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Monday, September 4, 2017

Unnatural Selection: On Extinction And De-Extinction, by Colin Dickey, Los Angeles Review of Books

It’s not only Hollywood producers that have refused to let go of this scenario. As Helen Pilcher’s Bring Back the King: The New Science of De-Extinction attests, this extremely terrible idea has kept pace with technological progress, and is now closer to reality than ever. Pilcher looks at attempts to resurrect not just the T. rex but also other iconic victims of extinction: the woolly mammoth, the passenger pigeon, the Neanderthal, the thylacine (a carnivorous marsupial that went extinct in Australia in 1936), and Elvis Presley. (The “King” of the title stands for both the King of Rock ’n’ Roll and the king of the dinosaurs.) In successive chapters, she runs down the current state of the art in terms of DNA sequencing and repair, incubation and possible surrogates, and the likelihood of successfully bringing an extinct species back to life. In most cases, while the science is currently out of reach, it won’t be for long. The techniques Crichton drew on for Jurassic Park have become far more refined: incomplete strains of DNA are extracted from extant preserved specimens, filled out, and completed (sometimes borrowing from the closest living relatives). In many cases, this feat is less daunting than what comes next: incubating these new specimens. Woolly mammoth cloning would involve implanting a fertilized egg inside of a living elephant, an undertaking that involves either negotiating a six-foot-long reproductive tract, or going through the rectum and then trying to cut through to the elephant’s womb. Neither process has been successfully accomplished by humans.

Deeper Than Deep, by Ron Rosenbaum, Laphams Quarterly

And not only in old bones and mummified objects. The evidence for much of these vast clashes and close encounters is something we carry around within us in microscopic stretches of DNA that are the only legacy left from extinct variant species of humans. In microscopic sequences of chemical bonds on the double helixes of heredity there are traces of ancient variations on human species who lived and thrived and left nothing else behind beyond a few random sequences of chemical bonds. The faintest of faint echoes of a prehistoric past we’re only beginning to grasp. It’s a shift in focus as radical as the one that allowed us to glimpse—through Hubble-era telescopes—the billions of galaxies of the knowable universe and radically shift our perspective on our place in deep space. Suddenly we are able to see in the galaxies of genes within us and the stories they tell of a new way of envisioning our place in the history of the planet.

And this fellow David Reich, sitting across from me in a corner of his lab on Avenue Louis Pasteur in Boston, this skinny slip of a hominid, David Reich, clad in a T-shirt and slacks—the Zuckerberg couture of Harvard geniuses, you might say—is at the heart of what is likely to be remembered as one of the great scientific revolutions. One unimaginable just a few years ago.

Tuesday Is The Bad Day, by Alan Hanson, The Awl

When Tuesday arrives you have now already suffered the barbs of that tedium, experienced the cuts that will continue, the pain still fresh on your skin. And your awful worrisome brain is reminding you that you have four more days of this. Get used to the sting.

Safe Travels, by Billy Collins, New Yorker

Every time Gulliver travels
into another chapter of “Gulliver’s Travels”
I marvel at how well travelled he is
despite his incurable gullibility.