Like Thomas Jefferson, today’s scientists are on a quest for a Mammoth

A gene-splicing experiment sheds light on the mass extinction that started when humans conquered Earth.

Scientists at Harvard are working on a gene-splicing project to create an altered version of an Asian Elephant that would carry many of the traits of the Wooly Mammoth. The Asian Elephant is the mammoth’s closest living relative, and the team’s goal is to create a “hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo,” based on their understanding of the gene differences that produced the mammoth’s unique traits, such as long, shaggy hair and adaptation to cold climates. They say the hybrid embryo is about two years away.

Putting aside the ethical implications of creating life in a laboratory and the enduring lessons of Jurassic Park, this is a great opportunity for a deep dive into The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert. The book chronicles the history of the study of extinction, as well as the five major worldwide extinction events we know of in earth’s history.

The Sixth Extinction, in Kolbert’s view, is already in progress, and corresponds with the rise of humans as earth’s greatest hunters and environment-alterers. While Kolbert addresses the effects of post-Industrial Revolution carbon emissions and climate change, she also digs deeper (and farther back) into humans’ influence on their world.

We know that human hunting contributed to the extinction of the mammoth, but the story beneath the story is that, until humans arrived on the scene, all of earth’s large mammals faced very few threats in adulthood. As a result, they developed extremely slow reproductive cycles (compare elephants and rhinos, for example, to the antelopes hunted by many carnivores). Those slow reproductive rates would have doomed large mammals with even the most minor increase in hunting. This calls into question the image of the ravenous human hunter brazenly wiping out a species — in fact, the uptick in hunting could have been relatively small and still had a dramatic effect. The same effect is in play today with poaching of African rhinos and elephants, where, in the best-case scenario, a population needs decades or centuries to recover from a few years of human poaching.

In other words, the Sixth Extinction is nothing new. It started 10,000 to 20,000 years ago, when humans rose to prominence, and earth’s biodiversity has been plummeting ever since.

The book is fascinating cover to cover, so I’ll just highlight one more fun part here. The concept of extinction didn’t really enter the scientific lexicon until the early 1800s, when fossils of Plesiosaurs (dinosaur-era swimming reptiles) started being unearthed that couldn’t possibly belong to any known or living animal. Prior to that, there was no awareness that animals existed in the past that don’t exist today, or that there was a point in history when today’s animals didn’t exist.

Around the same time, Thomas Jefferson was sending explorers to scout the Louisiana Purchase. He was a lover of science and collector of fossils — and he was sure they’d find living mammoths and mastodons out in the wild.

Rob Howard is the founder and CEO of Howard Development & Consulting, the web development firm that creative agencies trust when every pixel matters. His startups have been featured in Entertainment Weekly and Newsweek, and his clients have included The World Bank, Harvard and MIT.