Uncommon Descent Contest

Uncommon Descent Question 11 – can biotechnology bring back extinct animals – winners announced

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For Uncommon Descent Question 11: Can biotechnology bring back extinct animals?, we have declared a winner, and it is binary! Twins!

Aussie ID and Nakashima.

I loved Aussie ID’s information about the specifics of attempts to restore the thylacine – he calls it a Tasmanian tiger. Possibly due to culture issues, I am more familiar with hearing the animal called a Tasmanian wolf. But anyone interested should review his information.

I’d love to know what a staked out* sled pack in northern Canada would make of the marsupial Tasmanian. He doesn’t look to me like he has three coats of hair, so he might need to work in the office.

I also appreciated Nakashima’s thoughtful reflections on the question of how behaviour might not follow the physical recreation of an animal. I suspect he’s right; it’s an open question indeed.

Each of you must provide me with a valid postal address** in order to receive the prize, a free copy of Steven Meyer’s Signature in the Cell (Harper One, 2009). Write to oleary@sympatico.ca**

If you go here, you will get a bit of background on the contest, and read many interesting contributions, but for now, here is the skinny:

This one’s a bit of fun, but there is a serious purpose behind it.

In “A Life of Its Own: Where will synthetic biology lead us?” (September 28, 2009 New Yorker mag), Michael Specter reports, “If the science truly succeeds, it will make it possible to supplant the world created by Darwinian evolution with one created by us.”

Jurassic Park, anyone?

Additional notes on interesting posts:

Barb at 3: I know what you mean when you ask, “… given the host of problems we now face, isn’t there something more important that scientists could be working on?” I wish we could resurrect the Tasmanian wolf (a known marsupial) and the sabre tooth tiger (believed by many to be a marsupial). But, like you, I could quickly assemble a list of more immediate concerns. How about getting rid of land mines planted in fields? The trouble is, land mines are not usually planted in rich, stable democracies, but in poor countries with unstable governments. So poor people lose their feet or die or both, in that order. Any idiot can plant an already manufactured mine, but it takes a person with education, intelligence, and connections to arrange affordable programs to safely detect and get rid of them.

Reg at 5: About the talking donkey (how is this relevant, but anyway … ): In the story, the angel must have been talking through the donkey because he tells Balaam something that the donkey could not have known – that he would have spared her. “And unless the ass had turned out of the way, giving place to me who stood against thee, I had slain thee, and she should have lived.” 

Indeed, had the donkey known that fact, her attitude to the angel might have changed entirely. After all, Balaam had beaten her three times that day … and she can’t have supposed that things were going to get any better as long as he was around … Clearly, the message was coming from the angel, using the donkey as a mouthpiece, prior to confronting Balaam directly.

Megan at 6 Re unicorns in the Bible and also Laughable at 10: An interesting question, probably irresolvable now. The unicorn may have been a translation mistake for the ancient, extinct bos aurochs, the ancestor of modern cattle. Also, the growing horns of a long-horned goat may be twisted in such a way as to produce a unicorn. In any event, some goats only develop one horn – doubtless a defect, but worth noting.

Romantic renderings of the unicorn portrayed the animal as a horse with a long, spiral twisted horn.

However, for a number of reasons, I highly doubt that a horse-like creature is what the Biblical writers had in mind. Here is a sample of translations from a key passage in the Book of Job. The translations vary in their identification of the word “reem” between wild ox, rhinoceros, buffalo, and unicorn. Could “unicorn” mean a horned horse?

Well, the question asked in Job 39:9 (Webster’s Bible Translation) is “Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? [manger]”: If a horse were really meant, the answer would be – yes! You fill his manger with oats and he will empty it. You harness him, and flick the reins, and he will pull a cart, as long as he suspects that there is another manger of oats at the end of the trail. However, the point of the challenge question in the text of Job appears to be no. That makes me think that the giant bos aurochs (wild ox) is a more plausible candidate for a correct reading.

Parlar at 7 points out that the 1918 Spanish flu virus – believed to have killed 50 to 100 million people – was recreated, and that the scientists responsible were heavily criticized. I bet they were. There is also reason to suspect that the smallpox virus has not really been destroyed. In my view, these are dangerous toys, as are nuclear weapons. A researcher who wants to have fun resurrecting or preserving viruses with a high kill rate needs a really good reason, and some oversight. We have enough trouble already with swine flu.

Nakashima at 8: I loved your comment that “bringing back an individual is not the same as bringing back the species.” You are surely right that most species have behaviour patterns that must be passed on. Just how they are passed on is not always clear. Placental wolves (canis lupus, the wolf of the northern forest) live in a den in which dominant wolves mate and subordinates do not, but the subordinates do help with the offspring. I’d be very interested to know if thylacines did that as well.

