Get ready for the real Jurassic Park

We may not be able to restore any measurable level of confidence in the American economy, but gosh darn it, we might just be able to restore the wooly mammoth. Scientists, having solved all the other ills facing humanity, may be on the verge of making Steven Spielberg’s vision come true, according to CBS news.

The very definition of extinct means forever, but what if that didn’t have to be? As Lesley Stahl reported in early 2010, scientists are making remarkable advances that are bringing us closer than ever before to the possibility of a true animal resurrection.

Who wouldn’t be dazzled by an animal like the woolly mammoth, or the sabretooth tiger, the Irish elk or the giant sloth? Today they exist just as bones in museums, alive only in our imaginations and the recreations of artists and filmmakers. But what if that could change?

In the age of DNA, we now know that these vanished creatures, like all life on Earth, are ultimately nothing more than sequences of the four letters – A, C, T, and G – that make up the genetic blueprint or code of life. The codes for extinct animals were thought to have died along with them, until recently, when machines like one at the Smithsonian’s DNA lab started working magic.

So now we’re getting potentially viable DNA from the bones or even hair of long dead creatures. And if you can retrieve a viable cell – say, from a slab of frozen mammoth in the permafrost – you might be able to swap it out in the egg of a similar creature and produce a new copy. It’s pretty much line for line the method envisioned in the 1993 movie. But should we?

I don’t have any fundamental opposition to this sort of research. (Well, aside from having an allosaurus tearing down the Flatiron Building in New York, which some might consider a downside.) It’s science, pure and simple. I’ve heard a few folks making more philosophical arguments against it, along the lines of saying that it was “intended” for these animals to go extinct, but that seems rather fatalistic to me.

But what exactly do we hope to achieve? Yes, it’s interesting to be sure. But let’s say you manage to create a viable mammoth. What then? Are you going to breed them in numbers where they can once again roam the plains of the Midwest? Doesn’t strike me as very practical.

And if not, will we wind up with a collection of lonely beasts snatched from the mists of time and stuck in laboratories? One of the chief complaints we hear today about endangered animals is that they are no longer truly viable if they can’t exist in the wild on their own. (It may come as a surprise to some, but which continent has the most tigers on it today? The startling answer is that it’s North America. And they’re all in zoos.)

There still exists a grainy film clip from the early days of movie technology of the last known Tasmanian Tiger, pacing back and forth in a cage. When it died, they were gone.It’s a really sad sight. Shall we bring them back to pace in new cages all over again? We’ve got the body on display in Australia so the material is certainly available, but what’s the point?