The Role of Science in Society

Introduction

Carl Sagan once stated, “… the consequences of scientific illiteracy are far more dangerous in our time than in any time that has come before.” This statement becomes truer every day, as scientific and technological innovations are occurring at an ever-increasing rate. Studies suggest that less than 30% of Americans are “scientifically literate,” meaning that over 70% of Americans would have trouble reading – and understanding – the science section of the New York Times. So, why is this important? After all, everyone has their strengths and weaknesses.

The problem with this view is that science is a driving force behind our sociocultural evolution. New ideas and new inventions are constantly redefining how we live our lives. As time goes on, science and technology will define most of life as we live it. Already, this is true. 100 years ago, people often lived day by day without electricity. Today, the most frightening thing most people could imagine would be a total loss of electricity. Imagine all of the things that simply wouldn’t work without it: phones, televisions, the Internet, lighting, heat and A/C, automobiles, and many parts of the manufacturing process for everyday items. We have built a society in the United States that is almost entirely dependent upon electricity. Personally, It’s difficult for me to imagine a world without electricity because everything I know is based on upon it. Life has become relentlessly complex and multifaceted. Most people have no idea how the world around them – that is, this semi-artificial world, or anthropogenic matrix – functions.

As time goes on, our day-to-day lives will become less and less “natural” and more and more artificial. This is not inherently bad. However, it does raise the standards for what we must understand about how the world, especially our anthropogenic matrix, works. Failing to keep a basic understanding of science and technology is destined to segregate the population, facilitating the rise of an “elite” few, resembling more of an oligarchy than a representative democracy. I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist, and I don’t mean to imply that a “New World Order” is going to secretly control our lives. I do, however, think that if nothing is done about our general ignorance of science, we will slip away from the democracy that we claim to love so dearly. How? How can ignorance of science and technology lead to the failure of democracy? After all, you can vote regardless of your scientific literacy. While it’s true that you can vote while being largely ignorant of how the world works, this is part of the problem. To be clear, I do not think that there should be any kind of scientific literacy test in order to vote. This would only serve as fuel for the ever-broadening gap between those who understand science and those who don’t. In a democracy, everyone should be able to vote. However, given the state of knowledge that we currently have and the increasingly complex world in which we find ourselves, uneducated voting has disastrous consequences.

A Little Politics

Politics is, in its most basic form, the practice of influencing a population. This is done by verbally persuading people to get behind an action that will be set in motion order to guide the population down a particular path of life. The United States is a representative democracy, which means officials are elected by the public to govern the public. The United States is not a simple representative democracy; many modifications are set in order to give the minority a voice. However, in light of these modifications, “majority rules” is still the rule of thumb. On its surface, a “majority rules” system seems ideal. Going with what most people want or believe is the best thing to do seems like a solid idea. I agree that this is typically a good philosophy – that is, as long as those voting are educated on the matter at hand.

The Modern Intersection of Science and Government

The base of everything in our lives is built from science; it holds together our infrastructure. When a politician makes a motion to change or regulate something, he or she is making a change that affects our anthropogenic matrix, and, consequently, the natural world in which our matrix operates through such acts as deforestation, ozone depletion, species extinction, etc. If a constituent does not have a basic understanding of how the world works, then how can that individual make a good decision with regards to electing a public official who will pass laws that affect the world? Moreover, ignorance of science and technology (not to mention poor reasoning and logical evaluation skills that tend to accompany science education) leads to a vote based largely on emotion and superficial similarity. If you know very little about a subject, you cannot make an educated decision regarding that subject. If not based on an educated understanding, something else must be the base upon which you make decisions. The next best choice would be decisions based on reason and logic. Unfortunately, a fostering of critical thinking is also aloof in many educational settings. Science acts as a major source of training by which people learn to reason and form logical conclusions. In turn, many – though not all – who base their decisions on logical reasoning are in the same group of people who base their decisions on knowledge of science.

If you don’t use a knowledge of science to aid in political decision-making, it’s likely that you are more swayed by charisma and emotional triggers. Those candidates who are more like you, or at least are ostensibly like you, are more likely to sway your opinion. After all, that’s what politics is all about – persuading people. If most of your constituents are not scientifically literate, then you as a politician will be less likely to use science as a persuasion tactic and more likely to use charisma and emotionally charged wording that resonates with many of your constituents. Though not a valiant method of persuasion, it is a smart one. Unfortunately, this only perpetuates the current epidemic of scientific illiteracy.

