Friday, March 15, 2013

Bless the beasts

We have an abomination duck in our neighborhood.  Or goose.  Maybe he’s a goose. 

He’s tall and bulky like a goose.  White body.  Orange feet.  And a big green mallard head. 

When you first lay eyes on him, it’s a bit like watching “The Exorcist” for the first time:  that famous scene when Linda Blair’s head rotates ever so slowly.  All.  The way.  Around.   

Your brain does a double take and your reflex is to squint and turn away.  Nothing’s supposed to look like that.  It’s wrong on so many levels.  

But you must look again.  What IS that?  Ewww!  An abomination duck! 

Something funny’s going on in the barnyard.  A recombining of critters.  A reordering of genes. 

The other “regular” geese make no distinction, bless their ecumenical selves.  But no true mallards linger in the vicinity.  Perhaps someone’s feeling sheepish about the consequences of his behavior.  Not to mix metaphors.   

Ugh.  More creepiness. 

I had the same reaction when I watched a Big Think Big Idea video on that crazy contraption, the internet.  Some scientist talking about “de-extinction.” 

Stewart Brand, of the Revive and Restore Project, is working with ecologists and biologists all over the world to “de-extinct” the passenger pigeon, among other long departed species.  “The world misses them,” he says. 

So these brainiacs collected the DNA of the extinct passenger pigeon (that’s right, there’s a bunch of deceased passenger pigeon bodies complete with DNA in a hermetically sealed jar on Funk & Wagnall’s porch), and they’re combining it with the DNA of the passenger pigeon’s closest living relative, the band-tailed pigeon.   

And voila!  A “nearly perfect” hybrid version of that passenger pigeon we’ve been pining for since 1912.  The one that flew across the eastern seaboard in flocks a mile wide and 400 miles long, blackening the sky. 

I don’t know.  I wasn’t there to see that spectacle, so it’s probably unfair to refer to anything like, say, locusts, or guano.  As usual, I’m superficially informed, so maybe our ecosystem suffers from the passing of billions of squab.  You’d think so.  It hasn’t made headlines, that’s all. 

And somehow, “nearly perfect” evokes that skin-crawly sensation of a Stepford-ish creation fluttering around the lab, “better” than the original, but flawed in an invisible way that we only discover, to our horror, when thousands of them assemble on the swing set outside the schoolhouse in Bodega Bay.   

Seriously, should we be doing this?  I mean after all, you’ve seen “Jurassic Park,” right?  “The Island of Dr. Moreau”?  And what about the abomination duck? 

Clearly, these guys are not moviegoers.  Like Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman, they’re blithely tripping along reviving an array of long-dead creatures, piece-mealing them together using the brain of Abbey Normal. 

They’re reconstituting the beast of the southern wild!  Yes, really.  The aurochs of little Hushpuppy’s nightmares!  Coming soon to a bad dream near you.   

Oh, I’ll admit my bleeding little heart is torn over this whole concept.  I certainly don’t want ANY more species going extinct.  It’s wrong.  We must stop trampling across the planet like so many arrogant and thoughtless clods, oblivious to the harm we inflict. 

And of course there’s the guilt.  The heart-crushing devastating shame and self-reproach we carry when faced with our record of snuffing out beautiful, irreplaceable animals.  But that’s what makes each one precious, isn’t it?  Once they’re gone…  

Are we absolving ourselves of the theft when we restore a nearly perfect version of what we stole?  They’re saying that the beast, the aurochs, will be returned to its ecological role of turning barren landscapes to productive meadows.  So that’s good.   

But something internal recoils in the face of reanimation.  Mary Shelley and all.  We’re not supposed to be messing with THAT, are we? 

Even the audience watching Stewart Brand shifted uneasily in their seats, applauding tentatively, doing their best to support their guy.  But he’s starting to look like Christopher Lloyd and sound like Dr. Strangelove as he paces on stage in front of a giant screen, clicking through slides of mystic creatures and fantastic scenarios.  

Yeah, we have to atone for our sins.  But not so literally, please.  Remember “The Monkey’s Paw”?  We don’t get “overs.”