does our planet need a biological reset button?

Can we recreate life on Earth after a mass extinction? And if we could, do we really want to?
dinosaurs before impact

It’s been quite a while since I last beat up on that Weekly World News of pop science, The Daily Galaxy. If you recall, this is the heavily trafficked magazine style blog posting breathless, and often factually deficient stories about discoveries that will supposedly make us immortal, inventing their own biological terminology with a liberal application of cutting and pasting, trying to resell nearly decade old discoveries as earth-shattering news, and jumping on the Singularity bandwagon with wild abandon. This time though, they’ve taken a page from the scientist who thought it would be a great idea to pass off the plot of Star Trek as legit astrobiology, and dedicated a page to a slightly more realistic rip-off of Titan A.E. According to The Galaxy, there are plans for a repository of genetic material for all life on Earth, as well as important human artifacts to be stationed on the Moon so we could recreate the world as we know it after a mass extinction event or an epic catastrophe.

Talk about ideas that are fun to think about but are practically unworkable. Sure, we absolutely need to return to the lunar surface if we want to figure out how to survive in deep space for long periods of time, but huge genetic repositories and museums on the Moon are things we’d consider only when getting there is as quick and simple as a transoceanic flight is today. Actually storing genetic samples to recreate our biosphere is an immense task that’s fraught with a myriad of problems of which The Galaxy doesn’t even seem to be aware in the slightest. There are more than 1.5 million species of living things on our planet. That we know of. To store just a few samples of each species would take many years of concerted effort, an enormous amount of cash and resources, and the lab facilities where they could be stored to survive on an alien world bombarded by a dangerously high level of radiation is probably not going to come cheap either. The genetic samples wouldn’t just have to wait to be used. They would have to survive constant radioactive bombardment of cosmic rays, as well as the occasional solar temper tantrum.

Worse yet, what are you going to do with those millions of samples? Grow five or six specimens of randomly chosen species, then wait for millions and millions of years until they repopulate a desolate Earth if a comet suddenly strikes the planet? The sheer lack of major genetic variety will doom your experiment from the start, and you’d need thousands of specimens and billions of samples to even consider something like this. Your costs and requirements just went up three orders of magnitude, and considering that the project wouldn’t be viable from the beginning, that’s definitely not encouraging. Besides, if something were to happen to Earth in the far future and humanity has the tools to survive, is it a good idea to interfere? It was a cosmic oddball that allowed mammals to take over the planet from the dinosaurs. Without that impact, there would probably be no us. Why not just let nature do what it does best and study how species adapt to mass extinctions, and what happens after they eek out an ecological niche for themselves?

As tempting as it is to have a reset button for the world as we know it, not only is it grossly impractical and very likely to fail if it’s ever used, but it’s probably unneeded in the first place. We know our world changes and if we have the tools to survive something like a comet impact, chances are that humans could travel to other worlds by that time, making Earth an important world, but not necessarily a crucial one. Maybe, our hypothetical post- habitable Earth humans would view it as a perfect blank slate to be remade into whatever they’d rather have it instead of looking for a way to change everything back to the way it was over the next ten million years…

[ illustration by CG artist H. Jakowlew ]

# science // daily galaxy / doomsday scenarios / moon

  Show Comments