Resurrection Science by M. R. O’Connor

“To be or not to be, that is the question…”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

resurrection scienceIn a period called by scientists the ‘Sixth Extinction’, the question of conservation has never been more relevant or immediate. But what exactly are we conserving for? What are the moral, ethical and philosophical questions that surround the various types of conservation? In this excellent book, M.R. O’Connor highlights some of the species on the edge of extinction and uses them as jumping off points to look at some of the arguments, from the practical to the esoteric, that surround the whole question of species conservation.

It is a truth that should be universally acknowledged, if it isn’t already, that the most interesting books, especially in the field of science, are also the hardest to review. There is barely a page in this book that didn’t have me pausing for thought, taking a note, nodding in agreement, becoming outraged, puzzled, saddened, inspired. I could write 20,000 words on it (but I won’t!) and still only give the briefest flavour of the ground O’Connor covers. So rather than try to do that, I’m going to look in depth at the first chapter and then restrict myself to a brief overview of the rest.

Kihansi spray toad and baby at Bronx Zoo, one of only two remaining colonies, both in US zoos.
Kihansi spray toad and baby at Bronx Zoo, one of only two remaining colonies, both in US zoos.

The Kihansi spray toad has evolved to live in one tiny area of the world only – in the spray zone of a waterfall in the Udzungwa mountains in East Africa. Previously an unknown species, it was only discovered when plans were being developed to use the waterfall as a massive hydro-power project. In line with global rules, a biodiversity survey was carried out to assess the impact of the project, and the little toad suddenly became famous in conservation circles. In short, the project went ahead and despite all the technological efforts that were ploughed, at considerable cost, into saving the toad, it went extinct in the wild. But two colonies of them still exist in separate zoos in the US with hopes that they may one day be reintroduced into a specially adapted environment in their original habitat.

A common enough little story, but O’Connor uses it to raise some of the ethical and philosophical issues around the whole question of conservation…

Should the project have gone ahead knowing the likelihood of it causing the extinction of the toad? O’Connor discusses the desperate need for more electricity if this region of the world is to develop out of its current poverty. Hydro-power is clean energy – is this not exactly what we privileged Westerners want the ‘third world’ to develop rather than turning to fossil fuel? How will we eradicate poverty if we put biodiversity above human need?

The last remianing male Northern white rhino in the world being prtoected by armed guards. His horn has been removed to make him less attractive to poachers.
The last remaining male Northern white rhino in the world being protected by armed guards. His horn has been removed to make him less attractive to poachers.

Which leads to the next question – is nature there to ‘serve’ man or does it have an intrinsic value of its own? Are we its master or its caretaker? Was the toad’s existence important before we knew about it? O’Connor ranges fascinatingly through philosophy and ethics in an attempt to elucidate the arguments around this fundamental question.

Can a species really be said to exist if it can’t survive in its own habitat? In other words, if the only remaining members of a species are in captivity, is not that species effectively extinct? This leads on to other questions. How quickly do animals in captivity evolve to suit their new surroundings? One of the scientists working with the toads claims that there are already differences between the two colonies. So can they really be said to be the same species as the one in the wild? If they are reintroduced to the wild, what impact will that have? The habitat has in the meantime been evolving to take account of their absence – are we interfering more by trying to turn back the clock?

In order to create a liveable habitat for the toads, a sprinkler system has been installed at enormous cost – this in a region where children routinely die from poverty and preventable diseases. Could the money have been better spent? Bluntly, is the life of a toad worth more or less than the life of a child? How much are we prepared to spend to conserve a species that can no longer survive without perpetual human management? In these circumstances, can it really be considered ‘wild’ any more… or even ‘natural’?

Florida panther How important was the sense of wilderness to the formation of the American character? What will the loss of 'wild' animals mean for the American psyche?
Florida panther
How important was the sense of wilderness to the formation of the American character? What will the loss of ‘wild’ animals mean for the American psyche?

Along the way, O’Connor discusses the suspicion that sometimes greets conservation efforts in Africa caused by the fact that it has so often been done for the benefit of a white elite – for example, safari parks were originally preserved as private hunting grounds, and to create them native people were frequently driven off their traditional lands. And she shows how divided conservationists are over all these questions – with the pragmatic element feeling that the arguments will go on for ever in academia while on the ground extinctions will continue at an ever more rapid rate.

In later chapters, O’Connor goes much further into genetic conservation – gene banks containing millions of samples, including of species already extinct. Should we try to resurrect these species? How far back should we go – the toad? The passenger pigeon? The mammoth? Neanderthal man? We have the genes for them all. The science is nearly there, but what would the impact be? Are genes alone enough, or is a species defined as much by learned behaviour as genetics? And will these resurrected species be considered ‘real’ or ‘artificial’ – the answer to that will affect how far people are willing to go to conserve them should the species approach extinction again. Will the idea that extinct species can be resurrected in the future make governments less willing to spend money on conservation today?

Hunting and loss of habitat caused the passenger pigeon to go extinct over 100 years ago. Now some people plan to resurrect them...
Hunting and loss of habitat drove the passenger pigeon to extinction over 100 years ago. Now some people plan to resurrect them…

I hope I’ve been able to give a tiny flavour of how fascinating I found this book. O’Connor is an investigative journalist rather than a scientist and this shows through in her ability both to present complex arguments clearly enough for the non-academic reader, and to take an objective view of the subject. She raises and debates the questions, detailing the arguments put forward by the leaders in the field, but she doesn’t force answers on the reader. She leaves us to think it through for ourselves, and shows us that each case is different, creating its own unique set of questions. From Northern white rhinos and the effects of war, to the panther in the south-eastern USA and its impact on the American character and psyche, the book is stuffed to bursting point with the most current thinking on the ethics of conservation, all written in an immensely readable and accessible way. Without exception, the most interesting and wide-ranging book on the subject I have ever read and one that has made me much more aware of the complexities of the debate. Earns my highest recommendation.

Serious moves are already afoot to clone mammoths by creating an embryo from genetic material and implanting it in the womb of a donor elephant. Good idea? The elephant doesn't get to express an opinion...
Serious moves are already afoot to clone mammoths by creating an embryo from genetic material and implanting it in the womb of a donor elephant. Good idea? The elephant doesn’t get to express an opinion…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, St Martin’s Press.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

57 thoughts on “Resurrection Science by M. R. O’Connor

  1. They took his horn?! I can’t believe it. That’s like taking his sword. But at least they have armed guards there.

    Now, correct me if I’m wrong here, but doesn’t Evolution teach “survival of the fittest?” Since I’m not an evolutionist, how would that tie in to the toads and even the White rhino, in your opinion? Sorry for the complicated question, but I’ve wondered about this.

    Florida Panther…that’s a mountain lion. And they’re around here, the beasts. *shudders* I’ve also just recently heard a wolf!

    • Yeah, but, be honest, would you feel like breeding if you were surrounded by guards?? (Don’t be too honest, mind… *chuckles wickedly*)

      Good noodles! Who am I – David Attenborough? This could run to 20,000 words easily! Well… I’d say that a lot of the problems with the current wave of extinctions are because man is the fittest (except maybe for bacteria but let’s leave them out of it). Certainly both the toad and the rhino have been brought to extinction by man’s actions. So it seems to me that that is a natural part of evolution. However, man has evolved to a level of high enough intelligence to consider the morals of his actions, and to make choices. So the question is not so much why are these animals going extinct – we’re doing it to them – it’s more, should we allow that to happen? In the Christian view as I understand it, man was given dominion over all animals – does that give us the right to exterminate them, or the duty to protect them? Take evolution and/or Christianity out of it, and it seems to me the question stays the same… I’d ask, what do I think is the right thing to do where you might ask what would God think is the right thing to do. Our answers may not be very different… *laughs* Well, you did ask!

      The panther is gorgeous isn’t it? And I’m sooo jealous that you have wolves! You must protect them, I think…

      • Haha. Well, I’m not sure what kind of question that is. You answer first!!

        Wait. Isn’t that the chap who played Hammond in Jurassic Park?

        Very interesting. But, if we’re just more highly evolved and whatnot, and these extinction are a natural part of evolution, then we’re not exterminating them. They’re just…not strong enough to live. But quite right. I think that rhino up there should be taken and forced to mate! There. Shouldn’t be given a choice, see. Which makes that question a bit more interesting. *laughs*

        Protect the wolves? I’m worried for my life and the dogs and cats, excuse you! It’s getting scary around here…

        • No, I most certainly would not!! And end up with horrid little kids?! I bet even little rhino kids get together and sing horrid little duets… *shudders*

          *laughs* No that was his brother Dickie! (They haven’t found any dino DNA yet – isn’t that sad? No resurrected velociraptors…)

