So we are now on the path to creating our own little Jurassic park. Apparently custom ordered Woolly Mammoths are just around the corner. What is equally as interesting is that DNA from dinosaurs are also starting to be found albeit in small fragments that also show promise for cloning.
What this potentially does is put the human race into an interesting quandary. What happens when you can create species with only slightly more effort than it takes to destroy them?
Consider the number of seed vaults that have been created around the world. Now consider the practicalities of a DNA vault which could contain the DNA of several hundred thousand species just waiting to be repopulated. The current thinking is that preserved DNA could potentially survive for hundreds of thousands of years in the natural environment. The implicit assumption is that we could extend that through the use of technology and DNA replication techniques.
So what we are left with is a very practical philosophical dilemma.
Is it okay to cut down the rain forest and to render extinct thousands of species in the name of human population expansion if we can replicate those species at will and reintroduce them into new environments at the drop of a hat?
Technically we aren’t really destroying anything as we are quickly approaching the point at which any single species can be cloned. It is starting to look more and more as if we can also restrict non-desirable characteristics and keep the desirable ones. It is a pickle no doubt about it.
What can’t be duplicated in any great measure however are the various complexities inherent in a thriving ecosystem. Beyond this is an ecosystem’s capacity to develop new species through the progression of natural selection. How do we replicate those aspects of natural habitats? The various combinations and complexities far outweigh the straight permutations on a strand of DNA. It is this equilibrium that drives the ability of complex systems to adapt and hence provide a safety net in the case of a catastrophic loss of due to some type of natural phenomena (such as a meteor impact or volcanic eruption). Not to suggest that this is by intention however it is fortunate that such a rich variety of life does exist otherwise we would not.
It is for this reason that it may be advantageous to not become so self assured of our intellectual superiority as to claim that we can, or should, control nature for self serving purposes. As the human race continues to develop our intellectual prowess our physical prowess is becoming more and more homogeneous. In otherwords, we are deliberately weeding out genetic differences which would allow us to survive some type of cataclysmic catastrophe.
For example, the Ebola virus can be up to 90% lethal to any given human population to which it is introduced. Now consider a genetic version of this virus crossed with an influenza virus. In a heterogeneous population which is constantly evolving there is a good chance of at least some survivability. However in the case of our current population where we have worldwide programs designed to ensure a consistency of survivability against common pathogens – this starts to open the door to high morbidity if a ‘door’ for a new type of virus is opened as a result of one of these wide spread treatments.
A bit of a scary thought. However as economics, not the practicalities of what our current actions mean for long term survivability, seem to dictate social philosophies, I’m not holding out much luck that within 20-25 years the case may be made that it is okay to shoot ourselves in the foot because we can resuscitate the DNA of any species that we destroy if only we collect them in advance.
Assuming of course we are around to do the resuscitating.