The current delightful ruckus concerns the emerging prospect of bringing back extinct species whose DNA can be recovered from museum specimens and some fossils. (No dinosaurs, alas.) I'm the co-founder of "Revive & Restore," a project within The Long Now Foundation. This month National Geographic has a cover story on de-extinction, and last week there was a TEDxDeExtinction that stirred up a lot of press and interest. Last month I gave a TED talk on de-extinction that has been drawing traffic. You may have some questions about how de-extinction will work, why bother, and which species to resurrect.

I'm new to Reddit (no excuse), but back in the day I did co-found the first Hackers Conference in 1983 and The WELL in 1984. Before that I was the first to write about hackers, in 1972 (that was in Rolling Stone). There's a good book about all that called FROM COUNTERCULTURE TO CYBERCULTURE, by Fred Turner.

I'm an ardent conservationist, which lately has set me at odds with some of my fellow environmentalists. Along with restored wild lands, I favor nuclear power and transgenic crops (GMOs), plus ever denser and Greener cities. My book on the matter is WHOLE EARTH DISCIPLINE: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. There's material about it on my somewhat out-of-date website. I posted about this IAmA on Google+.

Ask Me Anything!

I see a few downvoters. Would some of you speak up and say why? Thanks! The voting appears to have remained consistent at 8:2, up to down, right from the start. Is the voting always so fractal? 100 points! I set that as my threshold to go get some lunch (3 hours late). I'll check back in a few hours and then call it a day. Thank you for delightful and insightful conversation.

Comments: 212 • Responses: 52  • Date: 

sir-realist37 karma

Any plans for the giant ground sloth? I hear they were a key part of spreading the seeds of Joshua Trees?

stewartbrand49 karma

Fan clubs seem to be developing for various species. We need to find a way to organize them. Carl Zimmer loves the Steller's Sea Cow, and so does George Dyson. You point out an astonishing, um, ground swell for the giant ground sloth. Maybe Reddit can vote these animals back into existence.

sir-realist13 karma

Are you considering having space for certain species fan clubs on the Revive and Restore site? Or perhaps a voting/discussion section? It would be nice to get a break down of the potential problems and benefits of each species...

stewartbrand24 karma

We would love to have dueling species fan clubs at Revive & Restore. Technical advice welcome!

bgutierrez17 karma

What proportion of these species will face a major habitat problem when they're brought back? I imagine that at least a few will be back under display-only circumstances.

stewartbrand21 karma

Thanks for this question, because it comes up a lot, usually in Tragic mode---"The poor passenger pigeons will suffer because their old habitat is gone!" In most cases habitat for revived species will as good as ever or much improved from when they went extinct. The eastern woodlands have grown back ferociously since the late 1800s, when they were most deforested and the passenger pigeon was hunted to death. The north Atlantic has plenty of fish for the great auk, when it returns. Woolly mammoths will relish the boreal forests of the north, and commence turning them back into more biodiverse grasslands.

Adaltis15 karma

What species do you think would be the most valuable to bring back and why?
I heard that the age of dinosaur specimens is too far past the DNA survival rate, are there new ways of recovering DNA currently being researched?

stewartbrand34 karma

"Most valuable" is an essential question, evolving as we speak. For some it would mean "most loved" or "most missed." The ivory-billed woodpecker ranks high there. I'm interested in "most ecologically enriching." That often means "keystone species" or "ecosystem engineer." High ranked there is the woolly mammoth, maker of the "mammoth steppe" in the far north. Also the passenger pigeon, who enriched the entire eastern deciduous forest. Some criteria can be found at the "Revive & Restore" site, here:

nreshackleford9 karma

Just because you brought it up. The contemporary folk artist Sufjan Stevens, at the request of NPR, made a song about the ivory-billed woodpecker re-discovery in Arkansas. It's pretty haunting.

stewartbrand4 karma

Sweet. Thanks for the link.

rebelipar3 karma

How would one go about convincing people to go along with the reintroduction of extinct keystone species?

