What’s The Worst That Could Happen?

March 29, 2013

There are scientists currently working on ways to bring back extinct animals, and some may even have succeeded, although they’re being quiet and double-checking their results because they don’t want to end up like the guys who claimed to have created cold fusion. I’m sure the idea of bringing back extinct animals brings up Jurassic Park and Jeff Goldblum saying, "scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should", a statement that really should have been applied to the last three Jurassic Park movies.

The fact is that even though bringing back a Tyrannosaurus rex would be fantastically cool and dangerous it just can’t be done–at least not yet, because scientists still need fresh DNA. I know that most scientists still insist that it will never be possible to produce a dinosaur in the lab, even with all of Spielberg’s money, but if there’s one thing science should teach us about innovation and our ability to overcome challenges it’s that we should always hedge our bets. It wasn’t that long ago that bringing back any extinct animal seemed impossible, and yet now it seems like a reality. I realize, though, that some people are still going to wonder whether we should. To them I’d like to point out that Jeff Goldblum isn’t a scientist–he’s just played one in a few movies, although he does use his own vomit to digest his food, but that’s another story. If you’ve ever watched one of those funny home video shows you know that it’s not in human nature to really ask whether we should do something. If we can do it we will, even though there are some things that should remain extinct, like raptors, smallpox, and 1980’s fashions. But if we can why not bring back, say, the dodo? Dodos have a long and undeserved reputation for being slow and stupid and forming caucus races. Well, it’s not entirely undeserved, but their only real weakness was being at the top of the food chain, which meant that didn’t have any natural predators, so they got fat, slow, and stupid, and, if left alone, probably would have eventually produced their own funny video shows. Since they’d never seen humans before, they didn’t know we were murderous, bloodthirsty animals, and shortly after we discovered them we also found that dodos were delicious. There’s a major benefit of bringing back extinct animals: they can really liven up the menu.

The problem, of course, is that even if we have the DNA and even if we have the technology it’s not as easy as just bringing back an extinct species and turning it loose. Even if we could bring back dinosaurs they lived at a time when the oxygen content of Earth’s atmosphere was significantly higher. If you’ve ever seen a picture of free range dinosaurs and noticed giant dragonflies and wondered why we don’t still have giant dragonflies the higher oxygen content may be the reason. The Earth has changed over time, and environments change with it, so recovering the past isn’t as easy as it might sound. Humans are responsible for a lot of extinctions, but bringing back the carrier pigeon isn’t really going to atone for our environmental sins. We could bring back the Chinese river dolphin, but there’s no place for it to live other than zoos. There are plans to bring back the woolly mammoth, but even though some of the researchers who want to do that want to release them in desolate parts of Siberia where they once roamed they’d still mostly be a curiosity, a magnet for tourists, and sooner or later some bonehead dressed up like Fred Flintstone wielding a spear would injure or kill some of them and probably be killed himself because he can, and the question of whether or not he should wouldn’t enter into his mind. If they really want to bring back animals from the Pleistocene I’d rather see a glyptodont, which was an armadillo the size of a Volkswagen Beetle–another creature that’s facing extinction. More people, though, want to bring back the saber-toothed tiger. Because that’s exactly what the world needs: a murderous, bloodthirsty animal that, shortly after its reintroduction, will probably discover that humans, being at the top of the food chain, are delicious.

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