About ten years ago, a Dutch Chemist named Paul Crutzen coined the term Anthropocene to describe the modern era of humanity. Crutzen won a Nobel Price for discovering the effects of ozone-depleting compounds and hence was at the beginning of the whole humans-are-to-blame-for-climate-change conversation. He argued that we had come to the end of the Holocene era, which started at the end of the last ice age around 11 thousand years ago, and were now entering a new geologic epoch, the Age of Man, where we have the power to both destroy and save the world.
An example of this can be seen if you go to the University of Nottingham in England. For the last twenty years or so, the University has been home to the Frozen Ark Project, which was set up by a consortium of 22 major zoos, aquariums, museums and research institutes after they concluded that over the next 50 years, at least 30% of all land and marine life will go extinct due to man-made causes. They decided that they would create a vault to store frozen DNA from endangered species before they go extinct, in the hopes that someday in the future science will find a way to revive those species, a la Jurassic Park.
Remember that movie? A scientist discovers a way to bring back the dinosaurs by using ancient DNA recovered from fossils and suddenly his private island in the Pacific is teeming with dinos of all shapes and sizes, all of them living peacefully. Until, of course, something gows horribly wrong and the bad dinos start eating all the scientists!
There’s a book by best-sellinh author Diane Ackerman called the Human Age that talks about this concept of the Age of Man and the thing I like about it is that she remains highly optimistic that mankind will find a way to fix all the things we’ve broken, including the environment, but that’s only going to happen through the use of technology.
Take the Frozen Ark Project. We are already creating all sorts of organs and other body parts for animals and even humans using DNA tissue, so I don’t think that the possibility of recreating an entire species is that far-fetched. I mean, I don’t to bring back Neanderthals or T-Rex, the bad boy from Jurassic Park, but there are life forms that we should consider bringing back, if possible.
Of course, this opens up a Pandora’s box of ethical questions, but I think just the fact that we can think that it’s possible means that we are the verge of something very big. For example, there are fewer useful drugs available to fight the growing number of pathogens that are becoming resistant to existing treatments so scientists are looking at new ways to fight disease, in particular the idea of the designer drugs that are engineered in labs using a person’s DNA to create a treatment unique to that person. That type of technology is available now, and scientists around the world are experimenting with those kind of treatments.
The Age of Man is not going to be a smooth easy ride, I suspect, but I think we are becoming more interested in solving problems than creating them and I’m excited for the future.