We call them 'woolly' mammoths for a reason

John M. Crisp
Tribune News Service
Co-founders of Colossal, Ben Lamm, left, and Dr. George Church.

Ben Lamm and George Church are thinking big. Their new bioscience and genetics startup is called Colossal, and Colossal’s first project is mammoth. Literally.

Lamm, an entrepreneur, and Church, a renowned Harvard geneticist, are planning to “de-extinct” the woolly mammoth, the massive, tusked beast that roamed the cold northern steppes during the Pleistocene. The last mammoth died 4,000 years ago on Wrangel Island, a final frigid outpost in the Arctic Ocean.

In an Austin American-Statesman interview, Lamm doesn’t hide his breathless enthusiasm: “I truly believe that Colossal will not only be the first company to bring back extinct species, starting with the woolly mammoth,” but he believes also that reintroducing the mammoth will “help slow down carbon emissions in the region and help restore lost ecosystems.”

Lamm says that Colossal’s goal is “not just the successful resurrection of the woolly mammoth, but it’s (sic) full rewilding into the Arctic.”

Why do I detect the familiar whiff of snake oil, the heady aroma that attracts headlines and startup funds?

For one thing, this story depends heavily on its sensational Rip Van Winkle quality, the idea that a species that last saw the light of day 4,000 years ago can be reawakened to assume its ecological niche on the Arctic tundra.

In fairness, Lamm and Church don’t try very hard to hide this sleight-of-hand. But, of course, the woolly mammoth isn’t being “resurrected.” Colossal will use advanced gene-editing techniques to copy preserved mammoth genes into the genome of an Asian elephant in order to generate in its offspring “increased body fat, characteristic shaggy hair, sebaceous gland development, a domed cranium, shorter ears and tail, as well as cold-adapted hemoglobin that would better allow for oxygen transfer in the bloodstream in the cold.”

Thus an Asian elephant surrogate will gestate and bear a cold-tolerant, shaggy, small-eared, short-tailed, high-domed elephant-mammoth hybrid that will look “very similar” to a real woolly mammoth.

Lamm, ignoring the elephant in the womb, pictures it differently: “The result will not be just an elephant-mammoth hybrid, but it will both look and function as a full woolly mammoth.” He knows that Rip Van Winkle is the story that his audience wants to hear.

Lamm envisions vast herds of mammoths repopulating the frigid north and reinvigorating the frozen tundra. But real mammoths were woolly for a reason: During their heyday the north really was frigid and the mammoths’ woolly coats kept them warm. As the globe’s last ice age came to an end, so did the woolly mammoth. They succumbed to climate change.

Species go extinct for a reason and according to a pitiless logic imposed by nature. The irony of Colossal’s de-extinction project is that it hopes to reintroduce woolly mammoths into an environment for which they are no longer suited and which we show no signs of preventing from growing even warmer and, thus, more unsuitable.

I suspect that if Colossal is able to produce a few elephant-mammoth hybrids, they’re unlikely to grow into teeming multitudes that will “rewild” the Arctic. In fact, they’re more likely to become commodities, exhibits in zoos and nature parks. In other words, oddities and amusements. Eventually trophy hunters will pay top dollar to bag a “mammoth.” The proceeds will go into research to “save the species.”

If this seems unduly cynical, note that this is the role into which we are already forcing most of our remaining megafauna.

The age of the woolly mammoth has come and gone, and the elephant-mammoth hybrid will be a poor substitute. But the Rip Van Winkle fantasy is attractive. One wonders what the woolly mammoth would “think” upon opening his eyes after 4,000 years of extinction and beholding his former habitat: melting permafrost, diminishing sea ice, and seemingly irreversible warming temperatures.

At first he might be sympathetic. His species was a victim of climate change, too. His sympathy might fade when he discovers that we, the only species capable of maintaining the health of its own environment, might have done something about it. But we could not muster the will to act.

— John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas.