Back to the future


Species extinction has been a constant as long as life itself. Throughout Earth’s history, the curtain has come down on creatures that ranged from microbial size to 90-foot dinosaurs.

Unlike our deceased cousins, the Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals, humans had the talent to ascend to the next stage of evolution by adapting to a changing environment with ruthless efficiency. That superior intelligence is being put to use by scientists who are trying to figure out how to reverse extinction.

The New York Times reports that attempts to bring back the recently extinct Pyrenean ibex (a large goatlike animal) and the Southern gastric brooding frog through cloning techniques have not succeeded. But the failures have been scientifically tantalizing.

Whenever talk of reviving an extinct creature arises, people think of the movie Jurassic Park and the folly of scientists playing God. But as much as some would like to clone Tyrannosaurus rex, there appears to be no dinosaur DNA. That has not stopped scientists from taking a deep interest in other possibilities.

Theoretically, DNA from a frozen woolly mammoth could be injected into the egg of a modern elephant and produce a long-gone animal. But questions must be asked first: Is it ethical to bring back a creature that’s been extinct for tens of thousands of years? How would an animal fare in a world full of viruses for which it has no immunity?

The science sounds like science fiction. But the questions about whether to move forward are real and deserve answers.