Why Public Knowledge of Science Matters

One major problem with scientific illiteracy is that politicians can make a poor decision, intentionally or unintentionally, with no one to call them out. Regulations or the lack thereof concerning issues such as climate change, medical research, and irresponsible use of resources must be made based on the science that is used to study and understand these matters. If a politician uses a non-scientific basis for creating laws (a basis fueled by a constituency who is scientifically illiterate and, perhaps, an ulterior motive such as monetary stock in the decision), then consequences are sure to ensue. The effects can be immediate, such as lack of funding for education or medical research, or delayed, as with the consequences surrounding anthropogenic climate change.

Politics aside, understanding science and technology is imperative to functioning in our ever increasingly technological world. 100,000 years ago, one had to be a skillful hunter or gatherer; 10,000 years ago, one needed to be adept in agriculture; today, we must stay informed on, at the very least, the basics of science. Expertise is not required for social and political progress, but awareness is essential.

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Ebola – Not The Threat To the US That You Think It Is

About 900 people have died of Ebola in the last 6 months. Should you be worried? If you don’t want to read the post, and are just looking for an answer: NO!

If you’re one of the people who is saying, “But they are bringing 2 Ebola patients to the U.S., and a man in New York is suspected of having the disease!!” then please, for the sake of everyone around you, keep reading.

Let’s take a look at Ebola first. What exactly is it? Ebola Virus Disease (in humans) is caused by one three species of Filoviridae viruses: Zaire, Sudan, and Bundibugyo. There are two other Ebola species, but they do not affect humans. Of the three species mentioned, Ebola Zaire is the nastiest, with anywhere from a 50-90% fatality rate – closer to 50% with supportive care and closer to 90% with no supportive care. Ebola is a hemorrhagic fever disease, characterized by high fever, shock, multiple organ failure, and subcutaneous bleeding. Typically, the patient first shows flu-like symptoms before progressing to the more characteristic bleeding symptoms. If the virus itself doesn’t kill you, oftentimes your own immune system will spiral out of control and send you into shock, and, most often, death.

Now that the bad part is over, let’s look at why it’s not as scary globally as you might think.

Strengths:                                                        Weaknesses:

High mortality rate                                      Only spread through body fluids

Ambiguous early symptoms                   Lacks a ubiquitous vector

3 – 21 day incubation period                  Physically impairs the victim

No treatment or cure

Although the number of strengths outweighs the number of weaknesses, the quality of the weaknesses far outweighs the strengths. Without being airborne or transmitted by some ubiquitous vector, it is unlikely that any disease will ever cause a pandemic (meaning, global effects). In addition to this, Ebola impairs its victims. Even the flu-like symptoms are enough to sway you from much human contact. The scariest part about Ebola is the incubation period. Someone may not show symptoms for up to 3 weeks after being exposed to the virus. While this, in concert with the ambiguous early symptoms, might keep the flame flickering, it isn’t enough to start a wildfire. Still not convinced? Let’s put the outbreak into perspective:

We are currently experiencing the largest and most deadly Ebola outbreak in recorded history. The death toll is almost to 900 in 6 months – less than the number of people who die every 6 months from hippopotamus attacks. The Spanish Flu of 1918, undoubtedly the worst pandemic in the history of mankind, infected about 30% of the people in the world and killed anywhere from 3-5% of the global population in a single year. If you see a grave marker with a death date anytime in 1918, chances are greater than not that the individual died from Spanish Flu. This astounding death toll was accomplished WITHOUT the advent of modern travel, i.e., no airplanes. The current Ebola outbreak has killed 900 people, or about 0.0000001% (1/10 millionth of a percent)of the world population. 900 out of about 7.3 billion people worldwide. Oh yea, the other thing? Ebola isn’t worldwide. It’s in Western Africa.

Slide1

The only time Ebola has ever really been outside of Africa is… well… never. The closest we’ve come to that is recently bringing two patients to the US for treatment. 2 patients that will likely not even be exposed to US air or land for the next 2 weeks, as they were flown in on a plane with a quarantine chamber and are now isolated in a hospital ward in one of the top hospitals in the US.

