De-Extinction: Historical Fiction is a Woolly Mammoth

The other day the kids and I watched a video on a PBS-funded YouTube channel called “It’s Okay to Be Smart.” The episode focused on the possibility of resurrecting long-extinct species by Jurassic-Parking the DNA of preserved tissue, but instead of velociraptors they looked at Woolly Mammoths.

The video discusses the challenge of resurrecting lost species through the process of cloning. True cloning requires DNA but DNA degrades over time, even when preserved in ice.  Creating a clone requires all of the DNA.  Not 25% or 50%, you need 100% of the genetic information to recreate a creature.  The host of the video used a lovely analogy which really appealed to me, given the metaphorical leap I’m about to take:

“Imagine the genome as a huge book. If you lose every tenth word, would you still be able to read the story?”

The video goes on to explain that in order to resurrect a mammoth we would need to fill the gaps in the DNA with something else that’s close enough to be compatible. In this case, an elephant.  The way I picture it is like building a scaffolding out of mammoth bits and filling in structural supports and details with elephant bits where needed. In some areas you may have a significant amount mammoth DNA and require very little elephant.  In other areas you may need to rely almost entirely on elephant.  The gaps aren’t evenly distributed.  The front legs might be mostly mammoth.  The rear legs might be mostly elephant.  But it all lives together as one animal.

This raises a question.  Even if you use an absolute minimum of elephant DNA, can you call the resulting animal a mammoth?  Like some kind of modern day Ship of Theseus exercise, how much mammoth is needed for the mammoth to be a mammoth?

Imagine you’re writing a historical fiction, or perhaps a literary biography about someone from the distant past.  Hopefully you’ve chosen to do a little research, or better yet a LOT of research.  Imagine you’ve found original sources of historic records, primary documents of events and transactions, and let’s say you can account for a significant portion of your subject’s life.  Can you use this information to de-extinct them?

If you research long enough, will the person you recreate be a mammoth, or is that an impossibility?  Will you inevitably need to fill gaps with elephantine extrapolations?  How many of your mammoth’s DNA gaps can you replace with elephant DNA before the resulting work is no longer a mammoth at all?

This isn’t exactly an innovative question, but I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating it lately.

“As soon as something dies, its DNA starts to fall apart.”

The instant we die, our histories start to fall apart.  The truth as we know it, the conversations we had, the private thoughts we never shared, the emotions that drove our decisions, all of that becomes gaps in our mammoth DNA.  If we’re lucky we’ll leave records behind that can be used to piece our stories back together when we’re gone.  If we’re not lucky, well, we’ll disappear. We’ll become shadows at best, remembered for a handful of events, but otherwise gone.  If those events go undocumented, eventually they’ll disappear, too. Our historical DNA will degrade to nothing, and our scaffolding will collapse.

If some enterprising storyteller discovers our stories after we’re gone, maybe they can piece together enough, through diligence and commitment, to nearly de-extinct us.  But the operative word is nearly.  We will never fully be revived as mammoths.  The very moment present becomes past the integrity of the mammoth starts to degrade. In that instant we start the process of becoming mammoth-elephant hybrids.

“Hacking elephant genes could give us something that looks like a mammoth, but would it be a mammoth or just an elephant wearing a disguise?”

As I research my current subject I think of de-extinction more frequently than is probably useful.  I feel the heavy weight of responsibility to capture facts as facts.  Facts are objective, permanent.  I have a scaffolding of facts.  Facts are my mammoth.  But between the facts I have to fill in with… what, exactly?  Truth?  Truth and fact are not the same.  Truth is subjective, extrapolated from facts.  Truth is what I believe happened, based on everything I’ve learned.  Truth is my best guess, but even if delivered with integrity, it’s not the same as fact.  Truth is my elephant.

When you’re working with someone else’s mammoth scaffolding, you’re the one who chooses the bits of elephant to fill the gaps on their behalf.  I don’t know what my subject felt, who he spoke to, what thoughts drove his decisions.  I don’t know his truth.  I know facts, I know what he did and when he did it and where he went and how he got there.  I know what he said when he wrote it down.  I know what others said about him.  But everything in between is elephant. It’s my version of the truth, not his.

Before I came across the mammoth-elephant analogy, I called this fragility of history “whalers on the moon.”  This phrase is a reference to the second episode of “Futurama,” in which the main characters visit Earth’s moon, which has become a tacky theme park. They ride through a parody of the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at Disney World.  Herky-jerky, merrily cavorting robots sing a song that supposedly tells the story of how the Moon was first visited by man.  But rather than telling the story of the Apollo landings, they present an insane hodgepodge of historical references that claims pirate-style pioneers hunted whales on the moon.

This absurd scene is a commentary about how quickly history gets twisted and misrepresented once it’s no longer the present.  As soon as a moment is gone, fact and truth get all muddled together, and the truth of it becomes subject to interpretation.  And that interpretation can become misinterpretation, and that misinterpretation can become the new truth.  “Whalers on the moon” is about the way we blindly accept the history that’s presented to us, and how in the end truth is subjective, malleable, changeable, and it’s up to us to decide whether we care enough to distinguish it from fact.

So maybe you decide to write historical fiction or a literary biography.  Maybe you set out to de-extinct a woolly mammoth but end up using so much elephant that the true mammoth is fundamentally lost.  And maybe your account of events goes unchallenged.  Your elephant goes unscrutinized.  And then you become the writer who whalers-on-the-moons the woolly mammoth into the mash of fact and fiction you created, and the real woolly mammoth is forgotten forever.

Does it matter?

As I work on my current project, which strains and struggles to remain more literary biography than biographical fiction, I think about mammoths and elephants and whalers on the moon.  Every time I set up the scaffolding of fact that I can document and footnote and support with source material, I’m keenly aware of the cross-supports of elephant that I’m forced to add.  I’m okay with some elephant.  It’s necessary, and as long as I’m thoughtful and respectful of the elephant parts I use, I don’t feel particularly conflicted about it. But every time I add a bit more elephant I worry about whether I’m penning the lyrics to whalers on the moon.

Maybe it doesn’t matter.  Maybe we have to be okay with the knowledge that we can never de-extinct a true mammoth.  If it has fur and tusks and a trunk maybe the difference between a mammoth and a mammoth-elephant hybrid is academic. Maybe it doesn’t matter if history becomes whalers on the moon.  The mammoths sure aren’t complaining.


Here we see a fine example of the majestic woolly mammoth with its best friend, the dodo bird.


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