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Bringing back the dead

Resurrection Science: Conservation, De-Extinction, and the Precarious Future of Wild Things

M. R. O’Connor
St. Martin's Press
2015
266 pp.
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Age Range: Young Adult

Grade Level: 9 – 12

The idea of genetically resurrecting animals long vanished from the Earth seems at once familiar and fantastic. Jurassic Park popularized the concept and fired the imaginations of millions, but the dinosaurs’ human creators came off rather more one-dimensional, primarily motivated by greed and hubris. In her book Resurrection Science, journalist M.R. O’Connor takes the reader beyond that simple premise into a thorny tangle of ethics, economics, politics, personalities, and, of course, science.

Each chapter focuses on a different species, from the once ubiquitous and now extinct passenger pigeon to the endangered and maddeningly mysterious North Atlantic right whale to the northern white rhino, of which there are only three in the world, all in captivity. For each species, O’Connor explains, whether or how to “save” them is a question with its own cost-benefit analysis and no easy or right answers.

Take, for example, the northern white rhino, on the very brink of extinction, whose defense from poachers already comes with a human cost. Scientists have proposed a bold, controversial plan to save them: Use a stockpile of frozen sperm, stem, and other cells collected over decades to create new rhinos. Critics worry that the likely multimillion-dollar price tag could affect other conservation efforts. Even if it all works, O’Connor ponders, would these lab created rhinos really be the same species?

Each species’ story contains as much complexity and detail and has its own interesting cast of true believers who are passionate about the animal and/or the science. Many chapters feel open-ended, an implied “to be continued…” at the finish.

Resurrection Science is not a “young adult” book, in the sense that it’s targeted at a specific demographic or simplifies its complicated, provocative, and sometimes even disheartening subject. But thoughtful students with interests in conservation, biology, or zoology will find it an engrossing read.