I’m not trying to downplay the seriousness of Ebola from the safety of my suburban coffee shop. Yes, it would be scary if I were living in Sierra Leone. Not so much because I have a high chance of contracting Ebola, but because I don’t know where it might be lurking. And, if I did contract it, I’d be more miserable and frightened in the next two weeks than I’d ever been in my life. I would only be relieved of this misery by multiple organ failure and bleeding out of eyes until I died, or the less likely chance that I survive. Ebola is a terrible, nasty disease, but it’s not a global threat nor is it a U.S. threat.

Genesis 1: A Story of Functional Creation, not Material Creation.

Introduction

When looking to the Bible for information on mankind’s purpose, many modern Christians tend to overlook Genesis. On its surface, the articulation of Genesis 1 appears as an account of material ontology, or material creation. However, this understanding of the creation account is superficial and requires no investigation into the text, or more importantly, the sociocultural context of the literature. In fact, I will make the argument that reading Genesis 1 as an account of material ontology is not faithful to the original intention or reception of the passage. In lieu of a material ontological reading, I argue for a functional ontological reading of Genesis 1 that stays true to the text and dispels much of the contemporary debate in Christian cosmogony (belief of universe origins).

The purpose of a functional interpretation of Genesis 1 is not to abolish inconsistencies in Christian cosmogony (though this is accomplished in the process), but rather to give a more insightful and meaningful reading of the text that communicates to the modern reader the same message that it communicated to the ancient Hebrew listener. In order to fully appreciate the intention of the text, the reader must explore the culture of the ancient Hebrew people, understand the divergence between several Hebrew words and their English translations, and be mindful not to cast their post-enlightenment, materialistic perspective of the world into the reading of the text. Taking this approach to the text will not only render a functional ontological interpretation of Genesis 1 probable, but will also disavow a material ontological understanding of the creation account.

Cosmology

Cosmology, or the understanding of the universe, has drastically changed over the span of recorded history. The currently accepted cosmological model is an expanding universe following the implosion of an original singularity – the Big Bang. Though there are still many unanswered questions about the Big Bang, most of which will likely never be fully elucidated, there has been a steady flow of empirical evidence supporting the theory since the 1960’s. This “creation account“ is representative of how cosmology functions in the 21st century Western World – namely, accumulation of empirical evidence supporting a hypothesis. A relic of the 16th century Scientific Revolution, our empirical worldview in the West has lead to astounding advancements in science, medicine, and technology that has propelled humanity forward at a remarkable rate. However, this empirical approach to the world is so infused with the Western worldview that it is often difficult for one to step outside of this perspective.

We in the Western World tend to see any non-empirical approach to knowledge or truth as primitive and often not worthy of pursuit. This naïve approach becomes problematic when studying the writings of ancient societies that had a different cosmology and cosmogony than our own; the Bible, containing a library of ancient Hebrew and Greek writings, is no exception. The cosmology and cosmography (physical arrangement of the cosmos) of the Biblical authors and their contemporaries differed profoundly from modern day ideology. This difference is expressed in the literature of these times, including the books of the Bible. Though perspicuous to its contemporaries, the intentions of Biblical literature, particularly that of the Old Testament, require deliberation from modern day Christians.

No sensible person today would deny that they are sitting on a spherical planet that orbits a star in the center of a solar system. In fact, nearly everyone today would agree with the fact that our solar system is just one of a countless number of solar systems in the Milky Way galaxy, which is, in turn, but a single galaxy among countless others. This belief is not held by a single ethnic group, religion, or country, but rather is held by humanity writ large. This is our modern cosmography, and it’s difficult to rationally deny given our current understanding. Mankind’s cosmography has undergone several paradigmatic shifts since the Biblical (or Babylonian) cosmography of the Old Testament authors.

The name “Genesis” actually derived from a 3rd century Greek transliteration. The Hebrew name for the first book of the Bible, “Bereshit,” means “In the beginning,” alluding to its opening words. These opening words set up the theme of the chapter, namely, the cosmogony of the Hebrew people. This brings up an important point. It must be understood that the Bible was written for all people of all times, but was not written to all people of all times; the Old Testament was written to the ancient Hebrew people. When a work of literature is written, the author employs imagery and ideas that are familiar and relevant to the intended audience. Genesis, being an origins account, includes cosmology in its narrative. The image below is representative of a typical Babylonian cosmology, of which the ancient Mesopotamian people, including the Hebrews, embraced.

