M.R. O’Connor asks the questions we didn’t think to pose. “Does foreign aid perpetuate poverty? Did feminism give birth to Girls Gone Wild? Is species extinction ever ok?” This last question is at the heart of her provocative book, Resurrection Science, an exploration of efforts to save and even revive animal species. From New York’s DNA equivalent to Noah’s Ark, to San Diego’s Frozen Zoo full of animal tissues a la Walt Disney’s head, to a Russian scientist going all Jurassic Park on wooly mammoths, and a Harvard geneticist suggesting Neanderthals be bred with humans, O’Connor visits the people and places involved in fighting extinction. Throughout she keeps a straight face, even when she seems to have gone through the mirror. Because ultimately efforts to fight extinction have implications for our own survival, the resurrection of threatened species affecting us body and soul.
steven lee beeber: Your book begins by discussing something called the “sixth extinction.” What is this?
m.r. o’connor: The idea is that there have been five mass extinctions in Earth’s history, each caused by ecological disruptions such as meteorites or climate changes. Now we are living through or at the advent of a sixth extinction, this one caused by humans.
conduit: Why are so many species threatened?
o'connor: We hear a lot about global warming, but there is also deforestation, damming, pollution. Any hazardous disruption as a result of human sprawl and development can threaten animals. In the nineteenth century, when people started realizing that animals could go extinct, the main causes were over-hunting, over-exploitation, killing with abandon. There are stories from that time of people going out and finding the last few specimens of a species and shooting them to bring them into natural history museums.
conduit: In your book, you discuss a twenty-first century version of this happening underground in New York City.
o'connor: You mean the Ambrose Monell Cryo Collection?
conduit:Yes. The place where they keep frozen genetic samples of various endangered species, sort of like with Walt Disney’s head. Can you discuss what’s involved there and some of the ethical questions related to it?
o'connor: One of the ideas that initially got me interested in writing about conservation was the fact that in different places around the world there’s been a movement to create these “frozen arks.” Basically, it works like this. Since within endangered populations there’s often a loss of genetic diversity, one way scientists can respond is freezing genetic material. One of the first examples that I became aware of was called the Frozen Ark; it’s an initiative out of England where scientists have been preserving valuable tissues representing threatened species. But there are different objectives of freezing. The Frozen Ark is a literal attempt to save genes by freezing them. The Cryo Collection—which I visited for the book—is located beneath the American Museum of Natural History and has a different aim. It used to be that biologists and natural history museums were trying to understand the web of life by looking at actual specimens of animals from the wild—now, because of our technology, they can look at genomes, they can try to understand the web of life by looking at the genetic relationships between species and animals. So the Cryo Collection is basically taking genetic samples and freezing them at one hundred and sixty degrees below zero for research purposes. They have about ninety thousand, but the capacity for the collection is much more than that. It can hold millions of these tissue samples for research. There’s another really interesting example of this trend, the Frozen Zoo, which is part of the San Diego Zoo out on the West Coast. They’re also freezing tissue samples, though their objective is to use in vitro fertilization processes to try and reintroduce diversity to really, really small populations of endangered animals. The idea that in the throes of this global warming process, we’re actually freezing animals in order to save them, I think, is really emblematic and ironic.