in the division of birds at the Smithsonian Institution.

RAZ: He's basically Martha's landlord and, OK, she's a dead bird, but not just any dead bird.

MILENSKY: This is sort of a rare occasion where we actually know the exact time of an extinction. Martha died exactly at 1 p.m. on the first of September, 1914.

RAZ: So Martha, who now lives in a climate-controlled case in the Natural History Museum here in Washington D.C., she was the last living passenger pigeon, the very last of her kind. Passenger pigeons were, at one point, one of the most common birds in North America. And today, like so many species, they're gone. Extinct. And Stewart Brand, he believes he can change that. Here's his TED Talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BRAND: Carolina parakeet was a parrot that lit up backyards everywhere. It was hunted to death for its feathers. There's a bird that people liked on the East Coast called the Heath Hen. It was loved, they tried to protect it and it died anyway. A local newspaper spelled out, there's no survivor, there's no future, there's no life to be re-created in this form ever again. There's a sense of deep tragedy that goes with these things and it happened to lots of birds that people love. It happened to lots of mammals. The extinctions still go on.

There's an ibex in Spain called bucardo. It went extinct in 2000. There was a marvelous animal, a marsupial wolf called the thylacine in Tasmania, south of Australia, called the Tasmanian Tiger. It was hunted until there were just a few left to die in zoos. Sorrow, anger, mourning - don't mourn, organize. What if you could find out that using the DNA and using specimens and fossils, maybe up to 200,000 years old, could be used to bring species back? What would you do?

RAZ: Well, what Stewart Brand did was decide to bring them back. He joined a movement of scientists interested in something called resurrection biology, or better known as de-extinction. And this is how Stewart explains it.

BRAND: The ability to basically edit the genes from extinct species into the genomes of a closely related living species, and basically turning that living species into the extinct species.

RAZ: Stewart Brand's plan for hacking into the animal kingdom and bringing Martha back, that's in a minute. I'm Guy Raz and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz and on the show today, the hackers hacking into machines and humans and, in the case of Stewart Brand, the DNA of extinct animals. It's a movement of biological hackers called de-extinction.

BRAND: De-extinction is a hack, in a way. Part of what's going on in this century is it's becoming a biological century, and biotech is the heart of that, both for doing the science and, increasingly, for doing the engineering. And my fellow environmentalists made the mistake, back in the eighties, of becoming averse to genetically modified this and that. And as a result, completely excluded themselves from the cutting edge of important science that relates to everything to do with conservation and various things that environmentalists care about.

RAZ: I mean, I can't be the first one to say it, Stewart, but, I mean, this sounds Jurassic Parky.

BRAND: Happily, "Jurassic Park" is about dinosaurs, 'cause it's a negative story - all those velociraptors. And dinosaurs are not candidates because they've been gone for 36 million years and the oldest DNA that we've found is 700,000 years. The good thing about "Jurassic Park" is it taught a generation of people, who are now of professional age, that bringing something back from extinction is a cool thing to consider and maybe not out of the question.

RAZ: Back to Martha, the last passenger pigeon ever. Chris Milensky at the Smithsonian reads the tag that was tied to Martha's leg when she first arrived at the museum in 1914.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSEUM VISIT)

MILENSKY: This is a former employee maybe having a little fun actually. 'Twas Martha from the Cincinnati Zoo, most certainly the last of her kind. Mounted skin cataloged under USNM 236650. Hall: "13 Birds of the World," exhibit case: Extinction. Passenger Pigeon.

RAZ: How did this happen? Well, it turns out we used to eat passenger pigeons. They were really cheap - 50 cents for a dozen. And they were so cheap because they were so abundant.

BRAND: Passenger pigeons were the most abundant bird in America. They might've been the most abundant bird on earth at the time in the 19th century.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSEUM VISIT)

MILENSKY: Population estimates were thought to be around 5 billion.

BRAND: Five billion of these birds. One out of four birds in North America was a passenger pigeon.

RAZ: You could literally look up in parts of North America and the skies would be black because there were so many passenger pigeons.

BRAND: Everybody talks about darkening the sun.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSEUM VISIT)

MILENSKY: Darkening the sky for, you know, a mile wide.

BRAND: Several hundred miles long would pass overhead.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSEUM VISIT)

MILENSKY: Passing by for days on end, you know, that's how big the flocks were. It was amazing to think of - just to imagine what that would've looked like. It went from that to just, you know, maybe a few hundred thousand in 20 years.

