Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Mad science: "Oh, no worries. It doesn't rampage."

One of my favorite mad science movie tropes is the idea that scientists in books and films always seem profoundly unaware of the nearly 200-year-old debate about the responsibility of playing God kicked off in modern English literature by Mrs. Shelley's seminal Frankenstein. (Arguably, the argument could be said to trace its way all the back to Greek mythology, an argument Shelley herself might have supported given the subtitle of her novel: "A Modern Prometheus.")

Despite the fact that anybody with even a passing knowledge of Western popular culture is familiar with run-amok dinosaurs, rampaging neo-Golem's made of reanimated dead flesh, murderous AI's, Revelations-grade disease outbreaks, and other joys of leap-before-you-look science, the lab rats of popular culture always seem blissfully unaware of any of it.

"What are you doing?"

"Well, you know how we have that cloning tech?"

"Yeah. That stuff could revolutionize medicine by basically eliminating the wait and costs associated with organ replacement."

"You could do that, sure. Or you could, you know, use it to make an elephant crossed with a great white shark!"


"I call it a great white shelephant. Twelve thousand kilos; able to walk on land or swim in seawater. Fourteen rows of razor-sharp teeth the size of railroad spikes. Two tusks. It's pretty bad ass."

"Why would you make such a monstrosity? Think of how destructive its inevitable rampage will be!"

"Oh, no worries. It doesn't rampage. Too smart for that. I gave it enhanced mental capacities and keen strategic senses. It'll know that a rampage would lead humans right to it, and it's too clever by half for that."

"This is madness! What possible reason could you have for unleashing this beast on an unsuspecting world?"

"Oh I was figuring that we could work out those kinks in the marketplace. Let the end user find the bugs and then fix it in later releases."

I always assumed that this insane cultural blindness was a just convenient narrative short-cut. But, as time goes on, I'm beginning to think that it is a reflection of how cutting edge science actually precedes.

Case in point, what should be done with the Neanderthal genome?

On February 12th of this year, a team of European and American scientists completed a draft of the complete genome sequence for Neanderthal man. This leads to the obvious question. What great insights does this give modern researchers into the murky prehistory of human evolution? No. Don't be silly. The obvious question is how quickly and cheaply can we create a Neanderthal.

Here's author Ronald Bailey for the perhaps ill-named Reason Web site:

Once the Neanderthal genome is complete, could it then be used to clone an actual Neanderthal? Harvard University biologist George Church thinks so. He told The New York Times that a Neanderthal could be brought to life using present technology for about $30 million. How? Church would modify a modern human genome so that its DNA matches the Neanderthal version. To avoid ethical problems, Church tells the Times, this Neanderthal genome would not be inserted into a human cell but instead into a chimpanzee cell. This chimp cell would be reprogrammed to an embryonic state, and then introduced into a chimpanzee's womb where it would develop into a Neanderthal infant.

Among the implications of resurrecting our closest genetic relative, buried at the bottom of the article, we find this treat:

One science fiction trope says that it is impossible for two intelligent species to evolve simultaneously on the same planet since one would inevitably out-compete the other. This may have happened on our planet. Neanderthals disappeared around the same time that modern humans began to move into their territory. New research suggests that our ancestors killed them off. Perhaps we should use modern science to resurrect Neanderthals in order to right an ancestral wrong.

Or, you know, perhaps it will give them a chance to "right" that particular ancestral wrong.

So, admitting, even slightly, that the presence of two intelligent species on a planet may lead to the inevitable destruction of one or the other, here's the author's conclusion.

Just because these moral conundrums cannot be answered in advance is not a good enough reason to preclude future efforts to clone Neanderthals. The only way to find out what rights Neanderthals should have is to bring them back into our world.

Just let the marketplace work out the kinks.


wiec? said...

it would be nice if the scientists used their cloning skills to replace the countless extinct and near extinct endangered species out there. i guess seeing a Neanderthal would be cool, but i'd rather not see the collapse of our eco system and all the mess that would bring.

they should bring back the dodo bird while they're at it.

spacejack said...

Do you think we'll hear about and debate the first humanoid cloning projects before they actually start?

And why can't Hollywood do a decent modern remake of Island of Lost Souls?

Iceman was actually a pretty decent film. More about thawing than cloning, but suggested such experiments were doomed to have tragic results.

Kester Pelagius said...

You forgot to mention how no one ever seems to consider the ramifications of creating a new life form on, say, immunology. How will modern bacteria and virii interact with these genetic hybrids? These creatures immune systems are a total unknown. How do we know the creatures wont create a new plague that wipes humanity out?