Sunday, November 23, 2008

Pleistocene Park II: The Horror

Last week I wrote a post about speculation that scientists might be able to resurrect the extinct woolly mammoth within the next twenty years using genetic material from preserved mammoth tissue.

I wondered if that was such a good idea. The mammoth ceased to walk the earth because, for whatever reason, its time passed. It seems unwise, even hubristic, to challenge nature in such an unprecedented fashion just because we can.

Today, the New York Times editorial board raises the same concerns, with particular emphasis on what it would be like for the mammoth to find itself alive again tens of thousands of years after its kind died out.

The first mammoth would be a lonely zoo freak, vulnerable to diseases unknown to its ancestors. To live a full and rewarding life, it would need other mammoths to hang out with, a mate to produce a family and a suitable place to live. The sort of environment it is used to — the frigid wastes of Siberia and North America — are disappearing all too fast.

No one is quite sure why the woolly mammoths died out toward the end of the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago. Theories include warmer temperatures that gradually displaced the plants on which they fed, overhunting by primitive man, an accumulation of harmful genetic mutations, widespread disease, or an asteroid or comet colliding with Earth and disrupting the climate.

If scientists do bring back a few mammoths, we suspect our warming world won’t look any more hospitable than the one that did them in.
I don't expect such concerns to stop the scientists mapping the mammoth's genetic code, but the potential for painful exploitation, and even tragedy, should at least give them pause.

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