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Cloning's ecological limits
The world is more than a few scientific steps from Holocene mouse to Jurassic Park. Yet the achievement of Japanese scientists who were able to clone mice from damaged, long-frozen cells -- and the theoretical possibility that they could do the same for the woolly mammoths of Neanderthal man's days -- gives us renewed reason to consider Laboratory man's power over nature.
The novel "Jurassic Park" by Michael Crichton -- who died Tuesday, one day after the Japanese cloning success was announced -- is a cautionary tale about man's interference with nature and the implications of genetic tinkering in a complex ecosystem. But the bigger issue we face over the prospect of restoring extinct species isn't a rampaging Tyrannosaurus rex; it's our sometimes cavalier attitude toward protecting the large, complex wilderness areas needed for the survival of endangered species and fighting the pollution that is hastening many of them toward their demise.
Rather than resurrecting dinosaurs, scientists are more likely to work on animals of the Ice Age after the remains of mammoths have been found frozen in tundra. But before we start planning the location of Pleistocene Park, let's remember that the reason mammoth remains are more easily retrieved is because global warming is thawing the tundra where they have been preserved for more than 10,000 years.
That same warming also threatens the long-term survival of polar bears, which depend on a diminishing sea of ice floes for their survival, and already is creating “dead zones” on the ocean floor off Oregon and Washington. (Crichton, though, was no believer in the threat of global warming.) Loss of habitat and the use of lead bullets have brought the California condor to the edge of extinction.
The Japanese scientists see their newfound cloning abilities as a tool in this fight. They might be able to resurrect recently extinct species and replenish those that fall off the precipice. But there is a limited point to bringing plants and animals back to a planet where the technological wizardry of the modern Holocene epoch is not matched by a respect for preserving the unfathomable complexity of nature.