If you’re a fan of the “Jurassic Park” films like I am you might have felt a little chill run down your spine when you saw the headlines about some scientists claiming to be on the verge of bringing the long-extinct wooly mammoth back to life. In case you missed the story, paleo-biologists have been using well-preserved mammoth DNA that was found in frozen carcasses to try and modify the embryos of modern elephants to produce a hybrid creature that will possess many of the characteristics of the long-lost shaggy pachyderm.
This research has understandably been the subject of both excitement and concern in the scientific community and among less-educated laymen like myself. The prospect of reviving an extinct species brings to mind the warning of “Jurassic Park’s” Dr. Ian Malcolm when he said “you were so busy wondering if you could do it you never stopped to ask if you should.”
Of course that issue is being debated among scientists and other observers, but the issue is much bigger than possibly bringing back one extinct animal. The prospect of what is being called “de-extinction” has more practical relevance when it is applied to the possibility of reviving more recently disappeared species. That’s especially true since animals and plants are disappearing at an alarming and steadily-increasing rate due to a human population explosion and the resulting negative impact we are having on the habitats of other species.
It is possible that de-extinction technology could give us a chance to undo our own mistakes and give species we have caused to die out a second chance at life. That may be especially relevant in the near future, since our president wants to gut the EPA and roll back many environmental protection laws to clear a path for economic growth and increased military spending. These policies don’t seem to bode well for non-human life on our planet, and the capability to bring back the plants and animals we might inadvertently kill off might come in handy down the road.
But it’s certainly not a complete solution. Bringing an animal back from extinction is certainly cool, but they won’t stick around long if they don’t have a viable place to live. Man-made habitat destruction and climate change are major contributing factors to the rapidly dwindling diversity of life on our planet, and de-extinction technology won’t be very useful unless we find the will to stop cutting down every tree in sight, polluting our waterways, and pumping carbon dioxide into the air.
I’m not too optimistic we’ll be able to do that. We tend to be a short-sighted and selfish species, and our compassion for each other and for other forms of life has clearly not evolved as quickly and completely as our desire to reproduce and achieve personal satisfaction and comfort. I expect that we’ll continue to burn fossil fuels and turn forests into parking lots because those activities serve our short-term interests and desires.
It’s probably time that we started thinking seriously about a contingency plan. We should start preserving DNA samples from all forms of life and keep them in a safe place so that if we stay on our current course of destroying our own habitat something will be preserved.
In fact, we might want to get those samples off our planet entirely and send them somewhere they might have a legitimate second chance to survive. At the very least we might release into space some of the hardier single-celled organisms that are able to survive in very harsh environments and aim them at some of the Earth-like planets scientists have discovered relatively nearby.
Who knows? Maybe that’s how life started here in the first place. Perhaps the dawn of life on Earth was the result of a desperate last gasp from some intelligent race that wasn’t intelligent enough to not destroy its own habitat. It would certainly be interesting to know how the next iteration of such a grand experiment might turn out.
Bill Ferguson is a resident of Warner Robins. Readers can write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.