Gene-uinely Confusing

It’s no secret that I acknowledge I am not a trained scientist of any fashion.  Yet the theory of evolution and how it guides – or fails to guide – scientific pursuits is a constant confusion to me.

Take, for example, this interesting rebuttal to an argument laid out by the magazine Scientific American that trying to recreate extinct species through salvaged DNA samples is a bad idea.  What caught my eye initially was the author’s desire to involve “multidisciplinary” discussion on the topic as a means for moving towards the practice of recreating extinct species.  
To my untrained ear, that sounded interesting.  What, indeed, would be the result of gathering a variety of people from a variety of backgrounds and world views to discuss objectively the pros and cons of how such practices might or might not be pursued?  What a fascinating idea – that since these activities potentially affect all of humanity, a broader cross-section of backgrounds and voices ought to be involved in the discussion.
However, it seems clear from reading the rebuttal that this isn’t what the author intended.  That for the author, “multidisciplinary” means a variety of different kinds of scientists, not a consortium of different kinds of professionals and people.  As such, the force of the article deals exclusively with the hypothetical benefits of de-extincting certain species, or incorporating particular genetic traits of extinct species with modern species, and not at all with potential drawbacks and dangers – ethical or otherwise.  
I find it curious that if natural selection gives rise to dominant species, that the issue of de-extinction should even be on the table.  Doesn’t it violate the principles of natural selection to think that we should re-introduce species that for varying reasons did not survive?  Is natural selection natural or not?  And if not, how is it that one particular species gets to determine who does or does not survive, who is or is not de-extincted?  
I’m glad that people are discussing this issue, I just wish there was some acknowledgement that a broader cross-section of skills and viewpoints is not only helpful, but actually ethically requisite.  

4 Responses to “Gene-uinely Confusing”

  1. Glenn Says:

    I thought I saw a similar article in National Geographic. I doubt that this will really be possible or practical. Even attempts to clone large mammals such as sheep were initially successful but most of the animals died for some reason that I don’t recall.

    Since I am a scientist working on drug discovery for new antibiotics the process involves making a new compound and then testing the ability of that compound to kill bacteria. The bacterial strains that are tested include “wild type” strains and then clinical strains which are often resistant to antibiotic treatment. The resistance problem is why the doctor tells you to keep taking your antibiotics even though you are feeling better. If you don’t a few bugs that have mutated in order to survive antibiotic exposure grow, multiply and then you now have a resistant infection that needs a differant antibiotic for treatment. Some antibiotics work by damaging bacterial DNA. When this happens it triggers a repair process in bacteria to rebuild DNA so they can replicate again. Often this repair process results in mutations of bacterial DNA, some of these mutations become the new resistant bacteria so it is a vicious cycle. Some would call this resistance mechanism a type of bacterial evolution, even through the process may be random, the result is that some bacteria survive. The other thing is that bacteria have circular DNA and there is a way that bacteria can exchange their DNA with other bacterial cells, another way to introduce a new copy of DNA into a foreign bacterial cell.

  2. Paul Nelson Says:

    Thanks Glenn.  I also doubt whether or not the technology and science is actually viable or not.  But what worries me more is the philosophical underpinnings.  What we’re actually able to do at any given time should be governed philosophically by what we are willing to do.  This means making decisions about what sorts of directions and technologies and capabilities are funded for research and development and why.  It means also being willing to say that we aren’t going to go down a certain path, understanding that others may choose to.  It is not an easy decision, but it is a critical one.  One that happens long before we determine whether we can or can’t actually do something.

    One of my favorite books ever is a curious sci-fi novel titled “A Canticle for Leibowitz“.  It’s a fascinating post-apocalyptic novel set in the unlikely locale of a remote monastary in the Utah desert.  What it does admirably is trace and explore the ramifications of these philosophical wranglings, the naivete of those who assume that they can control the results of their R&D, and what it means to be a creature, rather than a god.  Definitely a worthwhile read if you’re in to that sort of genre!

  3. Glenn Says:

    That sounds like an interesting book. I like that genre of fiction, make me wonder when the real apocalypse will be upon us if we are still around to see it.

  4. Paul Nelson Says:

    Definitely worth picking up and reading!

    And I have no doubt that we’ll see the Apocalypse, it’s just a matter of what our vantage point will be.  In the meantime, we have more than enough to keep us busy just trying to live out our Christian lives!

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