I'd imagine it would be pretty difficult to, say, tell the people living on what used to be mammoth steppe that you're going to introduce a long-gone species and drastically change the landscape.

Though I'm sure that in other cases, when the consequences would be more in line with popular notions like biodiversity (especially of charismatic species) and lots of lush greenery, convincing people would be easier.

stewartbrand8 karma

It's fair to assume that ecotourists will follow where extinct species are reintroduced. Locals usually catch on quick that ecotourists are pure gold economically, and entertaining, and in their way educational.

wu2bku12 karma

What species do you think hold the best chance for successful de-extinction? Are you starting with simpler life-forms and then working your way up?

stewartbrand17 karma

I like the idea of starting with simpler life forms, though no one has made specific proposals yet. We've only heard about one insect, for example: the Xerces blue butterfly.

uphill-bothways12 karma

The last auroch died in 1627 in Poland. It looks like scientists of the Polish Foundation for Recreating the Aurochs are trying to revive the species with DNA from auroch bones kept in museums. Do you think the project is likely to succeed? Can you comment on challenges that face it?

stewartbrand18 karma

There's a lot of interest in Europe in bringing back the aurochs. So far it's being done by conventional back-breeding from existing cattle species who have "primitive" traits. The TaurOs Programme is on the case: There is a lot of abandoned farmland in Europe that is going back to closed-canopy forest. Aurochs can do their old job of opening up biodiverse meadows and savannas. This is one the projects that will succeed early.

BorderColliesRule11 karma

In your opinion, what is the timeline for an actual revival of a currently extinct species? And which species do you believe will first be "revived"?

stewartbrand18 karma

My bet is on the Pyrenean ibex, called the bucardo. ...Because it can be cloned in a closely related surrogate mother and some tissue was cryopreserved before it went extinct in 2000. Alberto Fernandez-Arrias appears to be getting funding to repeat the feat of 2003 to get a bucardo calf born, this time with more advanced cloning techniques.

BorderColliesRule4 karma

Hmm, interesting. So wolly mammoths aren't on the "to do list" for awhile?

stewartbrand18 karma

Mammoths are definitely on my to-do list. Partly because we have very good DNA from their frozen tissue, partly because I love the time frame of their revival---many decades. From baby female mammoth to her child female mammoth is 20 years. Multiple generations of humans would have to stick with the project. Definitely a "long now" undertaking.

wu2bku6 karma

Interesting. I was wondering where the "Long Now" tie-in was for this, but that makes sense. I suppose if these species are succesfully reintroduced and they continue to flurish, in essence, they will have never gone extinct, from a geological point of view.

stewartbrand15 karma

Spread that meme!---"Never have gone extinct, from a geological point of view." Passenger pigeon Conservation Status: "Least concern; temporarily extinct, 1914-2019"

ichneumon10 karma

I am a student studying mathematics, ecology and evolution. I think the ecology involved in de-extinction is fascinating and I want to get involved.

How can I help?

or (more generally) how can ecologists get involved in de-extinction?

stewartbrand15 karma

Yep, ecology has to be the main focus, I believe. That's my own background (Stanford, 1950s) and the mission at "Revive & Restore" is: Ecological enrichment through extinct species revival. I think ecologists can help sort out the difference between "invasive" (usually harmful or neutral) and "resurgent" (a new term invented by Peter Kareiva at The Nature Conservancy.) Formerly extinct species re-introduced into their old habitat we hope would be resurgent---they would take up their old ecological niche (possibly displacing some latecomers) and their old ecological function. The revival of the American chestnut is in this category.

breathe_happy9 karma

What are the possible negative effects from your research? Has anyone/any group expressed concern regarding possible negative outcomes?

(Not looking for negatives, just wondering. I'm personally stoked about the research you all have been doing!)

stewartbrand29 karma

I think one valid negative is the question of whether species-revival technology can be used for species-creation. Suppose someone wants to create a duck-sized horse, for example. Or a one-eyed, one-horned flying purple people eater. Norms will emerge, I suppose.

stewartbrand14 karma

I should add that horse-sized ducks are out of the question---mechanical problems. A horse that quacks, maybe.

