George Church has a beard like God’s.
Each whisker contains helices of DNA
that curve like mammoth tusks.
Church and his team work to resurrect
the woolly mammoth, or rather, to create
an approximation of it—an elephant cousin
adapted to the Arctic.
The morning of Jesus’ resurrection, the women
named Mary came to his sepulcher, the angel
of the Lord descended with an earthquake,
and soldiers fainted from fear. He is risen,
the angel said, as the empty tomb echoed.
Jesus walked nearby in the sun.
When his disciples saw him,
They worshiped him: but some doubted.
This is what the Bible says.
The Bible is a very long poem.
You can edit a genome like a manuscript.
Take that out. Put this in. Here are genes
for woolly hair, thicker fat, smaller ears.
In the next draft, explore those more.
Like a fantasy writer, Church is a world builder.
Or rebuilder. But how can he finish the series
in his lifetime? Here’s a breakdown:
Book I: Determine which genes were essential
to woolly mammoths’ survival in the Arctic.
Book II (half-written): Edit those genes
into the Asian elephant genome.
Book III (unwritten): Grow a mammophant embryo
in an artificial womb. Monitor it more closely
than the tomb where Jesus developed into Christ.
Book IV (unwritten): Breed enough healthy mammophants
to populate Sergey and Nikita Zimov’s Pleistocene Park in Siberia.
Book V (unwritten): See how it goes.
In the movies, when scientists forge ahead
despite ethical concerns, everything goes to hell.
Some say the Woolly Mammoth Revival Project
undermines the essence of conservation. Push a species
to extinction through climate change, habitat loss,
and poaching? No problem, we’ll bring it back.
And wouldn’t the funds be better used to protect
surviving species? Yes, but there isn’t just one
pot of money, one grand arbiter to dole it out.
My father is a lawyer who, like me, was raised
on Christianity. He believes in right and wrong,
legal and illegal, heaven and hell.
My mother is a biologist. She believes in science
but also in Jesus. My father believes in Jesus
but also in science. Once I believed in both,
now I believe in one. The world is full of wonders.
In our family travels, we saw marvels with our own eyes.
Zion, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon,
Kenya’s Maasai Mara, Peruvian rainforests,
the Galápagos Islands where we swam
with penguins and marine iguanas.
In South Dakota, we arced our necks
at the Mammoth Site, as fossilized skeletons
all but trumpeted, You hunted us, you hunted us,
you decimated us. I walked beneath a giant ribcage
and shuddered with graveyard guilt—that feeling
that you’re trespassing. I wished the dead
would come alive, walk off the platforms,
smash through the walls with their tusks.
But then, what would we do to them?
The Woolly Mammoth Revival Project
and Colossal Biosciences have received
tremendous publicity. When Church appeared
on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, the host joked
that he would love to eat a woolly mammoth steak.
In Holy Communion, sacramental bread is known as the host.
Its Latin root, hostia, means sacrificial victim.
The idea is that the bread is Jesus’ body, the wine his blood.
As a child, when I ate the bread dunked in wine,
our minister would say, This is my body, quoting scripture.
I couldn’t work out how Jesus died for our sins,
but I was delighted to have a snack in church.
In his Atlantic article “Welcome to Pleistocene Park,”
Ross Andersen writes, The mammoth’s extinction may have been
our original ecological sin. No other herbivore was as essential
to Arctic grasslands, as adept at grazing, spreading seeds
with their feces, felling trees and breaking through the snow
so that in winter, freezing cold penetrated soil deep beneath
the powder, keeping permafrost frozen even in summer. Now,
as the grasslands of Beringia have turned to scrubby forests,
the permafrost is melting. It releases greenhouse gases
as it thaws, like a 10,000-mile-wide coal-burning factory,
which warms our planet, which begets more melting.
Director Nikita Zimov states it clearly: Pleistocene Park
is meant to slow the thawing of the permafrost. He and his father,
Sergey, have reintroduced grazers to the Siberian reserve
since the ’90s—bison, reindeer, musk oxen, and horses—
morphing hundreds of acres from scrubland to grassland.
It’s slow going, though. In 2013, they struck a partnership
with George Church and his Harvard team.
They await their woolly mammoths.
I empathize with Church’s critics. But what if,
instead of a decades-long innovation flex, bringing back
the woolly mammoth was purely an apology,
a quest to put a human error right?
I can hear Richard Attenborough’s character in Jurassic Park,
eating the melting ice cream, confessing to Laura Dern
that it was all because of a flea circus. How this time,
he wanted to show them something they could see . . . and touch.
Is a poem, a creature, a place, an idea,
ever finished? At 32,000 acres and growing,
Pleistocene Park exists. With the right connections,
you could visit. The park is what it is, but also
what it might be. The same is true of the human
species, even of the woolly mammoth.
In the ocean of grass that stretched
to the horizon in Arctic summer,
woolly mammoths walked on water.
Weighing up to six tons, with flowing coats
that waved like grasses in the wind, mothers,
daughters, aunts, and nieces kept close
throughout their lives, while bulls came and went.
Each calf was born to trumpeting from the herd,
who protected their young from predators,
no matter the relation. When a mammoth died,
the family covered its body with branches and leaves.
If the herd came back three summers later,
they’d find the tomb empty of flesh,
the grass there a little greener.
Read more from Orion‘s Spring 2024 issue Rites of Nature here.
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