          See? I told you we’d probably agree! About the toads anyway. Build the power plant I say, and wave a sad farewell to little Mr Toad! (Bet you thought I’d be all for saving the toads…) The rhino – nah! I’d let them go extinct too. There’s still lots of species of rhino with a much better chance of survival – spend the money on them. See how brutal I can be? That’s what this book did to me! I nearly asked how you would force a rhino to mate, but I’m so not sure I want to know the answer… *chuckles*

          Well, you do have a valid point about the dogs and cats, but a warrior like you need have no fear for himself against even the greatest of wolves! It shall be a mighty battle, though… *gets ready to sing battle songs*

          • That’s what I thought! Not sure why you didn’t want me to be honest, though. *grumbles*

            There’s two of them! What a wonder. (Not sad at all! If they started populating the earth again, raptors, I would smuggle you a gun and make you train with it!)

            *laughing* I must admit, I’m rather surprised, yes. I think they should just send all the toads to me, for safekeeping. The rhino…they’ve already taken his horn! That’s the pride of his manliness. I’d buy the horn. And the rhino. If it was dirt cheap, of course. *laughs* Isn’t that sorta like asking? It is a complicated strategy…

            Unless I get a finger ripped off in the battle! Imagine that, won’t you. Though, it would be an epic battle, you’re right. Hmm.

            • I was fearful you might say yes! *wicked look*

              Yes, but one’s dead now – hmm! I wonder if they kept a sample of his DNA. (Awww! That’s so sweet that you’d worry about me! But it’s so dull living in a country with no wild animals more dangerous than a squirrel, you know, you know… couldn’t you smuggle me a few panthers?)

              Now if the toads could dance, I’d feel differently obviously. You could go visit them – say hi from me, and don’t tell them what I said! I know! People are horrible really, aren’t they? Imagine killing an animal like that just to take its horn. *laughs* I feared it might be… Mr Lesnar may have to help out.

              Noooooooooo!! Don’t want to imagine that! I wouldn’t let it happen – if it got to that stage I’d leap in and give it one of my fingers instead!

            • *laughs* I might!

              I will smuggle you a few panthers, if you agree to take few glocks and a rifle. Deal?

              *laughs* I don’t know. I might capture that rhino and ride him about. Quite proudly, too. Though I’d let him keep his horn. Unless, of course, he gave it away quite freely and happily. Then I’d take it, don’t you know. *laughing* Yes, Mr. Lesnar. And you’d have to help.

              Aw! I wouldn’t let you do that, madam, but still it’s rather sweet.

            • Well, don’t forget to take the lady rhino dancing first…

              Well… OK! *digs a big hole to bury the guns in*

              That seems fair enough – you may have any horn that an animal offers you freely. You can even have a tiger-skin rug if the tiger gives up it’s skin voluntarily… *kind face* Me??? Well, OK, I shall arrange the candlelight and romantic music – how’s that?

              Your fingers are too valuable – you must wear iron gauntlets when you go to battle!

            • But I’m not a rhino, the sudden. I want to be a bald-faced hornet like you.

              Whatever will that be for? No putting of guns in holes. I think that’s in the constitution.

              Unless, of course, the tiger goes for me and I break his neck. Then I’ll take his skin, the beast. Oh no, it can’t be done that way! BL will show you, and I’ll watch.

              *laughs* Iron gauntlets! I’d love to…if I could find a pair.

            • Oh you can be one of those! They’re cute, I hear.

              You mean I can’t have a gun when you rule the world?

              *laughing lots* You didn’t? No backing out now!

              Wow! I’d like a pair. What’s that in dollars, do you know?

            • Cute AND adorable! And cuddly! And I’d be fluffy too…

              ‘Fraid not! But you can have as much cherry pie as you want… and a genuine pirate cutlass! How’s that?

              But I feel backing out carefully may be a necessary aprt of the process…

              About $150, maybe? Not sure. *laughs* But you musn’t wear them when you’re dancing…

            • Probably mean with their teeth, though. *raises one eyebrow*

              Awwww! That’s just so no fair. If I must, I suppose. But I might smuggle one and not tell you about it. *laughs victoriously*

              *mouth drops…some laughs…laughs lots* FEF!!!

              But imagine punching someone with those! Yo. That’d be something.

            • Depends on how good the tummy tickles are, I expect…

              I shall have a special gizmo to track smuggled Glocks – and a special dungeon for smugglers… with no access to cherry sucker shops! *laughs victoriously back*

              *blushes to the tips of her toes* You made me say it!! It was your fault!! Look what you’ve done to me!! *hides head in bag to muffle the wicked chuckling*

              *laughs* Soooo violent!! I think you need to eat more chocolate…

            • Tummy tickles are never good, I hear!

