Last week I woke up to a string of notifications alerting me to the news a biotech company had secured US$15m (A$20.6m) to underwrite a scheme to recreate mammoths with a view to reintroducing them onto the Arctic tundra.
The reason for the flurry of emails and messages wasn’t that the story seemed like something out of a science fiction novel, it was that it was something out of a science fiction novel; specifically my novel, Ghost Species, which imagines the consequences of just such a scheme.
My novel wasn’t supposed to be predictive in any narrow sense. Instead I wanted to use it to think through a series of questions about climate catastrophe and inevitability, extinction and de-extinction and perhaps most importantly, what it might be like to be the last – or the first – of one’s kind. Yet that doesn’t mean there isn’t something deeply disconcerting about witnessing one of its central conceits play out in real life, or seeing the questions it 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 Neanderthals that lies at the book’s heart. Yet, like Colossal, the company behind the scheme announced last week, his ambitions are not confined to merely recreating mammoths. Instead the reintroduction of mammoths to the Arctic is part of a last ditch effort to slow down the melting of the permafrost, and the potentially catastrophic release of vast amounts of methane by recreating the ecosystem that existed in the region during the Pleistocene.
The idea isn’t entirely fanciful: as the tundra warms, trees and moss are replacing the grassland that once dominated the area; their darker foliage traps heat, while their roots break up the soil, creating a feedback loop that causes the region to warm faster. At least in theory mammoths could help slow this process by knocking down trees and leaving droppings that would fertilise grass.
Whether this could be done at scale, or in the timeframe needed seems unlikely. Some scientists estimate that 20,000 years ago there were as many as 200m mammoths roaming the tundra. Even if the artificial womb technology Colossal have suggested might be used to create them becomes a reality, that’s a lot of mammoths. Meanwhile the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change identifies the collapse of the permafrost as one of 12 crucial tipping points that have the potential to lead to abrupt climate change.
Nor is Colossal’s scheme quite what it seems. Despite the talk of de-extinction, and resurrected species, they’re not proposing cloning mammoths from frozen specimens Jurassic Park-style. Instead their plan involves taking the DNA of Asian elephants and splicing in genes that will produce woolly hair, increased fat deposits and presumably longer tusks. This will create a mammoth-like version of an Asian elephant capable of withstanding Arctic conditions.
There are obviously significant questions about the ethics of such a scheme. 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 we need to consider.
Animals are not simply biological machines or the sum of their genetic code. They exist within complex social and biological systems, webs of entanglement that bind them to communities of other species and their own. They have ways of being in the world, traditions, culture.
Nor is extinction really about the disappearance of the last member of a species – those uniquely grief-charged beings known as endlings – instead it takes place incrementally, and diminishes the world in unpredictable ways. As the philosopher Thom van Dooren has observed, “extinction is never a sharp, singular event – something that begins, rapidly takes place, and then is over and done with”; instead it is “a slow unravelling of intimately entangled ways of life that begins long before the death of the last individual and continues to ripple long afterwards”.
Seen like this it becomes clear that resurrecting a species is not simply about recreating the organism. Even assuming Colossal succeeds in creating an animal that looks like a mammoth, it will not be a mammoth. Instead it will be something new, a being – and perhaps eventually a species – that will have to learn new ways of being in the world if it is to survive.
For many this will be unthinkable, a symptom of the same thinking that got us into this mess in the first place. Yet as the planet is reshaped by global heating and other human impacts, species are disappearing at a terrifying rate. According to recent estimates, up to a million species face extinction due to human activity.
Most of these species will pass almost unnoticed, mourned only by a handful of scientists. Like the climate crisis, holding back this tide of extinction demands the transformation of human society and activity. But we will also be confronted with difficult choices about how far we are prepared to protect threatened species and restore damaged ecosystems.
And whether or not Colossal succeed in restoring mammoths to the tundra, it seems likely de-extinction technologies will play a part in that process.
• James Bradley is an Australian novelist and critic