In a story that sounds like something straight out of Jurassic Park, the headline on a January 2011 article in ABC Science, “(Japanese) Researchers Aim to Resurrect Mammoth in Five Years,” caught my attention and set me to wondering: Do we really think we can or should attempt to bring back an earlier species that roamed the earth tens of thousands of years ago?
Some scientists are talking about the possibility of extracting DNA from the bones of a woolly mammoth and putting it into the egg an elephant, hopeful that it will develop into a mammoth.
As the 1970s margarine commercial noted, “You can’t fool Mother Nature.” There’s more truth than fiction in this statement, and I wonder if we — that is, man — should be attempting to re-create a species that has been extinct for eons.
One of the great shortcomings of mankind is our tendency to want to play God on occasion.
If this experiment works, should we then attempt to re-create early man from DNA that might be extracted from the bones of the first of the human species, such as the Neanderthal, or perhaps Lucy, which is the name given to several hundred pieces of bone representing about 40 percent of the skeleton of an individual specimen that was discovered in 1974 in Ethiopia and is estimated to have lived 3.2 million years ago.
Think about it. What would we do, beyond studying the behavior of such a creature? Perhaps see if we can reproduce early humans?
And what if we don’t like what we get? Would it be OK to kill it, or them? Like Frankenstein’s monster? Who would make that decision and on what basis? How about the possibility of reintroducing a wide range of species that are now extinct or at risk of becoming extinct?
Darwin’s theory of evolution essentially holds that all life is related and has descended from a common ancestor. His theory posits that the development of life evolved from non-life that ultimately experienced “descent with modification.” Darwin believed that complex creatures evolved naturally from more simplistic ancestors over time, and that as random genetic mutations occur within an organism’s genetic code, the beneficial changes are preserved because they aid survival. The process is known as “natural selection.” The beneficial mutations are passed on to the next generation, and over time they accumulate and result in an entirely different organism. Not just a variation of the original, but an entirely different creature.
Should we be interfering with this process?
From a religious perspective, taking Genesis 1 at face value, God created the universe, the Earth, the sun, moon and stars, plants and animals, and the first two people within six ordinary (approximately 24-hour) days.
However, the majority of Christians, including many Christian leaders in the Western world, do not insist that the days of creation were ordinary-length days, and many of them accept, perhaps based on outside influences such as Darwin, that they must have been long periods of time, even millions or billions of years.
If there is general agreement on the fact that man developed over millions of years from lower forms of life, then bringing some earlier species back through DNA technology will surely be fraught with potential risks, including the possibility of introducing some virulent disease that modern man is not equipped to handle. Avian or chicken flu comes to mind.
And, why would anyone want to do it? For money, or perhaps to discover the secret of life, or perhaps for fame and the glory of being credited by historians with having achieved a great scientific accomplishment?
As is often said, “Be careful what you wish for!”
— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who as lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog, Opinionfest.com.