THELast week I woke up to a series of notifications warning me that a biotech company had secured US $ 15 million (AU $ 20.6 million) to sign up for a program to recreate prominent mammoths. to reintroduce them into the arctic tundra.
The reason for the flurry of emails and messages wasn’t that the story seemed to come out of a sci-fi novel, it was that it was something from a science fiction novel; in particular my novel, Ghost Species, which imagines the consequences of such a scheme.
My novel was not meant to be predictive in the strict sense of the word. Instead, I wanted to use it to reflect on a series of questions about climate catastrophe and inevitability, extinction and de-extinction and perhaps more importantly, what it might be like to be the last. – or the first – of its kind. Still, that’s not to say that there isn’t something deeply baffling about seeing one of his central vanities unfold in real life, or seeing the questions he was trying to ask made explicit.
In Ghost Species, it’s a tech billionaire who is behind the project, and indeed the even more ambitious project to recreate the Neanderthals that is at the heart of the book. However, like Colossal, the company behind the project announced last week, its ambitions are not limited to simply recreating mammoths. Instead, the reintroduction of mammoths to the Arctic is part of a latest effort to slow the melting of permafrost and the potentially catastrophic release of large amounts of methane by recreating the ecosystem that existed in the region during the Pleistocene.
The idea is not entirely fanciful: as the tundra warms, trees and moss replace the grassland that once dominated the region; their darker foliage traps heat, while their roots break up the soil, creating a feedback loop that speeds up the warming of the area. At least in theory, mammoths could help slow down this process by chopping down trees and leaving droppings that would fertilize the grass.
Whether this can be done on a large scale or within the necessary time frame seems unlikely. Some scientists estimate that 20,000 years ago there were mammoths up to 200 meters roaming the tundra. Even though the artificial uterus technology suggested by Colossal could be used to create them becomes a reality, that’s a lot of mammoths. Meanwhile, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change identifies permafrost collapse as one of 12 crucial tipping points that have the potential to lead to abrupt climate change.
Colossal’s scheme isn’t quite what it seems either. Despite the talk of de-extinction and resurrected species, they do not offer to clone mammoths from frozen specimens the Jurassic Park style. Instead, their plan is to take DNA from Asian elephants and graft genes into them that will produce woolly hair, increased fat deposits, and possibly longer tusks. This will create a mammoth version of an Asian elephant capable of withstanding arctic conditions.
There are obviously important questions about the ethics of such a regime. Do we have the right to create new species in this way? And even if we do, should we? But there are also other deeper concerns that we must take into account.
Animals are not simply biological machines or the sum of their genetic code. They exist within complex social and biological systems, entangled webs that link them to communities of other species and to their own. They have ways of being in the world, traditions, a culture.
Extinction is also not about the disappearance of the last member of a species – those uniquely grieving beings known as the end – instead, it is happening gradually and shrinking the world in unpredictable ways. As the philosopher Thom van Dooren observed, “Extinction is never a sudden, singular event – something that begins, happens quickly, and then ends”; rather, it is “a slow unwinding of intimately entangled lifestyles that begins long before the death of the last individual and continues to spread long after”.
Seen in this way, it becomes clear that resuscitating a species is not just about recreating the organism. Even assuming Colossal succeeds in creating an animal that resembles a mammoth, he does not to be a mammoth. Instead, it will be something new, a being – and possibly a species – who will have to learn new ways of being in the world if they are to survive.
For many, this will be unthinkable, a symptom of the same thought that got us into this mess in the first place. Yet as the planet is reshaped by global warming and other human impacts, species are disappearing at a terrifying rate. According to recent estimates, up to a million species are threatened with extinction due to human activity.
Most of these species will go almost unnoticed, mourned only by a handful of scientists. Like the climate crisis, halting this wave of extinction requires the transformation of human society and activity. But we will also face difficult choices about how prepared we are to protect endangered species and restore damaged ecosystems.
And whether or not Colossal succeeds in restoring mammoths to the tundra, it seems likely that de-extinction technologies will play a role in this process.