Podaroo7 karma

How does the present compare to what you expected the future to be like in 1984? Also, where can I get on a waiting list for a pet quagga?

stewartbrand21 karma

Thanks for raising the notion of pets. Mike Archer in Australia, who is working on bringing back the Tasmanian tiger (thylacine) says that the marsupial wolf was kept by some as pets, but they were illegal (on account of being declared "pests") by government. He notes that no species who has found a way to be loved at pets by humans has gone extinct. So yes to pet quaggas.

linguistbreaker7 karma

Have you considered how this technology and its use affects the Endangered Species Act in the U.S., and therefore the mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service? The act basically outlines how to designate species and a process for planning and implementing their recovery. How will this fit in? Have you heard from or talked to people in these organizations about it?

stewartbrand6 karma

Oh lord, imagine the hearings. Yeah, that act will need some revision. US Fish & Wildlife Service will be the relevant regulator, as they were of re-introducing wolves to Yellowstone Park.

Loborious7 karma

Do you and your team have any boundaries re bringing back species that are extinct due to natural selection/natural causes? DO you strategize to bring back only those that are extinct by way of human intervention? How do you respond to the obvious ethical concerns?

stewartbrand14 karma

I keep asking the relevant scientists for an example of a species that has gone extinct in the last 10,000 years for natural causes (ie. not driven extinct directly or indirectly by human activities). So far they haven't come up with one. There must be some! Mainly though, nearly all the extinctions of the last 10 millennia (since agriculture) have been caused by us. Then one ethical question is: if we killed them off, even though accidentally, do we have any obligation to repair the damage?

posthumous6 karma

In Alastair Reynold's book Blue Remembered Earth, he imagines a future in which geneticists have created a race of dog-sized pygmy elephants, in an effort to keep the species alive. A conservationist in the book argues that this is ethically questionable.

What are your thoughts on this sort of idea?

stewartbrand7 karma

Miniaturization has been pretty common in nature. There were small mammoths on the Channel Islands near Los Angeles. Then you have the hobbit hominids in Indonesia. Some things get bigger on islands, come to think of it: the dodo was (and will be) a very large pigeon.

Marinkat6 karma

I've seen a whole lot of press and interest this week in Mike Archer's work on a weird frog in Australia. Amphibians seem to be in a precipitous decline worldwide. Does success in bringing back one frog or amphibian mean that other amphibians worldwide could also benefit? This seems pretty huge!!

stewartbrand12 karma

It could indeed be huge. Since de-extinction involves close work with the genome of the species, the return of Archer's gastric brooding frog COULD involve tweaking its DNA so that it is resistant to the fungus killing all frogs. If the tweak proves successful, it could be introduced into the wild populations of other endangered frogs via cloning.

Frajer6 karma

Will I ever get to ride a Dodo or a Mammoth?

stewartbrand25 karma

Yes. It's important to ask the mammoth politely, though. Dodos are more likely to ride you.

Q-Kat2 karma

now I need to know if you've read any Thursday Next books

stewartbrand3 karma

News to me! Thank you. I shall order them straightaway.

ryanphelan6 karma

why are you so excited about the Great Auk?

stewartbrand11 karma

Gorgeous bird. Filled the penguin niche in the Arctic. Check its Wikipedia entry.

russo_cristina5 karma

At the TEDx event there was a lot of discussion on what constitutes a "true" revived species (as opposed to the creation of a new species). What is your take on that?

stewartbrand4 karma

I expect that distinction will be explored at great length, sometimes fruitfully. Kent Redford gave a probing talk titled "Tainted Species?" He was referring the arguments over which American bison out there to spend efforts on protecting---only the total pure-breds, or the vast number who have some cattle genes but look exactly like and act exactly like the so-called pure ones? Wolves have been taking on dog genes for their own purposes. Coyotes have been taking on wolf genes, the better to take down young white-tailed deer in the regrown American eastern forest now overpopulated with deer. A duck-sized horse would be new though, right? But wait: horses started out duck-sized a long time ago in North America. Reconstituted genomes from them would be "true," wouldn't they. (If you could get DNA that ancient. Very unlikely.)

