Is my old school really ready to bring back the extinct woolly mammoth and, if so, where would they keep it, in the quad? There’s a big wall around the main campus with iron gates, but no one seriously thinks that would work. The Pittsburgh Zoo has an elephant sanctuary in Western Pennsylvania established a few years back but how well it is working no one knows because they decline interviews and visits from journalists. They are also charged by PITA with various violations and dropped their accreditation over complaints about improper contacts between animals and keepers.

What’s the bottom line?

Harvard really isn’t quite ready to start bringing back extinct species, but they are getting closer. Close enough, in fact, to start looking at whether it is really a good idea. Jurassic Park Harvard Square may seem a romantic notion, but is it better to spend tens or hundreds of millions resurrecting species which had their chance and died out, or to spend millions on keeping endangered species alive?

One factor to consider is that while the mammoth and the saber-toothed tiger died out due to natural events - changes in their environment long before man could have any effect, many if not all of today’s endangered species are on the verge of Extinction due entirely to mankind destroying their environment or killing them off to make carvings out of their tusks, or aphrodisiacs out of their horns (Rhinos.)

In other words, it should be possible for endangered species to continue living and even expanding their range in the current climatic conditions with just a few minor changes, but many of the extinct species would have to be cared for in special enclosures if they were resurrected.

The woolly mammoth, for example, lived in the extreme Arctic which is, itself, endangered, so where would they live?

Birds of a feather

Other scientists are working on the technology to resurrect birds, in particular the passenger pigeon which should be less controversial since they were killed off by man, having gone from the most abundant bird species in North America (an estimated 3 billion) to extinct in just a few decades.

Just how would these species be recreated in a lab? How does de-extinction work?

Some of those involved in the work of reversing extinction have coined the new term “de-extinction” to describe the recreation of extinct animals and (presumably) plants. The technique requires gene splicing which has only recently become practical with the invention of the CRISPR-Cas9 machine.

The so-called CRISPR revolution has made removal, splicing, and otherwise manipulating DNA relatively easy, so easy that, in the words of one actor in Jurassic Park (I), the people doing it haven’t “earned” the right to perform such enormous, magnificent, and even risky experiments by thoroughly understanding what they are doing.

Think of them as cooks who use a book vs a chef who understands molecular gastronomy.