Babylonian_Cosmology

It’s evident that ancient cosmography was very different from modern cosmography. To the ancient Mesopotamians, however, this cosmography made sense. This was how they understood their world. When the author of Genesis speaks of the “firmament,” we cannot translate it as sky, as this is not what it meant to the ancient audience. Firmament, to the ancient Israelites, was a solid structure holding back the waters above. This belief in a firmament and waters above was common among all Babylonian cosmography.

So, is the Bible wrong or untruthful for mentioning a firmament that we now clearly know is not there? I don’t think we can make the claim that the Bible is “wrong” about this if we keep in mind that it was written to a specific audience at a specific point in time. A material ontological reading – what many today mean by “literal,” though this is a misnomer – presents a problem: the Bible is supposedly unwaveringly truthful, and it claims that there is a firmament in the sky, above which lies some sort of ocean. Now what? Do we accept that there is a firmament in the sky and stop paying our half a penny per tax dollar for NASA, or do we investigate a little more? If we accept a material ontological reading of Genesis 1 but do not accept the cosmography of Genesis 1, then we have quite the theological conundrum. If the intention of Genesis 1 was to communicate material ontology, then it would need to be written using an understanding common to all people of all times in order to get the message across while also preventing falsehood from arising within the text. Perhaps, then, the message of Genesis 1 is not material ontology.

Function and Existence

The nature of existence is not something people contemplate on a regular basis. In a modern Western World mentality, the nature of existence is intrinsically tied to biological life. However, “alive” and “existence” are communicating two different ideas. A rock exists, but we would not consider it “alive.” So, what does it mean to exist? In ancient Mesopotamia, material properties were not a sufficient condition for existence; an object or being’s existence was contingent upon function. This reality was true for cultures writ large, including the Israelites. This notion of functional existence was also expressed in creation stories in the ancient Near Eastern world. In essence, creation stories, including those of the Israelites, were stories about the gods giving function and order to a system.

When investigating the idea of existence, a hermeneutical approach must be incorporated in the analysis. One example of this is the Hebrew word “bārā’,” which is translated as create. In the Bible, bārā’ is only used in reference to God. Also, there are a number of instances in the Bible where bārā’ must be understood as functional creation; correspondingly, there seem to be no instances where bārā’ mandates material creation. Exegetical work on bārā’ seems to suggest a functional connotation. It might seem odd at first to have more than one word for an action, but this is common among languages. A language belonging to a culture that relies on the phases of the moon might have a dozen or more words for “moon” depending upon the context in which it is used. Language is a tool that is molded based on what is important to the user. The idea of a word for creation, used in the context of function, follows suit with a functional ontological reading of Genesis 1. Functional creation is not only an ancient notion. Even today there are examples of existence that rely on function.

John Walton gives a clear, modern example of modern functional creation in his book “The Lost World of Genesis One.” Imagine a restaurant. When does a restaurant come into existence? Is it a restaurant when the building is constructed (i.e., the material creation)? A building can be or become anything, so this cannot be the case. The most sensible answer seems to that a restaurant becomes a restaurant after a safety inspector deems the restaurant fit to conduct business. A restaurant that is closed, for one reason or another, is not in “existence.” Business, which is the function of the restaurant, is required for existence; thus, its existence is defined by its function. Naming is also related to function. The name Yahweh can be translated as “I am,” which speaks to the Judeo-Christian understanding of God’s function as an eternal and omnipresent being. Of course, material properties must precede function as a necessary condition for existence, but material properties alone may not be a sufficient condition for existence. Restaurants aren’t the only example of functional ontology today. Many things, including corporations, businesses, stocks, the Internet, and governments require, in one-way or another, functional ontology. It is no stretch of the imagination to envision how a culture, void of modern science and empirical based thinking, could have ontology rooted in function. Consequently, this provides support for the functional worldview of the ancient world, specifically with the Israelites.

Can Genesis be Material and Functional Ontology?

