The Maddening Prospects of De-Extinction

STORY BY Ellen Xie

Published: May 2, 2013

A 70's movie plays on television. A man wearing a white lab coat bends over glass tubes filled with some strange purple liquid. Periodically, he mixes the fluid, mutters to himself, and jots down notes. His hair stands at odd angles, streaked with white. Moments pass in silence, the music crescendos, and there is a sudden explosion. The scene disappears under the smoke (dry ice), and a maniacal cackle slowly clears the air. "At last!" the mad scientist screams. His skin has turned green, his eyes a demonic red. He lifts up the entire table with his hand, tosses it into the wall and watches it splinter to pieces. Then, he leaps ten feet up, punches a hole in the ceiling and flies away, leaving his white lab coat behind.

In 2013, the mad scientist has tamed the hair, brushed it down with gel, or pinned it back into a bun. He or, just as likely, she works in labs with other people, and rarely offers a maniacal laugh. Still, the rest remains unnervingly unchanged. However, when the plume of smoke dissipates, the scientist looks on as a woolly mammoth or, better yet, a Gastric brooding frog, emerges.

Scientists are, according to Times magazine, "closing in on the ability to bring extinct species back from oblivion." Simply find some well-preserved remains, extract the nucleus of the dead animal cell, transfer it to a healthy host cell, and implant it in a similar species. Eureka! The elephant gives birth to a woolly mammoth.

We can fill the gaps we created in the ecosystem, they say. We can save the world! Most importantly though, we can see these amazing creatures that we have imagined all these years and take pictures with them with our Canon digital cameras, perhaps use them for our next Christmas card.

A wise comic book figure once said, "With great power comes great responsibility." So then, just because we can bring about the next Ice Age (will that cancel out global warming?), should we? 

On one side of the spectrum, aero-space engineers and astrophysicists are exploring Mars and imagining a newly colonized planet. On the other, scientists are piecing together old genetic codes and bringing back the dead. To play with death and life, to create life on a deserted planet--why would you not want to be a scientist? The possibilities, seemingly endless, are worth the pricks of the conscience, the brush with insanity.

The plume of smoke clears and the audience both sees and hears nothing, save for the faint echo of a distant laughter. The screen fades to black.


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