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THE MANIC MANIAC: Isle of Cloned Mammoths and Neanderthals
Today's science hints of H.G. Wells' not-so-mad scientist
By Joe Crosby
November 24, 2008
A cloned woolly mammoth is coming?
Jurassic Park may soon be upon us. Well, maybe not Jurassic Park, but possibly Pleistocene Park.
Scientists have been able to examine the DNA of a woolly mammoth though preserved keratin samples (hair, hooves, fingernails, feathers, et al) that are less than 60,000 years old (the lifespan of DNA). Recently, they discovered that the DNA of the woolly mammoth, which went extinct between 10,000 and 8,000 b.c., is more than 99 precent similar to that of an elephant. Because biologists only have fragments of the mammoth's DNA sequence, they can modify an elephant's egg across a series of fertilizations to progressively arrive at a complete mammoth DNA sequence. In other words, they could arrive at a complete wooly mammoth. Ultimately, the long-extinct mammoth could be delivered after a full-term pregnancy inside of an elephant. Consider that possibility as easily the most mind-blowing cloning procedure ever. And it would only cost $10 million.
If your first reaction is to recall Jurassic Park, that would be fair enough. But it's less frog-spun egg-hatching than it is the prescience of H.G. Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau. Dr. Moreau's barbarism becomes apparent in these biologists' otherwise benign efforts.
Wells' Dr. Moreau was a physiologist with a reputation for horrific experimentation before he disappeared into his island laboratory. And there, he attempted to use vivisection (live surgery upon an animal's central nervous system) to behaviorally modify animals. Through surgery, he tried to make them human.
That isn't at all like the mammoth. But the idea is essentially the same.
Dr. Moreau was explicit that his experimentation served no purpose save scientific curiosity. There is no practical rationale for cloning a woolly mammoth. It would be to satiate the curious and imaginative minds of scientists (and people like me). But the approach is no less barbaric. Maybe not in the sense that torturing animals is barbaric, but in the sense that manipulating mother nature is barbaric when in comes at the expense of mother nature.
Jurassic Park's Dr. John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) was not unlike these scientists or Dr. Moreau, in that he had little more than curiosity--and maybe dollar signs--pushing him along. But to complete his DNA sequence, he didn't birth the T. rex from a frog, he merely filled in the DNA sequencing holes with the frog's genetic code.
These scientists, however, are completing the sequencing in a test tube with a few strands of DNA. They are fertilizing an elephant's egg, ultimately allowing the beast to birth a creature with which it hasn't had a common ancestor for 7.6 million years. Imagine what an elephant would feel giving birth to a mammoth. And when you consider that chimpanzees and human beings last had a common ancestor just 7 million years ago, all of a sudden it seems a little grotesque. Now, imagine a chimp giving birth to a human. It's not much different.
And that isn't that far-fetched considering these same biologists have suggested they could do almost that.
Chimp and human DNA sequencing is different by 1.24 percent, or it's 98.76 percent similar. With the hair of Homo neanderthalensis, Neanderthal, biologists can modify the chimp's DNA in the same way it does an elephant's to complete the Neanderthal's sequence. Thus, over the course of a handful of fertilizations, we would arrive at Neanderthal. But consider the beastly permutations in between. Consider the humanoid sub-creature that would evolve by say, the second or third fertilization. All of a sudden, a chimp-Neanderthal hybrid seems a lot like Dr. Moreau, and since the same technologies would be used for the woolly mammoth, so does that ghastly experiment. Toying with Wells' own themes nature, God, Darwinism seem all the more relevant.
Certainly, the world would outrage if, say, a human birthed a Neanderthal, and the ethical issues begin far earlier than that, even. But George Church, a Harvard genome technologist associated with the projects, says that the chimp-Neanderthal hybrid is an alternative that would “alarm a minimal number of people.” In other words, Catholics, the most outspoken group against human cloning, might see the immediate scare in following around with the human genome--so would some of us. It's much easier, however, to approve the idea of a rudimentary "human" being cloned, possibly because it's believed to be closer to ape than man. We're so close to ape already, though, and the Neanderthal falls somewhere in between. So close, even, that it was once called Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. Not least, modern humans shared the planet with this cousin of ours for 100,000 years before it went extinct. (Before we killed it off, actually. Starting a common trend in species annihilation.)
And at the heart of all of this, something from Jurassic Park does ring loud and true, when Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) says: "This is not some species that was obliterated by deforestation, or the building of a dam. Dinosaurs, uh, had their shot, and nature selected them for extinction! "
Despite that, it doesn't get in the way of modern day scientists playing god to satisfy their curiosity, and ours, just as Dr. Moreau freely cut into a leopard's brain to make it a human, just because he could.
Think about the societal overtones of science without reason, human beings' perpetual drive at progress and solutions, and fascination over rationalization, both here and in The Island of Doctor Moreau. And then consider that the book was written in 1896—before so much technological evolution and biological discovery. These scientists, like Dr. Moreau, are unwittingly sick people, reinforcing not Michael Crichton’s book, but that H.G. Wells is a genius by proving his scientific and cultural relevance more than 100 years later.