Is the whole “let’s bring back the woolly mammoth” more fiction than fact?
For close to five million years, woolly mammoths roamed the earth. However, around 4,000 years ago, these hairy elephant-like creatures disappeared. Climate change, not humans, killed off these magnificent creatures. Although humans didn’t kill them off, they may very well bring them back to life. A team of cryptocurrency enthusiasts, including Charles Hoskinson, the founder of the Cardano blockchain platform, and Paris Hilton, a once highly influential celebrity, are part of a team trying to resurrect the woolly mammoth, quite literally.
Along with a number of other wealthy individuals, both Hoskinson and Hilton have invested in Colossal, a genetics and biosciences company founded by Ben Lamm and George Church, a world-renowned geneticist. Not only is the aforementioned Hoskinson investing in the woolly mammoth, according to the good folks at Bitcoinist, he also wants to use blockchain technology to register the intellectual property rights of all future Colossal-related projects. In an attempt to create a woolly mammoth embryo, one wonders what role, if any, blockchain would serve.
Carsten Rudolph, a researcher at Monash University’s Blockchain Centre, told me that Hoskinson might be using “the idea of bringing back the woolly mammoth as a vehicle to get attraction” for Cardano, a company that is struggling to get a foothold in the world of crypto. Is Carsten right? In truth, we don’t know. Perhaps. In the world of crypto, stranger things have happened. Far stranger things.
Right now, more important questions need to be asked. The first is this: is the whole “let’s bring back the woolly mammoth” more fiction than fact? Is it just a load of hot air designed to titillate, get tongues wagging? Daniel Field, a palaeontologist at the University of Cambridge, certainly thinks so. He told TRT World, that vague discussions about bringing back mammoths tend to surface in the news every few months. In fact, this has been the case since Field joined the field (no pun intended)—some ten years ago.
According to Field, these discussions often include statements like "our ability to bring back extinct species is just around the corner," or, "we have the technology to do this—but should we?" He's right. A decade ago, around the time Field became a palaeontologist, talk of resurrecting the woolly mammoth was all the rage. But talk is cheap.
Understandably, Field finds these discussions tedious, saying that if it’s as doable as they claim then he wants to see the baby woolly mammoth.
So should Hoskinson and his crypto friends really be striving to bring back the mammoth? Field thinks it’s a completely rhetorical question, “because, dollars to doughnuts, Charles Hoskinson ain't [sic] gonna be bringing back bona fide mammoths any time soon.”
What about the ethical implication of bringing back our woolly friend? Field wonders if “the subject of mammoth de-extinction warrants the incredible amount of media attention—and money—that are often lavished on it.” He believes that the conservation of “our planet's natural ecosystems and the biodiversity that depends on them is arguably the most important challenge humanity faces at the moment.”
Concerning ethics, he thinks “investing lots of money on mammoth de-extinction at the expense of funding ecosystem conservation is highly dubious indeed.” Field says that if he had the monetary means of Charles Hoskinson then he would focus his philanthropic efforts on conservation.
"We can just bring it back"
David Martill, one of the finest palaeontologists in the UK, is torn between “fascination and fear of the unknown.” He expanded on this point by adding, “imagine if it was really possible to clone a woolly mammoth.” This animal is, after all “one of the most iconic creatures from prehistory. It would be fantastic to see a living example. Some humans saw them prior to their extinction. I would have loved to have seen that world.”
However, today is not 4,000 years ago, “we do not have a complete mammoth genome from which to clone a living example, so the best we can do is create a chimera. Do I really want to see that?”
Do any of us? Martill wonders what sort of deformities it might have, so although he wants to see the cloning, he only wants it to go ahead only if it will be 100 percent successful.
If the mammoth did return, be it a grotesque creation or otherwise, where would it live? Charles Hoskinson owns a ranch, but is it equipped to welcome woolly mammoths? Probably not. If it did return, maybe it would live “in large protected areas of the great plains,” said Field.
According to Peter Falkingham, a palaeontologist at Liverpool John Moores University in the UK, it would find itself living not in large protected areas but in a specialist enclosure, perhaps later a zoo. Yes, a zoo. “It’s not going to be roaming free,” said Falingham, “and there are not going to be herds let into the wild.” Hence, it will lead to a “pretty naff existence.” Naff, for the uninitiated, is British slang for rubbish.
Falkingham doesn’t really see any ethical problems, “beyond the allocation of resources that might be better put to something else (e.g. bringing back species that have gone extinct more recently as a direct result of habitat loss etc).” However, considering our society is “consumptionist” to the point of nonchalance, Falkingham believes this is a bit of a moot point.
“Is it really a worse allocation of resources than the money and expertise that goes into Facebook instead of algorithms to help cure cancer, or even effect positive social change?” He asked, one assumes rhetorically. He imagines that “a lone mammoth…would be poked and prodded more than most captive animals. But then it might also get more care/enrichment etc because so many public eyes are on it.”
In short, Falkingham is somewhat conflicted and confused, as are so many of us when it comes to discussing these matters. Are there any benefits at all to bringing back the woolly mammoth? Falkingham thinks that the “benefits might be unseen—there might be advances in the general understanding of genetics.” Of course, he added, “it would be a pretty significant outreach/public milestone. It would get people interested in genetics, and extinction.”
However, the downsides, like people becoming “blasé about things becoming extinct” might outweigh the upsides. Then again, he added, “it’s not like most of the world’s population stay awake at night worried about species of frog or bear going extinct now.” According to the renowned palaeontologist, the kind of people who would say “don’t worry about the panda, we can just bring it back” are probably the same people that currently say “don’t worry about the panda, it would go extinct anyway.”
To conclude, Falkingham views the woolly mammoth resurrection debate in the same way that he views the space race. Good if it happens, just to show the world that it can be done. Moreover, it could result in technical and scientific advances we can’t yet imagine. He balanced this point by conceding that there are “valid arguments that it’s not the best use of money, time and resources right now” and questions what would be done to the mammoth if it did come back.
Turn it into an NFT, one imagines. If the woolly mammoth does make a return, like Jesus rising from the dead, expect to see a Woollycoin hit the crypto market. Also, expect to see the aforementioned Paris Hilton promoting it.