Given the evidence, it seems to follow that Genesis was written as functional ontology. However, this does not necessarily eliminate the possibility of also reading it as material ontology. Many Christians argue that a “literal” reading of Genesis 1 is required if we are to take the Bible seriously. This proves problematic, as everything we know and understand about life, the universe, and much of science in general, is not in accordance with a material ontological reading of Genesis. Many arguments exist to reconcile the discrepancies between science and a material ontological reading of Genesis 1, however all of them rely on some sort of ad hoc modification leading to a concordist view of the Bible. Concordism, in this context, is the belief that Genesis 1 can be read as material ontology and still be in concordance with modern science.

Concordist views come in many forms, including young earth arguments and old earth arguments. For an old earth argument, the most common approach is to place long periods of time either between the “days” of creation or between the first and second creation account. One main problem with this kind of approach is that it ignores what we currently understand about the ancient Israelite culture. It is not that the concordist hypotheses are too far-fetched (though I would argue that they tend to stretch science and hermeneutics quite thin), but rather that they are missing the point of the story. I am not making an attempt to disprove the science in their arguments; I am trying to show that the science does not matter. The arguments do not seem to take into account the fact that the Bible was not written to us; it was written to the Israelites. Science as we know it today did not exist when the books of the Bible were written, therefore it does not make sense for the Bible to be written with science in mind. The efforts to reconcile modern knowledge with a material ontological reading cause the reader to lose sight of the intention of Genesis 1.

A young earth creationist (YEC) would tend to agree with many of my critiques to concordist views. They see the Bible as an absolute truth, and man should not invoke into the text his finite understanding of science and theology. If Genesis 1 speaks of 24-hour days (yom, in Hebrew), then the creation account must have taken place in 6 literal days, they argue. Attempts at stretching the meaning of words such as yom do not enrich the authority or veracity of the text by accommodating modern cosmology. They maintain that, because we have a finite understanding of the world and certainly of God, perhaps the text of Genesis 1 should be taken as a literal account of material origins. This YEC argument seems fair, and it does not have the problem of concordism, but there are some major issues.

By affirming Genesis 1 as material ontology, YEC proponents are, by default, reading their culture into the Bible. The creation account only seems to suggest material ontology to a reader who has the cultural bias of empiricism. Those of us born into the 21st century Western World are encultured to see things in a physical and empirical manner. This becomes a problem when we read a work of literature from a culture that did not have this same mentality. A “literal” reading of Genesis 1 means something different for us today than it would have to the ancient Hebrews. The most “literal” reading of the text would be a reading that comprehends the text through the mind of the author. The best way to attain this understanding is to study the culture and recognize the biases that would be present in the author’s writing. In the case of the ancient Hebrew literature, there would be a cultural bias against physical descriptions. We must take into account the cosmological and epistemological views of a culture when we read the literature. Along with eschewing modern scientific understandings of the world, this absence of culture interpretation is perhaps the biggest failure of YEC theology.

The ancient Israelites were not concerned with the physical details of creation, and a Genesis 1 would not be written as material ontology. The Israelites were concerned with who created them and why mankind is on earth. A functional ontological reading of Genesis 1 answers these questions and clears up most of the modern day cosmogony confusion. When viewed as a functional account of origins, the age of the earth, which tends to be at the heart of many concordist beliefs, is not an issue. There is no longer a need for the Judeo-Christian God to be a charlatan, He does not need to hide in the gaps of knowledge, yom can mean a literal 24-hour day, evolution is no longer a threat, and the universe can be 13.7 billion years old. A functional ontological view allows Genesis 1 to succeed in its intention, namely, communicating to the reader (particularly the original audience of ancient Hebrews) who God is and the nature of his relationship to mankind.

Conclusions

We must be careful not to come to Genesis 1 thinking of it as a modern metaphor just because the language or structure is strange to us today. Metaphor and functional origins are qualitatively different characterizations. There are instances of figurative language within the creation story, but this does not mean the story itself is metaphor nor does it say anything about the meaning of Genesis 1. It is important to understand that this style of writing was the method of conveying truth in the ancient world. Today, we use an empirical method to convey truth; Hebrews did not see truth in this way, and used the meaning of the story to convey a truth about the nature of story’s subject. Many Native American tribes convey truth in a similar fashion. Chronological or historical matters are not of significance. Rather, what matters is what the story says about the subject’s character or its relationship to mankind.

