Friday, November 21, 2008

Time to Create a Mammoth?

According to an issue of The New York Times from this week, geneticists have now decoded the genome for an extinct mammoth, and if given a $10 million grant, they now have the ability to recreate a mammoth:

There are talks on how to modify the DNA in an elephant’s egg so that after each round of changes it would progressively resemble the DNA in a mammoth egg. The final-stage egg could then be brought to term in an elephant mother, and mammoths might once again roam the Siberian steppes.

I post this here because this is wondrous, fascinating, and certainly shouldn't be ignored. The mammoth has long held a special place in the Western imagination. Larger than any living elephant, with tusks arcing toward an ice age sky, and reeking of pine and spruce.... The thought of these animals lumbering across a winterland brings to mind all of our past century's hero myths about the cave man triumphing over adverse nature in a world without city lights or roads.

But what would it mean, to engineer things so that an elephant mother birthed a mammoth infant? Would this be a beautiful thing? A horrific thing? Playing God? A gift to the earth, bringing back something it had lost? A means of restitution for our extermination of so many species, a potential key to turning back the clock on the demise of biodiversity? An ecological absurdity? A triumph? What are your thoughts?

Additional food for thought: according to The New York Times, the same genetic procedure is theoretically possible -- indeed imminently possible -- with the Neanderthal. As the Times columnist remarks dryly:

...but there would be several ethical issues in modifying modern human DNA to that of another human species.

No kidding.

That said, what would it mean, to be able to bring back another human species out of extinction? They are gone. Completely. Never did we or anyone we can remember have the chance to converse with one of them.

Suppose geneticists did bring back the Neanderthals. What kind of world would they have, to live in? What would it be like for a human mother to raise a neanderthal child?

This boggles the mind. My own thought is that it is far, far too big for us, and that some things -- such as extinctions -- cannot ever be truly undone, without causing greater wreck. But I may be entirely wrong. The thought of where genetics could take us in the 21st century is indeed too big for my mind to grasp. Someone else here must unriddle this mystery.


Lisa Falzon said...

I think if nature, via predator (human or otherwise) or climate, eradicated a species, 'bringing it back' wouldn't be a gift to Earth. It's extinction was natural.

Bringing it back most certainly isn't natural.. but then mankind is wonderously unnatural and I'm okay with that. :)

My main issue with this is hard to explain. I shall try.

It reminds me of when I was studying restoration, and we were constantly reminded of the injustice done to a painting when it is taken from its original environment and hung up, stripped of its intended location and lighting, sterilised in a museum like a pinned lifeless butterfly. As necessary as the process is to bring a masterpiece to the sights of more than a select few, it loses its identity in the displacement. People will not understand how it once hung in a sitting room, and held a function there.

To me, its the same when we set a species back on earth that has long since left it.

For one thinsg, even if the mammoth is recreated, it'll be detached. It will never be the mammoth it was... at the very most it will be a nostalgic feature in a zoo... To me, an animal lacks the individual consciousness of a human, so as such an animal 'alone' makes no sense outside its cycle and ecosystem.

And going a step further (unlikely a scenario as it may be,) even if scientists were to make herds of mammoth and set them free in their original stomping ground, they would not be part of the cycle they once was. Their original environment is no more. They'd eat differently. Perhaps by natural selection, in time lose their coat because of the warmer Earth, change their colour, change their tusks. They would change to fit the new world (or die out). This is not the old mammoth, its a new mammoth. That old mammoth and its possible path of evolution is lost forever. We are bringing it back almost in taxidermy like dissolving it out of taxidermy, and I imagine it standing there blinking.. and as a species it must either, like a 20th century Lestat woken from deep sleep, adapt and change into its new self, ot just be doomed to a being a living antique.

:) My two cents.

Asrae said...

Recreating mammoths is a bad idea. Now say if they were using other eagles to help raise bald eagles. Or one bread of lion to raise Barbary lions. That's one thing. We've killed off those species. But Mammoths are extinct for a reason. The America they have roamed is long since gone. Wanna bring bad the dodo, fine by me. They will still die out because they were not the brightest bulbs. Now I realize this may sound dumb, but Jurassic park was a scary movie for a reason. Bad things in it happened for a reason. Instead of bringing back Mammoth, maybe we should help the American Bison (often called buffalo) population. Science does not give us the right to be stupid.

beth partin said...

I propose starting with something smaller, the passenger pigeon.

Dante's Heart said...

Thanks, Beth. You made me grin!

Our scientists do share that typically American flair for the dramatic, don't they?

And Lisa & J.R. - I really appreciated the thoughtfulness of your comments. Lisa, about the essential lostness of mammoth in a time and a world not its own is definitely something to reflect on. I couldn't agree more.