BRAND: Because they flock very densely on the ground, they're really, really easy to hunt. And once we had the telegraph and the railroad, it was easy for hunters and netters to slaughter the birds by the ton and ship them to the East Coast. That was done for a period of two or three decades, and by 1900, there were almost none left in the wild. By 1914, there was just one left alive at the Cincinnati Zoo and this was a female named Martha.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSEUM VISIT)

MILENSKY: I can turn her around here, if you'd like.

RAZ: Again, Chris Milensky at the Smithsonian.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSEUM VISIT)

MILENSKY: So it was a beautiful bird. And they had a red eye, and then a slightly bluish-gray head and back, and an orange-ish breast. In a lot of ways, they resemble the mourning dove, which is a common bird here in North America still. They're slightly larger, but they have that long, pointed tail, red feet. And it was a pretty bird. It's been determined now, you know, using genetics that it was actually most closely related to the band-tailed pigeon, which is still alive in the Western U.S. It's primarily a Rocky Mountains species.

RAZ: OK, so right here, the band-tailed pigeon, that's where Steward Brand's story and Martha's story finally collide.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BRAND: OK, the closest living relative of the passenger pigeon is the band-tailed pigeon. They're abundant. There's some around here. Genetically, the band-tailed pigeon already is mostly living passenger pigeon. There's just some bits that are band-tailed pigeon. If you replace those bits with passenger pigeon bits, you've got the extinct bird back cooing at you. It's kind of like an evolution machine. You try combinations of genes that you write at the cell level, and then in organs on a chip, and the ones that win that you can then put into a living organism, it'll work.

The precision of this, right down to the individual base pair. The passenger pigeon has 1.3 billion base pairs in its genome. Now there's work to do. You have to figure out exactly what genes matter. So there's genes for the short tail in the band-tailed pigeon, genes for the long tail in the passenger pigeon. So along with the red eye, peach colored breast, flocking and so on. You add them all up - the result won't be perfect. But it should be perfect enough, 'cause nature doesn't do perfect either.

RAZ: So what else could we bring back?

BRAND: Maybe the Dodo. There's not much specimen tissue but there may be enough to work with. We could bring back the woolly mammoth. We could bring back the woolly rhinoceros...

RAZ: Wow.

BRAND: ...Which I didn't even know about...

RAZ: I didn't either until you just mentioned it. Yeah.

BRAND: This was a northern rhinoceros, the same way that a woolly mammoth was a northern elephant. Saber-toothed tiger - they are in abundance in the La Brea Tar Pits, and I hear that fencing technology is getting ever better.

RAZ: We could have, like, a de-extinction zoo, like the woolly mammoth and the woolly rhino and the dodo and...

BRAND: Yeah, I think you will get de-extinction zoo, on the way to having de-extinction ecosystems.

RAZ: So Stewart, I mean, what I would not give to see a woolly mammoth or a woolly rhino - who knew even existed.

BRAND: How old are you?

RAZ: I'm in my thirties.

BRAND: You'll probably see at least a baby woolly mammoth.

RAZ: A baby woolly mammoth in my lifetime?

BRAND: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: I mean, what I wouldn't give to see those things, but then, like, a part of me - and I wonder if you can understand - like, a part of me is a little bit troubled by it. Like, a part of me thinks, well, God, should we be doing this?

BRAND: I've been intrigued by how freaked many people are by the idea of de-extinction. Then they come up with all sorts of strange reasons - oh, we can't bring them back, there's no habitat for it. You know, in a few cases that's true, but in most cases the habitat is there, drumming its fingers, waiting for these animals to come back. There's an aversion to things that involve genetic tinkering.

There's some good reasons for that, but as we bring back some passenger pigeons and they're adorable and they fly really fast and their persuasive is being like the original bird. And if we bring back a baby woolly mammoth, hearts will break and tears will flow when people see a baby woolly mammoth. And much the aversion that we felt about how it was brought about, I think, will fall away at that point.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BRAND: So where do we go from here? These have been private meetings, so far. I think it's time for the subject to go public. What do people think about it? And do you want extinct species back? Do you want extinct species back?

(APPLAUSE)

BRAND: Because the fact is, humans have made a huge hole in nature in the last 10,000 years. We have the ability now, and maybe the moral obligation, to repair some of the damage. Most of that we'll do by expanding and protecting wild lands, by expanding and protecting the populations of endangered species. But some species that we killed off totally, we could consider bringing back to a world that misses them. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Stewart Brand. Check out his full talk at TED.NPR.org. His group dedicated to de-extinction is called Revive & Restore. Oh, and you can see Martha on display at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. next year. There's an exhibit planned for the 100th anniversary of her death. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.