For years, scientists have been trying to resurrect the woolly mammoth by creating a hybrid embryo that contains DNA from the ancient creature and contemporary Asian elephants. The mammal, which went extinct 4,000 years ago, represents the frontier for a science called de-extinction, where scientists aim to resurrect animals like the mammoth or the carrier pigeon from the annals of history.
Scientists aren’t the only ones grappling with the rising number of extinct animals. Artists and designers are also trying to make sense of the loss of biodiversity by creating evocative experiences to help people remember the species we’re currently losing. That loss is staggering: the UN’s latest report, released earlier this week, found that one million animals are currently at risk for extinction.
At the design museum Cooper Hewitt’s triennial exhibition Nature, which opens today, multiple artists addressed this biodiversity crisis, creating melancholic exhibitions that both highlight the vanguard of contemporary genetic science and artificial intelligence while pointing to the inevitable gap between what we can re-create and the original that has been lost to time.
Re-creating an extinct flower’s fragrance
One installation, called Resurrecting the Sublime. attempts to revive the smell of a flower called the Orbexilum stipulatum, or Falls-of-the-Ohio Scurfpea, which was last seen in the 1880s. At the Cooper Hewitt, visitors can smell this extinct fragrance by stepping underneath a black box that’s suspended from the ceiling. Four misters inside the box expel four different fragrances that the artists and scientists who created the installation have deduced were part of the flower’s original smell, a delicate, citrus-y scent that also made me think of bananas.
Christina Agapakis, the creative director at the genetics company Gingko Bioworks, started the process of reconstructing extinct flower smells in 2016 by looking through the archives of the Harvard Herbarium and cross-referencing preserved plant specimens with a list of extinct species. She stumbled upon the Scurfpea among about a dozen other plants and sent small pieces of leaves to a paleogenomics lab at UC Santa Cruz, where researchers were able to isolate sequences of DNA that are involved in producing a flower’s scent for three of the flowers. Then, Gingko Bioworks engineers stitched these fragments of DNA together into 2,000 variations, then synthesized them using yeast to see what kinds of molecules they would produce.
Once they had a good idea of what genetic ingredients the Scurfpea’s smell was made of, the biologists handed off the molecules to scent specialist and artist Sissel Tolaas, who found similar or identical molecules with which to compose a fragrance. The project also includes an extinct Hawaiian hibiscus flower and a flower native to the area around Capetown, and Agapakis says the team is trying to turn the Scurfpea’s scent into a bottled fragrance.
Standing with your head inside of a scent box to catch a whiff of the extinct small is a surreal experience, one that couldn’t possibly capture the flower’s true essence. That’s partially the point. “The idea to de-extinct a flower is not what we’re trying to do,” says artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, who designed the installation. “Even if we could bring that flower back, what is it without its habitat?”
That’s why Ginsberg decided to include two large boulders on the floor by your feet. They’re references to the only known natural landscape where the flower lived, a rocky outcropping in the Ohio River that was flooded in 1920 as the result of a dam. The installation calls attention to the artifice of the entire project, even if it is rooted in science. For Agapakis, that’s one of the questions that the extinct smell raises: “What is lost? Will we be able to really get it back, or is it a new kind of nature?”
Visualizing the near-extinct northern white rhino
Unlike the Scurfpea, which is only accessible in an obscure plant archive, there’s still a small chance to save the northern white rhino. In 2018, the last male northern white rhino died, leaving two females behind, and researchers are trying to use his sperm to artificially inseminate the females’ eggs.
In a darkened room at the Cooper Hewitt, Ginsberg has installed a stunning visualization of the northern white rhino called The Substitute–which may one day act as a digital archive for the animal when it likely goes extinct.
“I’m fascinated by the paradox that humans are obsessed with creating new life forms and they neglect existing ones,” Ginsberg says. “New AI can do incredible things, and we have debates about whether we’ll be able to control the AI when we can’t control ourselves.”
The Substitute includes a life-size animation, which was created by the visual effects company The Mill. The 11.5-foot rhino starts as a group of pixels, and over the course of a minute or so, they grow more and more detailed until you can see each thick eyelash and wrinkle. The colossal creature stomps around, huffing and moaning as it traverses a small empty white room with mannerisms derived from real footage of the animals in the wild and an accompanying soundtrack from the same footage. Then it disappears without warning for an eerie few seconds before the process starts all over again.
Underlying the visualization is an algorithm created by Google’s AI group DeepMind. Ginsberg explains that in 2018, the company’s researchers used data from lab rats to train an artificial agent to navigate around its habitat, which in this case was a box. They found that as the agent learned more and more about where it was in the space, it evolved in a similar way to the mammalian brain, slowly developing an artificial version of grid cells–the cells that guide our understanding of space using a hexagonal grid. In The Substitute, the rhino follows the same path as the DeepMind artificial agent in three different simulations. As his artificial brain slowly develops a sense of navigation, the rhino’s physical form transitions from a pixelated mass into a being that looks utterly real.
But, similar to Resurrecting the Sublime, the rhino is utterly devoid of its original context. “Is that new thing that’s created, is that the real thing if its habitat isn’t there?” Ginsberg asks. “If he’s without context, without any other northern white rhino, is he really a northern white rhino? Is there a better way for us to preserve species digitally, if we can’t look after them in the wild?” And finally, the most potent question of all: “Is this good enough?”
Ginsberg asks more questions than anyone has answers for. After all, these are the questions that all of humanity must face as we perpetuate continued mass extinction of biodiversity and the potential destruction of our planet as we know it.