Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Japanese Scientists Plan to Clone Woolly Mammoth-UPDATED 9-11-12

Update(story here): Another team of scientists, this one Russian, have discovered mammoth remains, including soft tissue and bone marrow, in Siberia that may contain living cells. Further tests are needed to confirm the possibility. If living cells are recovered, they will be the first such find. The testing, however, will take months.
On a related note, the X Prize Foundation is developing a so-called Jurassic Park prize. The X Prize Foundation has also set up a prize for the first private spacecraft. The specifics are still being ironed out, but it will presumably go to the first group that is able to successfully clone a prehistoric animal. Unless they cop out and give it to the first team to do something corny like sequence its genome.

The original post is below.

Looks like we're one step closer to Jurassic Park.  Since 1997, a team of Japanese scientists have been attempting to clone a mammoth.  Their previous three attempts have failed, since freezing causes cellular damage that renders DNA taken from mammoth tissue pretty much useless.  However, Teruhiko Wakayama has recently developed a technique to successfully harvest DNA from a mouse that was frozen for 16 years.  The DNA was taken from the brain, which has a high concentrations of sugar which helps prevent damage due to freezing.  Using this DNA, he was able to create a "partially viable" embryo which he then cloned, creating living replicas of the mouse.  The hope is that this technique will enable the scientists to take the mammoth DNA and place it into the egg cell of an Asian Elephant (with the elephant DNA removed), which will be placed back into an elephant and allowed to gestate.  The hope is that, within six years, a woolly mammoth will walk the Earth for the first time in thousands of years.

As can be expected, the possibility of cloning an extinct animal has raised all sorts of ethical questions.  The scientists involved, which includes the Japanese scientists and others they invited from the US and Russia, are pondering issues such as breeding and displaying the animal.  I think there is almost an obligation to display this animal and any others that may be cloned in the future.  I think a legitimate argument can be made to include clones of extinct animals in the "Common Heritage of Mankind".  Breeding, however, is another matter.  Mammoths should certainly not be allowed to simply live and breed in the wild, since they would drastically affect the ecosystem into which they are placed.  I'm not sure allowing them to breed just to have the entire species live in a zoo is the right thing to do either.  Maybe, if it can be done properly, some sort of preserve could be set up to maintain a very small population.  Extremely careful measures would obviously have be taken to maintain population size.

A far more compelling question is where to draw the line.  The Neanderthal Genome Project has been working since 2006 to map out the genetic code of the Neanderthal.  Early results suggest Neanderthal DNA is 99.7% identical to that of today's human.  They had the capability for language, made advanced tools, and had developed a unique culture.  So would it be ethical to clone something so close to a human being?  What do you tell a cloned baby Neanderthal about its origins?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Fuck Censorship!

A publisher called NewSouth Books is printing an edition of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which the word "nigger" (used 219 times) is replaced with "slave" and "injun" removed entirely.  Some accept this change, saying that "nigger" has a much more offensive connotation today than it did in 1884.  Others believe it will make the book accessible to more children whose parents or schools banned the book because of its vocabulary.

I'll be honest.  I haven't read it.  There are arguments that Twain actually is critiquing the ideals behind racism in his novel by portraying Jim in an apparently positive light.  Others feel that, while this may be true, his otherwise Sambo-like behavior perpetuates racist attitudes unintentionally at best.  I'm sure there are those that simply believe Twain, by today's standards at the very least, is racist.

I don't care about any of that.  Censorship is simply wrong.  If you don't like an author's work, don't publish it.  You don't have the right to make the changes you would like to see.  One comment on an article about this issue said that, while censorship is generally bad, it's OK to censor "nigger" because it is so "weighted".  So censorship is OK as long as the word is really offensive?  And who is it that determines the offensiveness of a given work?

For what it' worth, I tend to side with those who believe Twain attacks racism while subconsciously engaging in it.  Although I haven't read the book, I do know that Huckleberry Finn is the narrator of the story.  Which means he, not Mark Twain, is telling the story.  When reading, one should never assume that the narrator and the author are the same person.  This might sound stupid, but it's the basis of all satire.  Look at Stephen Colbert.  His character on the Colbert Report is entirely different from the real Stephen Colbert.  Therefore, Twain's intentional choice to have the character Huckleberry Finn narrate the novel means that the reader is being told the story through the lens of a young boy growing up in the ante-bellum South.  That being said, it is inevitable that some of the author's unique experiences will find their way into the work.

Whatever Twain's intentions were, the original text offers a meaningful insight into the race relations of the late 19th century.  And they weren't pretty.  Literature isn't always meant to make you feel warm and fuzzy.  It should be meaningful, it should serve some sort of purpose.  Censorship doesn't just change a few words around, it turns art into propaganda.

Coincidentally, the publisher is NewSouth books, based in Alabama.  Is it me, or does the South seem to try really hard to distance itself from its racially-charged past?  It always cracks me up to hear them try to argue that slavery wasn't the major issue of the Civil War.