Real Life Imitates Science Fiction

The New York Times reports that scientists are looking into using genetic material — including some found frozen in the permafrost — to bring back extinct species.

In fact, they’ve already tried cloning extinct species, though the results have not been very successful. A Pyrenean ibex created from cloned cells lived only minutes and efforts to clone the Southern gastric breeding frog have not progressed beyond embryos that died.

But people are speculating about passenger pigeons, not to mention wooly mammoths. When I read that, I couldn’t help but think of Eleanor Arnason’s delightful novella, Mammoths of the Great Plains, which I reviewed on here a couple of years back.

Mammoth v. Mastodon

Apparently science is catching up to science fiction.

The article points out two possible processes besides cloning for bringing back extinct animals. One is to take some genetic material, even if it isn’t a whole cell that could be used for cloning, and match it to the DNA of a current species. The idea is to substitute chunks of the extinct species’ DNA into the similar species’ DNA until you create a substantially similar creature.

The article says we can’t do this with dinosaurs because we don’t have any DNA from them. Jurassic Park is not a possibility. Since a lot of people do get their science from the movies, I suppose such warnings are necessary.

Another idea is to “backbreed,” that is, locate distinctive genes belonging to an extinct species that are scattered among its descendants, breeding those strains and selecting for offspring that are similar to the extinct creature. It might even be possible to create a Neanderthal this way, since a significant proportion of us human beings have some Neanderthal DNA.

That’s a lovely science fictional idea, though it certainly raises some ethical questions.

The article is full of scientists raising grave concerns about these ideas, most of them hilarious. For example, one person raised a birdshit objection to bringing back passenger pigeons.

Someone else brought up a political objection: if extinct animals can be recreated, it would gut the Endangered Species Act and prevent environmentalists from using that law to block unwise development. As someone who has always felt the Endangered Species Act was not the right tool for doing that, I suggest that the proper response is not to block science because of our weak environmental laws, but rather to devote some time to adopting laws that actually protect our environment and keep us from wiping out species. Besides, unless cloning works, these processes are not going to recreate the exact animal, so I think the Endangered Species Act will still apply.

The article did mention a more reasonable objection to these processes: We don’t know what we’ll end up with. This is, in fact, a problem with many of our scientific endeavors: we jump in without knowing the consequences. I’ve been known to criticize this behavior, especially when looking a nuclear power. (It might have been nice to figure out what we were going to do with the waste before we built all those plants.)

However, I  just read a delightful piece on Venkat Rao’s Ribbonfarm called “The Dead Curious Cat and the Joyless Immortal,” and it got me to thinking about the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

Rao defines three kinds of pleasure: hedonic pleasure, happiness (generated by relationships), and joy, which is related to curiosity. On reading that, I realized that the joy of discovery has motivated me my entire life. It’s why I study martial arts. It’s why I read. It’s why I write. Hell, it’s why I get up in the morning.

Of course, the search for joy is dangerous. Curiosity does sometimes kill the cat, as Rao points out. But then he says:

This idea that curiosity is its own reward, worth giving up other things for, is captured neatly in the Garden of Eden myth. It is the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil that causes the fall of Adam and Eve. So why did they choose it?

They were curious.

Ah, yes. I never did get the intended lesson from that story. Why did God forbid them from eating from the tree of knowledge? Of course any reasonable person would do that. I would, and it wouldn’t take a snake tempting me to get me to do it, either. Just telling me I can’t know something would be enough.

But Rao goes farther:

If the devil offered me a deal where there was a 99% probability I’d be told the secret of wormholes for hyperspatial travel, and a 1% probability that the universe would be destroyed, I’d immediately take it. I wouldn’t even consult the rest of humanity or call for a vote.

I might do that, too. It wouldn’t even have to be something as momentous as wormholes. I might do it to, say, find out who Shakespeare really was.

Human beings — or a lot of us, anyway — are driven by curiosity. Those scientists are going to try to bring back wooly mammoths. More power to them.

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