Many a cautionary fictional tale has warned us about the potential dangers of ‘playing god,’ unleashing synthetic creatures that we have developed ourselves into the world and watching it all go awry. But could such an act actually help save the planet? Artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg thinks so, and her vision ‘Designing for the Sixth Extinction’ counts on artificial biology to clean up the messes we have made.
Many scientists believe we are in the midst of the ‘Sixth Great Extinction,’ also known as the Holocene Extinction Event, comparable to that which wiped out the dinosaurs. Three-quarters of today’s animal species could die off within 300 years, and unlike the mass extinctions of the past, this one would be caused by our own actions.
Ginsberg imagines that we could design synthetic biological creatures with a positive impact on biodiversity and conservation, functioning as ‘ecological props’ that fill the void left behind by animals that vanish or offer protection against foreign species, diseases and pollution. These organisms would form their own enclosed ecosystems – but the inevitable question is, are they even ‘alive?’ Is it still nature if humans have engineered it?
“Designing for the Sixth Extinction reflects on a future total instrumentalisation of nature by synthetic biology, says Ginsberg. “Could we see existing biodiversity simply as a useful resource for spare parts? The despair found in conservation contrasts with the world-saving optimism found in synthetic biology. The project is also an aesthetic exploration of this technology.What might synthetic biology look like and how would it be managed if it were let loose in the complex context of the ‘wilds’ rather than controlled in industrial vats? Is this still nature if it runs on a ‘safer’ expanded DNA code, and doesn’t fully interact with the ecosystem?”