Many instances of odd structuring or bizarre language likely occur because of the vast cultural differences. For example, the ordering of events in the creation account stems largely from the Hebrew use of block logic as opposed to the step logic to which we are accustomed. Similarly, early Hebrew writers emphasized theological points and were more concerned with the significance of events than they were with historical linearity. Historicity in Genesis would not have been in issue to the Israelites. Genesis was told as a story of functional ontology, expressing the importance of mankind’s place in relationship with the Creator. These differences in perspective and writing style do not make the story metaphorical or untrue, they simply express perspectives of the ancient Hebrew people.

Given our cultural disposition to seek empiricism, we must take careful deliberation when making assumptions about the meaning of Scripture. The reader must accept that the text was not written with their culture, including notions about the nature of truth, in mind. The text was written in a manner that reflects the culture of the time, thus the culture must be “translated” alongside the text. The ancient Hebrew audience would have understood the message that was being communicated through the creation story. It was written as a testament to their God’s power and glory. It enlightens the reader on who their God is and where mankind is in relation to him; mankind is on earth as the image-bearer of the divine. The mentioning of physical objects in Genesis 1 is to give the story context within the ancient Israelite culture, in much the same way that objects are employed to this end by modern authors. Reading Genesis 1 as an account of material origins is simply missing the point. In turn, it causes the text say something that was never meant to be communicated, and flies in the face of our current understanding of nature and cosmology. Christians today must approach Genesis 1 not as material ontology that their modern sociocultural context has shaped them to see, but as a functional ontology that reflects the views of its original audience.

For more reading on this subject, check out the following from John Walton:

Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible

The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate.

De-Extinction Is On Its Way

“What’s the point of bringing back some pigeons that have been gone for a century, or some hairy elephants that disappeared four millennia ago? Well, what’s the point of protecting unhairy elephants in Africa or over-specialized pandas in China or dangerous polar bears in the Arctic, or any of the endangered species we spend so much money and angst on preserving?”

– Stewart Brand

It’s difficult to argue with that logic. In 2012, the US spent over $3 billion on conservation efforts.

I don’t know about you, but I always dreamt of a real-life Jurassic Park. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like dinosaurs will ever have the chance to roam the Earth again. Quite frankly, with new research showing that most dinosaurs probably had feathers, I’m not sure it would even live up to what our minds are conditioned to believe dinosaurs to look like anyway. They’d be giant, carnivorous chickens, more or less. But what about a mammoth or a thylacine?

While the DNA that once inhabited a dinosaur bone is long gone, victim to over 65 million years of radiation, hydrolysis, and other forms of degradation, DNA can be found in some more recent specimens. But how would it work? How could we possibly bring back – that is, De-Extinct – an organism. Well, actually, it’s already been done.

The Sad Saga of the Pyrenean Ibex 

The last surviving Pyrenean Ibex died in 2000. Of all the ways for a species to go out, this one was found dead underneath a fallen tree. It seems as though Mother Nature was just out to get them. So, naturally, humans did what humans do best – try to one-up Mother Nature. Pre-emptively thinking in 1999, biologists cryogenically froze a tissue sample of Celia, the last surviving member of her species. When Celia died, scientists were ready to bring her back.

The technique used is called somatic cell nuclear transfer. You can find a short video of it happening in real time here. Essentially, an oocyte – egg cell – from a domestic goat was de-nucleated and the nucleus from one of Celia’s somatic (body) cells was inserted into the empty oocyte. The resulting cells were then transferred into a domestic goat surrogate. Unfortunately, the process proved technically difficult. 285 embryos were reconstructed. Of those, 54 were transferred to 12 ibex and ibex-goat hybrids. Only two survived the two months of gestation before they too died. One clone was finally birthed in 2009 – the very first de-extinction. Unfortunately, the clone had a lung defect, and died of a collapsed lung only 7 minutes after birth. One of the problems was likely the fact that Celia was already 13 years old – old age for a goat – when the tissue sample was taken. This means that her telomeres, the caps on chromosomes that protect the supercoiled DNA, were already very short. As DNA replicates, the enzymes cannot make it to the very end of the DNA (where the telomeres are located), so the telomeres are truncated. They act as a sort of buffering system to keep the actual genes from being damaged (on a side note, your age is essentially a function of your telomere length).

