Mammoth in the Room

Should we resurrect the woolly mammoth?

Mammoth in the Room

Should we resurrect the woolly mammoth?

When the rosy wolfsnail was introduced to Hawaii to control agricultural pests, the native Achatinella apexfulva snails were in trouble. The small, yellow-shelled creatures were no match for their foreign counterparts, which should be obvious when you learn the rosy wolfsnail’s other name: the cannibal snail.

When they realised the population was in decline, scientists made a last-ditch attempt to save the Achatinella apexfulva. They went to Hawaii and collected all the known specimens to breed them in safe captivity, but to no avail. The last Achatinella apexfulva passed away on the 2nd of January 2019. His name was George.

Almost every species that ever existed is extinct. George the Snail is only one example of an “endling”: an individual who is the last surviving member of their species. When they die, the species goes extinct, a phenomenon that’s becoming ever more common.

In fact, in the time it will take you to read this article, a species will go extinct somewhere in the world.

That’s equivalent to 100,000 species going extinct every year. And that rate is speeding up: more than one in four species on Earth now faces extinction, rising to half by the end of the century unless we take urgent action. It’s called the Sixth Mass Extinction — and it’s threatening life as we know it.

Part of the problem is that once a species is gone, it’s gone forever. As Carl Sagan aptly said, “Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.” Nature doesn’t do resurrection.

But what if it did?

In September 2021, a software entrepreneur got together with a Harvard geneticist, who is incidentally also named George. Ben Lamm and George Church formed a new company called Colossal, with a single goal in mind: to make a mammoth.

More specifically, Colossal wants to take the DNA of an Asian elephant, the closest living relative of the woolly mammoth, and make it more mammoth-like. To do this, they plan to extract a certain portion of the mammoth genome—the parts responsible for their shaggy coat, small ears, and extra fatty tissue—and, using cutting-edge CRISPR gene-editing technology, insert it into an Asian elephant stem cell.

Using this stem cell, Lamm and Church hope to create an  elephant-mammoth hybrid egg, which will either be implanted in a surrogate Asian elephant or an artificial womb—it’s all very Jurassic Park.

Behind the scientific question of can we do it, is the deeper conundrum that shadows all technological advancements: Should we do it?

Advocators of the cult of progress argue that we should do it because we can do it. As Oxford educator Jonny Thomson puts it: “Progress and discovery are worthy on their own terms.”

To put it crudely: mammoths are cool.

But that’s a rather circular argument, and not one we’d normally accept. Few would tolerate designer babies selected for skin colour or other immutable characteristics. Chinese biophysicist He Jiankui faced torrential criticism when he announced using CRISPR to genetically edit two twins to be HIV-resistant.

That’s without mentioning the animal welfare concerns about putting a genetically foreign “novel” species into an Asian Elephant.

As scientists themselves protest, science is amoral. It is we who decide right from wrong.

Still, there’s some merit to the argument. Achieving a mammoth resurrection, of a kind, would be a monumental achievement—likely to teach valuable lessons for gene-editing. Though in its infancy, CRISPR already holds the promise of curing diseases like muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, and even cancer.

Perhaps a little tweaking of elephant genes might help us solve the mammoth problem of incurable illnesses. And then, there’s also the ecological argument.

Deep in the heart of Siberia, Pleistocene Park is a nature reserve attempting to recreate the mammoth steppe: a lost ecosystem that once spread from Spain to Canada. Into this reserve have been released species similar to those that lived during the Pleistocene—or, to use its colloquial term, the Ice Age.

Pleistocene Park aims to slow down the changing climate by bringing back the glacier-friendly environment of the steppe. It boasts of surviving Arctic natives such as the wapiti and the musk-ox. Joining them is the dense-haired, cold-resistant Yauktian horse, which has been deployed in place of its prehistoric counterparts; there are others too, like the Saiga, a critically endangered antelope of the Eurasian steppe that once roamed from England and France to Siberia, Alaska, and possibly Canada.

Despite all these beasts, though, there’s one notable absence: the mammoths themselves.

Mammoths were important players in the Pleistocene ecosystem, not least due to their propensity to knock down trees and let their grassland ecosystem flourish. (It has been quipped that the Ice Age could well have been named the Grass Age, for the varied and diverse ecosystem that its grasslands supported). Without these colossal herbivores, can the team at Pleistocene Park ever hope to rejuvenate the ecosystem, much less restore it to its former glory?

To restore or rewild? That’s the question facing ecologists in the 21st century. But, as I have pointed out in my earlier piece The Last Remaining Wilds of Planet Earth, what we think of as wild is often the overgrown remains of lost native cultures. When repairing damaged ecosystems, should we recreate a past epoch: and if so, when? Before humans came along? Before agriculture? Before the industrial revolution?

Or should we rewild to create novel ecosystems without historical precedent? After all, is it right to try to leave an ecosystem without keystone species just because they weren’t found naturally?

Somewhere in the midst of this debate is the problem of mammoth resurrection. The Pleistocene Park wouldn’t be exactly Pleistocene without the mammoths—and that’s without mentioning the woolly rhinoceros, cave lions, and all manner of species that went extinct when early humans first strolled onto the scene. By bringing back the mammoth, we would in some ways be fixing our past mistakes.

The proposed hybrid isn’t a real mammoth, but does that really matter? To paraphrase an old saying, if it looks like a mammoth and walks like a mammoth: it’s probably a mammoth.

If this resurrection of species—and others like it—can restore ecosystem functioning to a damaged landscape, would that be worth it? Is ecological health greater than natural purity?

Meddlesome though we are, there is another option: the George Carlin argument. Named this time after the late great comedian, it’s an idea unrecognisable to scientists more used to prodding and poking. To quote the man himself:

“Saving endangered species is just one more arrogant attempt by humans to control nature. It’s arrogant meddling; it’s what got us in trouble in the first place. Doesn’t anybody understand that?”

“Let them go gracefully,” he continues later. “Leave nature alone. Haven’t we done enough?”

Let’s look at forest fires, or wildfires. Most people would think wildfires are bad for a forest or any natural landscape, but that is actually not true.

In the dry season, dead plants and other such matter on the ground start piling up. This prevents animals from accessing the soil, and blocks soil-dwelling creatures from accessing nutrients inside. Dead organic matter also prevents small plants and trees from growing because they can’t get sunlight underneath all the matter.

Wildfire also increases soil fertility: nutrients are released a lot quicker from burned matter and return to the soil faster than if the dead organic matter had been allowed to decay over time.

Today, the wildfires raging across the planet are partly due to misguided suppression in the past. Without small blazes to clear them, burnable material has now piled up to create immense conflagrations.

Meanwhile, in Hawaii, the invasive cannibal snail remakes the environment to its own liking: an environment possibly very different from the original, but an environment nonetheless. One can’t help but imagine that any woolly mammoths, when released onto the Siberian plains, will alter the world in new and unpredictable ways as well.

Maybe George has got a point.