PawnShop8045 karma

What will you do with the animals once you bring them back to life? Put them in the wild? Zoo?

stewartbrand17 karma

The sequence is: lab, zoo, wild. You need the zoo for captive-breeding to generate a large enough population, with enough genetic variability, to be able to prosper in the wild. The tricky bit is that zoos are cushy for animals compared to the wild. Managing a toughening-up boot camp for lazy passenger pigeons will be interesting. " Listen up, bird. This is a falcon. He is not your friend."

jwelcher4 karma

"I see a few downvoters. Would some of you speak up and say why?"

There is a semi-stochastic process "fuzzing" process going on, and as reddit says, those numbers are not exactly "real":

That said, there are always reddit Creationists afoot to fight with the infamous reddit Atheists, so maybe you are seeing blowback from attempting to tamper with God's design! "Some animals should go extinct, that's just unconscious knowledge." -- kinda Jane's Addiction

stewartbrand3 karma

Thanks. I'm surprised there's no diagnostic with greater detail. I assumed the downvoting was an allergy reaction to words like "nuclear" and "GMO" in my introduction.

euro_lemon4 karma

I would love to see Moa among the forests of New Zealand once again.

stewartbrand4 karma

Me too. It will be a great, difficult, rewarding project.

jwelcher3 karma

Is there an "anticipatory" branch of the "Revive and Restore"? Though it might be "cheating", are you working with DNA banks or other groups to collect/preserve DNA from species with only a few members left, so that they can be reintroduced "soon"? At least you'd be able to start with the full genome.

stewartbrand10 karma

What you describe is what The Frozen Zoo (part of the San Diego Zoo) has been doing for 35 years. See: and

Barking_Giraffe2 karma

Could you please explain the process that makes this all possible?

stewartbrand4 karma

The trick is tricking the genome of the closest living relative of the extinct animal to perform as a living genome of the extinct creature. Thus band-tailed pigeons (which abound) can be converted, by stages, into its old cousin the passenger pigeon. And so: Carolina parakeets come back via sun parakeets; great auks via razorbills; woolly mammoths via Asian elephants; Steller's sea cow via a manatee; the giant ground sloth via I'm not sure what. The relevant tech is being developed by George Church's lab at Harvard.

Khellendos2 karma

Why should this de-extinction process be used on already extinct creatures, instead of utilizing it to thwart off immanent extinction of current critically endangered species?

stewartbrand9 karma

That one is the opposite of an either-or. One of the attractions of emerging de-extinction tech is that it can be applied immediately to helping diagnose and treat genetic issues with endangered populations of living species. Viable DNA cyropreserved at The Frozen Zoo in San Diego, for example, can be used to reintroduce genetic variability in "genetic bottleneck" situations for animals now rare and facing inbreeding problems.

ichneumon2 karma

What are your thoughts on the Pleistocene Park project? How do you see the relationship between projects such as this and the de-extinction project?

Do you know of any other systems similarly dependent on an extinct ecosystem engineer that you are interested in rebuilding?

stewartbrand7 karma

Sergey Zimov's Pleistocene Park in northern Siberia is the most gonzo piece of creative ecology on the planet. Sergey was at a meeting we organized at National Geographic last October; you can see some of his stuff in the current issue of the magazine, with the cover story on de-extinction by Carl Zimmer. Sergey needs mega-herbivors who like the cold. He's got musk oxes and Yakutian horses and such now. He's waiting patiently for woolly mammoths. He says he's have to make do with military tanks for knocking down the trees, mammoth style, but they make no dung.

stewartbrand7 karma

Here's some references on related efforts to revive extinct ecosystems. There's the Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands, reported on by Elizabeth Kolbert in a recent New Yorker, here: And then there's the amazing Makauwahi Cave Reserve remaking ancient Hawaii, run by David Burney and his wife.

