I recently read an article in the New York Times that details how scientists are on the verge of giving extinct animals a new lease on life. I’m hazy on the science behind their reincarnation efforts, but it has something to do with plugging the extinct animal’s DNA into an embryo that can be carried by a similar present-day creature. For example, an elephant might be used to gestate a wooly mammoth calf – and then the world would once again have fuzzy little puffball baby elephants. Which is adorable. If science makes this happen, the internet might cease to have any other function beyond housing and distributing footage of baby mammoths, in all their oxymoronic and anachronistic snuffleupagus-ian glory.
Of course, there are potentially more dangerous and ethically troubling consequences to genetic engineering. Just before happening on the Times article, I read Margaret Atwood’s 2003 speculative fiction novel Oryx and Crake. The book (named after two creatures that have had their own run-ins with extinction) imagines a dystopian near-future where genetic manipulation is the next – and potentially final – bubble industry. Animals are being spliced together, virulent strains of disease are hybridized and weaponized, and humanoid beings are artificially constructed, all in ways that feel like a fiction that we are on the precipice of making reality.
The story begins at the end, after it all has already fallen apart. Snowman is our bizarrely-named protagonist and through his flashbacks we witness a world run by corporations resolute in their push to topple the boundaries of nature in order to secure new products and dominate world markets. The research and development of the new products – say, human organs grown in pigs, or headless, plantlike chickens that will perennially regrow breasts– is cutthroat, with murder being a legitimate business practice. Employees of the corporations live comfortably, in guarded compounds separate from the clamoring, unwashed masses. The city dwellers, or “Plebeians” as they’re called derisively, live in an environment rife with disease and vice, the population being useful to those in the compounds only as consumers and occasional sex objects.
Like most dystopian novels, Oryx and Crake reads as a warning about unchecked human ambition and our disregard for the natural order. It brings to the fore grave concerns about our society’s ability to manage the entanglement of science and industry. With that said, I still think we should go full speed ahead on the fuzzy elephant thing.