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Resurrection Science: Author M.R. O'Connor on What Role Should Conservation Hold [INTERVIEW]

Nov 24, 2015 01:46 PM EST
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Sharks spotted hunting unusually close to Australian beaches

Lately there's much talk of bringing back wooly mammoths or restoring life to more recently extinct species, such as passenger pigeons. The book Resurrection Science (St. Martin's Press 2015) looks at a number of cases in which scientists are hoping to shore up or return species: Some significant examples in the book are Tanzania's Spray Toad, now mainly maintained at the Bronx Zoo because its habitat is gone; the North Atlantic right whale; and the Northern white rhino. While many of the cases are inspiring, and it can be electrifying to see scientists devote decades to certain animals, author M.R. O'Connor has questions about whether we can save a species if we're restoring them to a life that is different from the "thing they do" that is natural to them--and what is the place of human and animal life on this very populated globe. Nature World News had a recent conversation with O'Connor.

1. What discussions have been stirred up at your book-tour talks and readings? After the book was published in mid-September, I went to Australia for a month. There were great cases specific to Australia, such as the Thylacine (also known as the Tasmanian Tiger). It's being discussed as a potential candidate for resurrection, for the second time--after the first time failed. Then, separately, Tasmanian Devils have facial tumor disease. However, even though some cured animals are now being released, some are also being hit by cars.

In Florida it's a similar situation. Money is being spent to save Florida Panthers, but every year, something like 10 to 15 percent of the panthers unfortunately are killed by cars.

More encouragingly, in Australia there's a strong debate regarding sharks and beaches. The country has a vibrant beach culture, which is great, but there's also a debate over how to protect people from sharks. The question is whether to put up fences on certain beaches, and people are asking whether it's the shark's habitat or our habitat. I find that interesting, and it's a debate that we could extend to places other than Australia, I think.

2. What reactions has your book had from scientists?

Some of the issues that I tried to tackle were what's the appropriate role for us today in relationship to nature? How far should we intervene? How important is the concept of wilderness? Is it a real thing? I found that some of the educators and scientists that I talked with felt those questions were relevant to the work they're doing. And many biology students that I met are very interested in these types of ethical questions.

3. Has your book tour ignited ideas for a next book for you?

I ended Resurrection Science with a chapter about Neanderthal resurrection, which probably seems bizarre to include in a book about conservation--but what I hoped to do was talk about differences in how humans have related to nature throughout evolutionary history--to present this notion that how modern humans relate to nature is not necessarily monolithic and that it has evolved over time. That led to my researching how Neanderthals might have navigated -- not having maps, etc. Then I started researching communities around the world that navigate by traditional means. So, that's what I'm learning about now. It's about our landscape and relationship to nature.

4. Anything else you'd like to tell me?

This book is as much about people as it is animals, and I was hoping to sort of be able to understand what motivates people to dedicate themselves to these animals and to the emotional dimension of extinctions and extinction threats. So that's something that I hope comes through to people when they read the book.

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-Follow Catherine on Twitter @TreesWhales

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