SniperRezil2 karma

How do I go about working on this project? What should I go to college for and what should I study?

stewartbrand5 karma

De-extinction is part of an emerging field linking molecular biology with conservation biology. Study those, along with Theater, so you can tell your amazing tales from the field with skillful drama.

SwoopsFromAbove1 karma

From a layperson's point of view, these species went extinct because they were no longer able to survive in their environment, fundamentally. How will reintroducing them change this? Isn't there a danger that de-extincted (sorry, I do love to verbalise my nouns) species go re-extinct?

stewartbrand5 karma

Humans were the cause of most of the extinctions. When it was by human hunting---great auks, thylacine, passenger pigeon, Carolina parakeet---that should be easy to fix. When it was through hunting by an invasive predator we introduced (that's the case with most island extinctions) then the fix is harder but still doable.

Livinglife911 karma

What are your thoughts on the possibility of these revived species just going extinct again, or worse, causing current species to suffer? The niches these creatures once filled are either gone or taken over by something else.

stewartbrand3 karma

American chestnuts are on their way back. Some oaks and hickory will suffer. They will figure out new ways to fight back. The endless combat of the natural world will be a little more complicated, that's all. And chestnuts once again will roast on an open fire.

emrass1 karma

Thank you for the Whole Earth Catalog. It was a valuable tool of my youth.

stewartbrand2 karma

Thank you for your youth.

pushan1 karma

Do you think that that there might be a backlash against conservation with this new technology? The mentality of why bother saving this species from extinction when it can just be recreated later.

stewartbrand6 karma

Some are worried about exactly that issue. Once people see how extremely difficult and expensive it will to revive an extinct species (IF it works at all) compared to just protecting the living endangered species, I think the lesson will be: put even more effort into keeping species FROM extinction. Everyone working on de-extinction certainly knows that, and we say it every chance we get. "Preventing extinction: easy. Reversing extinction: really hard."

JunkLord1 karma

How often do people expect you to reveal the existence of a Jurassic Park when you tell them when you do for a living?

stewartbrand2 karma

You are the first with such a question. I don't think there will be many. But now that you mention it, Spielberg is bringing back the original "Jurassic Park" in 3D next month, and he is planning another sequel for 2014, so maybe the question will keep coming up as a byproduct. Spielberg is aware of what we're up to; he sent a researcher to TEDxDeExtinction.

indyrok1 karma

It seems to me that every year we hear more important news about the microbiome that is unique to each species (and each individual), which can contain trillions of organisms. These symbiotes act in important ways to maintain our health. Is there any concern that the microbiomes of these extinct species may be extinct as well?

Thanks for doing this AMA, my dad has every issue of Whole Earth and CoEv, and I've long been a fan of your SALT podcasts. Thanks for all your work!

stewartbrand3 karma

The microbiome of the host species (of the band-tailed pigeon, in the passenger pigeon case) should be operative enough. After a while, diet and location and interaction with other animals dominate the evolving microbiome. Or! Maybe it will be a huge issue. We don't know yet.

wormwood231 karma

Seems like one of the early-on technical problems with an actual reintroduction would be intraspecial genetic diversity -- if you've cloned your first generation of ibexes from just one ibex sample, you would run into inbreeding problems pretty quickly. Do you know (or know of anyone who's written about) a work-around?

stewartbrand1 karma

Good question. The same issue will come up with the dodo, of which there is just one specimen. The workaround will presumably come from borrowing alleles (and in the bucardo's case a Y chromosome) from closely related living species. Like with back-breeding, these things proceed as a series of approximations, refined over time.

rebelipar1 karma

How do we deal with epigenetic factors, gestational effects, and growing the zygote when there isn't a good living relative?

