The Tech Donors Backing the De-Extinction Movement

  Arak Rattanawijittakorn/shutterstock

 Arak Rattanawijittakorn/shutterstock

Even just five years ago, you’d have been forgiven for thinking an effort to resurrect woolly mammoths was a lark, perhaps a high-concept art project. 

Increasingly, however, lumbering megafauna and revived flocks of passenger pigeons have become topics of serious discussion in research and conservation, along with a fierce debate over the ethics of using genetic engineering to bring back extinct species. As ecologist Douglas McCauley told Science last year, we’re progressing toward the “Holy crap, we can—so should we?” stage of the de-extinction conversation. 

The work is still quite marginal, with a relatively small amount of funding coming from private donors—a varied bunch of individuals and foundations making mostly modest donations, but nonetheless helping to advance what once seemed like pure science fiction into mainstream dialogue. 

This is an exceptional case of private donations bankrolling a wild, early-stage idea that other sources won’t. And more donors may follow, as a nonprofit supporting de-extinction work is currently raising a new pool of up to $5 million to advance the science.   

The concept has been kicking around for some time now, since early cloning breakthroughs (and yes, Jurassic Park. There, now we’ve got that out of the way). But an eager crowd led by counterculture ecologist Stewart Brand has been promoting for the idea since around 2012. With researchers like Harvard geneticist George Church on board with the concept, advocates formed a project called Revive & Restore, which became an incorporated nonprofit last year. 

Exactly how far de-extinction is from reality is debatable. Church announced last year (to some skepticism) that his team is using gene-editing technology to add genetic traits from woolly mammoth specimens into the DNA of Asian elephants. Others are pursuing similar projects with passenger pigeons, an extinct prairie chicken, and other species. 

Proponents argue for potential conservation and climate benefits of reviving certain species or genetic traits. It’s also important to note that they are advocating for a spectrum of genomic technology to restore biodiversity and save dwindling species, not just to revive extinct animals. The high-profile examples, like the woolly mammoth project, are largely a dramatic way to inspire excitement around the potential such technology may hold for wildlife conservation. 

The backlash has been strong, however, from experts and outlets like Scientific American, which published an editorial calling de-extinction costly and irresponsible, a “sideshow to the real extinction crisis.” One study published in Nature voiced the concern that the money required for de-extinction could go much further toward protecting existing species.

So where is the money behind de-extinction coming from? It certainly sounds like the kind of thing a super-wealthy eccentric might bankroll in secret, but the field doesn’t seem to be very well funded at this point. Britt Wray, author of Rise of the Necrofauna: The Science, Ethics, and Risks of De-Extinction, tells Salon there’s not a lot of money involved, with researchers donating their own funds or collecting backing through Revive & Restore.

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That being said, we do know that “National Villain” Peter Thiel has, in fact, supported George Church’s woolly mammoth project to the tune of $100,000, reported in another book on the topic by Ben Mezrich and confirmed by Church in MIT Technology Review. But Thiel at least appears to be the sole mega-donor backing this work. 

Aside from that, a look at Revive & Restore’s donor list shows only a couple of people giving six figures or above, and a number of other backers giving between $10,000 and $100,000, including Brand, Church and others involved in the organization. There’s also quite a few moderately wealthy Silicon Valley donors on board. 

Of the two couples giving more than $100,000, we’ve got Peter and Gwen Norton, the former a software publisher; they’re known mostly for arts philanthropy. Then there’s Tim Koogle and Pam Scott—he was the first CEO of Yahoo and she’s a designer who has taken on their philanthropy, which has backed education for underprivileged children and preventing unintended teenage pregnancy. 

One notable environmental donor is the Fink Family Foundation (Jesse Fink being a co-founder of Priceline), which has become a prominent player in reducing food waste. The Ann & Gordon Getty Foundation fit the group in among its West Coast arts and education giving. John and Ann Doerr are also supporters, drawing on tech industry wealth and otherwise known for their “venture philanthropy” approach to issues like education and homelessness. And Larry Brilliant, former executive director of Google.org and current chairman of the Skoll Global Threats Fund is a donor. 

Related: Main Course: A Small Family Foundation is Making Food Waste a Big Priority

Other tech execs on the list include Tesla co-founder Marc Tarpenning, and Facebook Chief Product Officer Chris Cox. Oh, and one more name that might come as a surprise, but probably shouldn’t given his interest in extinct megafauna—Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin. (Finish the book, George.)

So what should we make of this roster? For one, it speaks to that unique breed of West Coast techno-optimist—people who want to change the world. As Stewart Brand himself famously put it in his introduction to Whole Earth Catalog, “We are as gods and we might as well get good at it.” 

There’s also the fact that most of these donors are not really major players when it comes to environmental philanthropy. One of the criticisms of de-extinction is the idea that it would cost huge amounts of money that would be better spent on other conservation efforts. But proponents say that this kind of thing excites a different kind of donor, who may even go on to fund other conservation efforts, too. That appears to be the case, at least at this stage, although it is possible that larger green funders could be swayed in the future. 

The other big take-home for me, when it comes to philanthropy and de-extinction, is that it shows once again how philanthropy has power to advance ideas outside of the mainstream. Now, depending on your opinion of something like de-extinction, you might not view that as a good thing. Then again, it’s also triggered the backlash, and with it a deeper exploration of the ethical and practical implications. 

Either way, a small group of researchers and futurists, funded by themselves and a bunch of random donors who are drawn to this seemingly crazy idea, have helped the topic become a real part of the science and conservation discussion.