For decades, genetic engineering and wilderness conservation have been at odds, a rift evident in the opposition of major environmental groups to transgenic seeds, cloned animals, and other lab-born organisms. In the twenty-first century, this dividing line is in flux as experiments in synthetic biology accelerate and as proposals to revive and reintroduce extinct species—known as de-extinction—garner outsize attention in discussions of biodiversity loss and climate adaptation.

Part of the Novel Ecologies project, "Nature by Design" compares the scientific literature and popular science around de-extinction as it has been envisioned in the U.S. and considers its complicated relationship to the discourse of rewilding cities, farmlands, forests, and parks. Contra media narratives and ethical critiques of de-extinction that identify it with science fiction and futurism, the talk will argue that the field’s network of researchers and investors knits primitivist nostalgia for a prehistoric North America to techno-utopian ideas of resilience, adaptation, and rapid prototyping. Through this lens, de-extinction is the latest chapter in the longer history of wilderness in the United States, which scholars have traced to settler colonialism and to the binary logic of pristine nature and natural resource. Responsive to these ongoing troubles with American wilderness, a group of speculative writers and visual artists—Ruth Ozeki, Jeff VanderMeer, Maya Lin, and Marina Zurkow, among them—offer models of rewilding that posit ecological futures organized around reparative justice and multispecies society.

Nature by Design: Rewilding, De-Extinction and the Ongoing Troubles with American Wilderness