I guess, how are we dealing with everything we don't know?

stewartbrand6 karma

"how are we dealing with everything we don't know?" The usual way: trying and failing, and failing, and failing, and failing, and succeeding a little bit. Repeat.

ichneumon1 karma

Do you have any thoughts on the Pleistocene Rewilding ( ) idea? I would imagine that, in some cases, the two efforts could work well in tandem.

stewartbrand1 karma

Rewilding in all its forms (they're proliferating) should offer some great venues and strategic alliances for de-extinction. That's already the case in Europe, with the aurochs as an emblem of rewilding efforts there.

elliottrosenfeld1 karma

How are these DeExtinction projects being funded?

stewartbrand4 karma

So far Revive & Restore has had some early support from National Geographic and the TED community, and from my shallow pocket and Ryan Phelan's pocket (she is executive director and also my goodwife). There's a "Donate" button on our website of course. The fan club angle could get some traction. I think we can (and should) count out government support and commercial support for a long while. That leaves the social sector---individuals and foundations who want amazing animals back in our world, who want that kind of amazingness in general back in our world.

Huplescat221 karma

It's good to see you here. You’ve been a player since the late sixties counter culture days, and most of the boomer generation first became aware of you through the Whole Earth Catalog. What do you see as the most disheartening and, conversely, encouraging developments since those days?

stewartbrand4 karma

Fear has been institutionalized, not only by government but by parents afraid to let their kids walk to school, by environmental groups broadcasting irrational fear of GMOs and radiation (to the detriment of genuine Green goals like more wildlands and damping of climate change)

Huplescat222 karma

I’m with you on that. An apropos motto on our national currency would be In fear we Trust. But I part company with you on the issue of GMOs and radiation. It’s very hard to predict where new technologies will take us in terms of unintended consequences, particularly when those technologies are being wielded by huge corporations with terrible track records. Distrust, in that instance, is prudent.

stewartbrand2 karma

Once you have enough past to work with, it's not a question of prediction any more. Both radiation and GMOs have been around for decades now, extremely closely studied for good precautionary reasons. The results are in. We can act on them.

makeminemaudlin1 karma

Many extinct species have no longer have ecological niches - some have been supplanted by novel species, other niches simply no longer occur in nature. Thus many possible revived species could never be expected survive in the wild. How do you plan to handle that?

stewartbrand6 karma

I'll answer your good question with another question. What will be the right thing to do when we try to bring some of the amazing and beloved birds, like the o'o, that went extinct in Hawaii? The islands now have avian malaria brought by an invasive mosquito. None of the old birds can survive below 4,000 feet because of that. The o'o's old habitat is now hostile to it. Should we give up? Fix the habitat? Tweak the bird's genome before reviving it?

NoFaithInPeopleAnyMo1 karma

What would be the most bad ass animal you would realistically bring back? It doesn't have to be useful, Just cool.

stewartbrand7 karma

Smilodon. Saber-toothed cat. Pretty good apex predator, actually. I hear fence technology is coming along rapidly.

Bastardlyfive2 karma

Would the DNA of a sabertooth still be viable if it were found?

stewartbrand4 karma

Yeah, apparently there's lots at the La Brea tar pits. The cats went after trapped animals and got trapped themselves. It was not that long ago, only 10,000 years or so. Good DNA is being found in fossils much older than that.

Doogie-Howser1 karma

Would you rather fight 1 lion sized wasp, or 100 wasp sized lions?

stewartbrand2 karma

That gorgeous illustration aids understanding. Go for the one dangerous creature. You can never get behind 100, and they can always get behind you.

bobcat1 karma

In case no one answered about the downvotes - reddit fuzzes the vote totals to foil spammers [and they will not tell us how that does that]. 80% upvotes is actually nearly 100%, 66% is in the 'very popular' range.

stewartbrand1 karma

Good to know. Thanks for the tip. That explains the constant ratio.

Amphigorey1 karma

Have you checked in on the WELL since it bought itself?

(Also, hi! I'm an old friend of your son's - known him since high school.)

stewartbrand3 karma

Plate o' shrimp!!