              But…but…I’ve got the glock and you have…? I win, the sudden, see. As long as it’s loaded, of course.

              *throws up hands* I won’t except the blame at all! *laughing lots still* That. Was. Hilarious.

              Funny you should say that, I’ve just had chocolate with almonds in it. Rather good, don’t you know.

            • That’s not what Tommy says…

              But… I know you would never shoot me… so I win!!!

              *laughs* OK, I admit it – I was just overwhelmed by naughtiness for a moment!

              I do know! But you didn’t give me any… *stomps off, chocolateless*

            • Well, Tuppence and I agree Tommy should man up a bit, I fear.

              *hangs head* Rats. On the positive side of things, I’d still wear my katana. On my back.

              For a moment? I do think you’re naughty about all the time.

              I thought you hated nuts!

            • No, he shouldn’t! He should stay my sweet, soft, little pink-nosed kitten for life! *growls protectively*

              Oh, yes! That would be much more heroic looking anyway!

              *laughs* It’s your influence…

              No!!! Only cashews! And maybe pecans. But brazil nuts and peanuts and walnuts and hazelnuts and almonds… yummy!

            • But he can’t! But then again, he does have a reason not to be too manly. Oh, whatever and some, I say.

              But you’ve never seen me with my…!

              It is not! I’m rather good, much to my chagrin.

              Ohhhhhhhhh. Well, you hate real nuts, I mean.

            • Maybe he’s incredibly manly when he’s outside and just puts on his sweet, innocent act for my benefit. Like boys do for their mothers…

              *shudders* I’m so hoping you don’t actually have a…

              I love the word chagrin… it should get used more often!

              But I like you… *gurgles*

  2. Absolutely fascinating, FictionFan! And kudos to O’Conner for not shying away from the difficult questions concerning conservation. It’s not an easy issue. And it involves so many questions of philosophy, natural science, economics, and politics! I can see why you found it hard to review the book. This sounds like something that really must be digested, if I can put it that way.

    • It is fascinating! And what I liked was that she was able to lay it all out clearly enough to be digestible without dumbing it down too much. There was a point at the end where she tried to explain a kind of quantum philosophy regarding existence on the space/time continuum and I fear that went straight over my head, but I suspect that was more to do with my brain than her writing! 😉

  3. This sounds like a most interesting read. Good, now and then, to take a close look at what we believe…and why we believe it. ‘Tis easy to feel sorry for the poor extinct beasties, but perhaps they merely lived out their lifespan, and their dying made room for a more evolved species. As for whether ’tis existence if something can’t survive in its own habitat — how many humans would survive if thrown into jungles or woods, rather than allowed to exist in cities and such?? Great review, FF — now go have a splendid weekend!

    • I found it really interesting. It wasn’t quite what I expected – I thought it was just another book about endangered species. But it was so much more than that. Yes, it’s easy to get all sentimental about saving species but sometimes it all seems a bit pointless if they can no longer survive without our help. Good point – I’ve never been convinced I’d be one of these survivor types if a global disaster happened. I reckon I’m too detached from nature to even know how to begin. Thanks, Debbie – you too! 😀

  4. A wonderful review FF. I assume she also has lots to say about the interdependence of species, so that there gets to be knock-on effects if one species goes extinct. I do think that the Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ has also been taken up to interpret ‘fittest’ in a specific way which links into the empire building mindset at the time. But, there is so much evidence (I’m sure the Tim Flannery is talking a lot about that) about how often ‘fittest’ involves symbiosis and co-operation.

    That ‘last remaining rhino’ is enormously sad to think about. No friends (or enemies) to be with, in whatever way Northern white rhinos were in the company of another. I for sure would not want to be ‘the last remaining human being’

    • Aw, thank you! Oddly she didn’t – not to a great extent anyway. I thought it was going to be a book about endangered species but really it was all much more about morals and ethics – the species were to a degree only discussed as a starting point to look at the questions surrounding them. The Flannery book was very good, but after making me feel optimistic all the way through, he kind of dashed the cup of gladness from my hand in the last couple of chapters. It’s quite a deliberately political book aimed at the climate conference due to happen in Paris this December, so I wasn’t sure if he went all bleak at the end just to make the point that so much more still needs to be done. Interesting, though – I think you’ll enjoy it.

      Yes, I’m not convinced that when a species is down to the last few and having to be guarded and dehorned that it wouldn’t be much kinder just to let them go. Yet another question – are we keeping them alive for their benefit or ours? Not suggesting killing them, of course, just letting nature take its course… or move them to a zoo and let them live out their remaining years in comfort and safety…

  5. I feel very insufficient in the reading and educational department next to you. How do you do it, FF? I haven’t read a non-fiction book in quite some time. It’s shameful, really. I will continue to rely on your reviews for my in-depth, investigative journalism fix. *hangs head* I’m still pairing last week’s socks, when really I should be asking these broad ethical questions of survival!

    • Haha! But you have to bear in mind that I can never, ever find a pair of socks when I need one! 😉 Seriously, when I was younger I hardly read any non-fiction, but now that I have more free time I find it at least as enjoyable as fiction, maybe more. This is a real golden age for factual books – they’re much better written and free of all that tedious academic jargon than they used to be – it makes such a difference!

  6. Great review – I think I shall be forced to read this. The whole conservation v. development question is a hard one to answer, but at least this book seems to be asking it.

    • Thanks! Definitely one to look out for. I thought it was just going to be another endangered species book, but it’s far more interesting than that. And I liked that she didn’t try to force her own answers on me – just tried to get me to think more deeply about the questions. A good one!

    • Thank you! It certainly was – more than I was expecting, in fact. I thought it was just going to be another book about endangered species, but it turned out to be much more interesting.

  7. Well done, FF. I see our relationship with other species a kind of symbiotic kind. Whether one believes the Genesis account or not, there must have been some relationships between humans and the animals.

    • Thanks, Susan! Yes, I certainly wouldn’t want to live in a world without other animals in it. But it’s funny how we care so much more about some species than others. I could live without the little toad but I’d be devastated if the polar bear went extinct…

      • I’ve heard theologians say that Adam and Eve talked with and understood the animals until the Fall. I enjoy animals…more than some people I know… I enjoy looking at all species, but things like spiders, while fascinating to observe, I have no desire to make a pet of them. I’ve lived with dogs, cats, hamsters, tropical fish, birds, pet mice. And with many of them we learned to communicate with each other on some level or another.

        • I certainly communicate with the cats and did so even more with my dog. It’s a difficult question – obviously the easy answer is to say we shouldn’t ever do anything to destroy another species, but sometimes the easy answer isn’t quite so easy when you start to look at it in detail. And for some reason we seem in general to feel more emotional about the big animals than the toads and insects.

  8. Are you the blogger who just read a different book on this topic? I just read a review similar in content, so I can’t tell if you’re on science kick or if lots of bloggers are reading science!

  9. You review the most interesting books! This one really strikes me. I’m in the mood for nonfiction, so this one just might do. Love this question: “Can a species really be said to exist if it can’t survive in its own habitat? In other words, if the only remaining members of a species are in captivity, is not that species effectively extinct?” So fascinating! Seems like a must read.

    • There’s so much great non-fiction around at the moment, and science in particular is so much better written than it used to be – that is, easier for non-scientists to read. This one is great – one of the books of the year for me. Full of interesting questions about the whole subject – it’s made me realise just how complicated the whole question of conservation really is. If you do read it, hope you enjoy it! 🙂

    • Thank you! 😀 I think you’d really enjoy this one, and though it’s packed full of stuff, it’s surprisingly compact for a science book. Plus her writing makes it an easier read than a lot of factual stuff. Definitely one to add…

  10. Thanks FF. An engaging review of an interesting book. I’d like to give my daughter this one. Are there visual images, that is, is it better to get a book rather than a Kindle copy?

    • Thanks, underrunner! 🙂 There are no illustrations in my copy but it is a pre-publication version, so I can’t be sure about the final version, I’m afraid. However I’ve had a look and there’s no list of illustrations in the index either which suggests there might not be any in the final version. It’s also not heavily foot-noted, so in this case, I think the Kindle would work just as well as the paper copy. Hope she enjoys it! 🙂

  11. Thank you for this. She’s just finished studies and about to start a career with an ecological focus so I think she’ll be very interested in these ideas. Of course, I’ll have to read it too so we can discuss it!

  12. Sounds like a fascinating and important book. The ethical issues are very interesting. I’m not sure I’ll read it myself, but it’s good to know about it and I will recommend it if I find an ideal reader.

    • It’s certainly one that I think anyone who enjoys reading these kind of pop science books would very much enjoy. Her writing style makes it easy to absorb too, and the animals she chose to highlight all have intersting and very different stories.

Please leave a comment - I'd love to know who's visiting and what you think...of the post, of the book, of the blog, of life, of chocolate...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s