The procedure seemed to doom any idea of de-extinction. After all, if we can’t even bring back a species that has been dead for under a decade, how can we ever hope to bring back a 30,000 year-old wooly mammoth? Fortunately, scientists are incredibly stubborn, and didn’t just drop the idea all at once. With advances in technology, science fiction often becomes reality. In the field of de-extinction, the limiting factor is DNA extraction and sequencing technology, which seems to be growing faster than Moore’s Law predicts it should.

A New Method

So, is there another way – a better way – to clone an animal than by somatic cell nuclear transfer? Maybe, and it’s called induced-pluripotent stem cell (IPS)-Derived sperm and egg cloning. The idea behind this is to splice your target species DNA (say, from a mammoth) into a surrogate stem cell genome (say, from an Asian elephant). Because these are stem cells (or pluripotent cells), they can become anything. So you coax the newly modified stem cells into becoming germ cells – those that will make the testes and ovaries. You then insert the germ cells into the embryos of a male and female surrogate (Asian elephants, in our example). Now you have a male and female Asian elephant embryo with mammoth precursory germ cells. You grow up the two surrogates, and they will exhibit target species (mammoth) gonads (testes and ovaries). So, you then mate the two and out comes a “full-blood” mammoth (click here and skip ahead to about the 10 minute mark to see this example with falcons and chickens. I recommend watching the entire TED talk. It’s my favorite one, and will explain a lot about De-Extinction).

You will see a second De-Extinction in your lifetime, and hopefully more to follow. Expect it from – Passenger Pigeons, Gastric Brooding Frogs, and, hopefully, Mammoths.

Maybe We Can… But Should We?

This, to me, is one of the biggest hurdles. You have to convince people that something, at least of this caliber, is a good idea. I began the post with a quote from Stewart Brand that I think idealizes the argument for De-Extinction. Hank Greely, a Stanford Law School professor specializing in biomedical technology ethics gives an excellent TED talk on this (found here). To outline his talk, here are the 10 things we must consider, 5 risks and 5 benefits:

  • Animal Welfare
  • Health
  • Environment
  • Political Concerns
  • Morality
  • Scientific Knowledge
  • Technological Progress
  • Environment
  • Justice
  • Wonder

I will flesh these out quickly, but won’t spoil the TED talk.

Animal Welfare

  • Cloning isn’t a very “safe” process. It can take hundreds of embryos, and often the few who survive don’t last long. We need to ensure the welfare of the animals that we try to bring back.

Health

  • What if we bring back an animal and it happens to be a great vector for a terrible disease? Oftentimes the beginning of an epidemic is a new, better vector.

Environment

  • If we bring back a species, is it going to cause ecological problems?

Political Concerns

  • If we make De-Extinction a plausible conservation effort, will it undermine current efforts to preserve what we have? Why try to save them if we can just bring them back? Similarly, is it worth it financially?

Morality

  • To be short, we are playing God. We are doing something that, presumably, has never really happened in almost 4 billion years of life. We are redrawing the branches of the tree of life. It’s not something to be taken lightly

Scientific Knowledge

  • We could learn things previously unknowable about genetics, evolution, and biology.

Technological Progress

  • De-Extinction is the edge of science. It is pushing technology to its outer bounds, making technological development increase faster than it normally would. This provides technological offshoots for many medical procedures.

Environment

  • Bringing back a species can actually be good for the community. See, for example, the effect of wolf reintroduction at Yellowstone.

Justice

  • Are reparations due? Its arguable whether or not we caused megafaunal extinction – mammoths, wooly rhinoceros, cave bear, etc. – but there’s no doubt that some species, such as the passenger pigeon, went extinct due to human activity, namely hunting. And, sadly, we continue this destructive path, which is stripping the Earth of some of its most precious large mammals – tigers, elephants, and rhinoceroses, just to name a few.

Wonder

  • My favorite. This is what science does. It inspires us. It awes us. It brings our imagination outside of our minds and places in front of us. Wonder isn’t all that impractical either. Wonder is what drives scientific knowledge further. It’s a self-perpetuating field that is snowballing into the ever-decreasing realm of science fiction.

The “can we” of De-Extinction is coming to a close. It’s time to start discussing the “should we” aspect. The technology will be here very soon, but are we ready?