Here’s a fun video clip of a guy who howled just for fun and an Arctic wolf came to visit him. (You can tell he is an Arctic wolf because all his body coats of hair are white.)

You ask, “Is a wolf that does not know how to hunt still a wolf?” An excellent question. One thing I really liked about a recent book I received for review, called Nature’s IQ, sponsored by Hindus, was its strong focus on the behaviour of animals. It’s not simply the body form, but the information about how to behave that makes the animal viable.

I agree about the value of bringing back extinct species if possible, to increase biodiversity, where human carelessness or stupidity caused their extinction. But we need to exercise judgement. Some species are on the way out anyway. Here I am thinking of the Irish elk, pictured here, which probably wasn’t viable at the point at which it went extinct. If we want to bring them back and breed them in wildlife preserves, fine, but we need to be clear about our purpose.

Thanks to all contestants.

* staked out: The entire pack is tied to a huge stake in the ground, at enough distance from other packs to prevent interpack fights. All the packs can really do by way of competition is competitive pack barks (freelancing wolves may howl instead). It is noisy but safe.

** No one’s address is ever added to a mailing list. If anyone receives solicitations, they did not come through us.

11 Replies to “Uncommon Descent Question 11 – can biotechnology bring back extinct animals – winners announced

  1. 1
    semigloss says:

    Congratulations to AussieID and Nakashima. Very well-put responses.

  2. 2
    Nakashima says:

    Mrs O’Leary,

    Thank you! With the recent post about the continued success of Signature in the Cell in the marketplace, I look forward to getting and reading a copy. I’ve followed very closely the chapter summaries posted by Mr Deyes.

    This question of behavior was a large concern of Richard Dawkins in his book, The Extended Phenotype. As with releasing zoo-bred animals into the wild, recreating a species from DNA would be an interesting test of his ideas.

  3. 3
    AussieID says:

    G’Day Denyse,

    Thanks for that. I was a bit worried about the other competititors, but will happily accept the prize!

    Well Nakashima, I virtually disagree with EVERYTHING you write, but I don’t mind walking up to the dais and holding the book high with you. Now, do I get to have the book for the first six months and then we swap, or do you get the first half of the chapters and me the other and we’ll swap later?

    We’ll work on that one!

    Thanks again, Denyse, for the competition. I’ll appreciate a good summer’s read!



  4. 4
    O'Leary says:

    To clarify, both Nakashima and AussieID are getting their own copy of Signature, so no swap needed.

  5. 5
    Nakashima says:

    Mr AussieID,

    Well Nakashima, I virtually disagree with EVERYTHING you write,…

    Great, that is so much better than actually disagreeing with virtually everything I write! 😉 Please alert me if ever I do write something you agree with, I’ll try to have it corrected to be more dogmatically materialist before the Darwin Police break down my door.

    I thought you remarks on thylacines very interesting. Maybe we could collaborate on posts for UD in a “Point/Counterpoint” style!

  6. 6
    tragic mishap says:

    Nakashima is by far the best non-ID commentator on this blog. Doesn’t surprise me.

    Anyway I have to think that we have no clue how to recreate the womb of an extinct animal. Pretty skeptical about that.

  7. 7
    Nakashima says:

    Mr Mishap,

    Thank you for the compliment. I will try to live up to your expectations as we go forwards.

    I agree with you, the environment in the womb, and the interaction between mother and developing child is very important and dynamic process. There is even some evidence that there is influence at this stage on issues such as eventual homosexuality of a male – neatly dropping into a crack between genetics and choice in that debate. So being forced to raise the first generation by proxy in another animal’s womb is an issue for bringing back some species. It would become less so if you could create a breeding population – this was part of my point on making a distinction between bringing back an individual and a species.

  8. 8
    tragic mishap says:

    Was thinking about that. Maybe once you had at least an idea of what DNA controls womb conditions you could clone a surrogate mother? It would be an existing species cloned with “womb DNA” from the extinct species DNA. You could never know for sure but maybe you could make an educated guess from studying related existing species.

  9. 9
    Mung says:

    …bringing back an individual is not the same as bringing back the species.

    You can’t bring back a species if it’s not something that actually exists.

    So if a species was restored, what would that tell us?

  10. 10
    AussieID says:


    You got me … virtually! 😮

    Cheers and enjoy the read.


  11. 11
    Collin says:

    Mishap and Naka,

    I believe I heard some scientists theorize that they’d bring back the wooly mammoth by degrees. They’d insert (somehow, I don’t know) enough DNA into an elephant and make an elephant that is 1/16th mammoth. Then they’d do the same to that elephant’s offspring making it 1/8th mammoth, and so on until they have a mammoth (or most of one). I don’t remember the source on this one though.

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