On a frigid January night, a Harvard genetics professor with a billowing white beard stood stage left in a theater on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, an icon of the environmentalist movement in a fleece vest beside him. Both men were staring down a toothy problem: How could they convince their counterparts on the stage, along with the 300 people who’d filed into Hunter College’s Kaye Playhouse for a debate, that the world should bring back velociraptors or, at the very least, an extinct pigeon?
The theme from the 1993 blockbuster “Jurassic Park” was playing in the background, chiseling away at their argument before the debate even began. In the film, based on the 1990 Michael Crichton bestseller, dinosaurs are brought back from extinction to fill a theme park. “That film took sides. The experiment blows up. People get hurt,” moderator John Donvan told the crowd during introductions. “But not before actor Jeff Goldblum declares, ‘Scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.’ And then, a dinosaur eats Jeff Goldblum.”
Actually, a dinosaur does not eat Goldblum’s brainy and brawny mathematician character, but chaos certainly reigns in the movie and its myriad sequels because of de-extinction. Those images are what George Church, 64, of the billowing white beard, who helped launch the Human Genome Project, and Stewart Brand, 80, of the fleece vest, who is a founder and editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, would need to overcome to win this evening’s debate.