With species now disappearing 1,000 times faster than the natural rate, it’s not hard to imagine a near future when the only surviving gorillas, leopards, and elephants live in zoos. Some animals will likely become extinct even in captivity. A new art project considers an alternative: What if humans turned to synthetic biology to preserve certain key traits of disappearing animals?
In designer Kathryn Fleming’s imaginary zoo of the future, a massive-horned “superbivore” has been engineered to combine the traits of four animals, its strong rock-climbing hoofs now adapted to walk between rocks on wires. Meanwhile, a retro-reflective carnivore combines traits of cats and dogs, with a new reflective fur that flashes in the dark. As visitors walked through the zoo, they’d get a tour of natural adaptations of the past, with an added dose of the possibilities of synthetic biology.
The creatures may seem fantastically unlikely to ever exist, but Fleming wants to make a point: We’re already changing nature, and maybe we should think more carefully about how we’re doing it.
“People don’t think about the fact that every apple that you eat and every animal you come across in your daily life is something that’s been specifically bred and already engineered with certain traits,” she says. “I think everyone needs to take a step back and redefine what we think is natural, at this moment.”
Apples, as Michael Pollan wrote in The Botany of Desire, weren’t sweet until humans bred them to be. Dog breeds didn’t exist. “People had never seen a teacup poodle before 100 years ago,” says Fleming. “We’re making nature. But how do we want to make it? That’s what I want my work to ask people to think about.”
Current zoos also manipulate nature, Fleming says. “Every zoo has what’s known as a species survival plan. There’s a community of people who meet every year to analyze the genetic diversity of the population and decide which animals in captivity will mate with each other so the offspring have the greatest chance of survival. So we’re bringing all of these creatures together almost to freeze evolution. It’s not like by keeping zoos as they are we aren’t influencing nature. We actually are, we’re just doing it in this sort of unproductive way, I think.”
Working on the project as a student at the Royal College of Art in London, Fleming studied with a taxidermist to create the models of her imaginary animals. “I actually think that the process of doing taxidermy takes these sort of abstract ideas about design and biology and can make them into something that’s more tangible,” she says. “It makes people confront what we’re really already doing. Look at a breed of cow called the Belgian Blue–I highly recommend Googling an image of that, because it’s very disturbing. That’s what we’re already doing to animals.”
Other organizations, like the Long Now Foundation, are already trying to “de-extinctify” animals like the passenger pigeon by inserting genes in living species like the rock dove. “Everyone’s talking about bringing back the woolly mammoth or the passenger pigeon,” Fleming says. “I feel like it’s just another way of packaging synthetic biology, but in a way that’s digestible to people because they know what a passenger pigeon is. If we start telling them we’re going to create a weird giraffe, they’re not as sure. But it’s the same technology and for the same purpose.”
Ultimately, Fleming hopes her work helps open minds about what synthetic biology can do. “I don’t see technology as being either good or bad,” she says. “It’s really about how our human imagination informs the way that we’re going to use it. My work is trying to inspire us to imagine different possibilities. I don’t think that because we suddenly have this capability we’re going to go down one particular track–it opens up a whole variety of potential futures for us.”
Artists and designers, she thinks, have a role to play in helping society think about science. “In humanities, people are thinking about fiction, and possibilities, and science is so definite,” Fleming says. “I think these two things need to come together.”