A Giant Problem
The meaning behind our strange relationship with Earth's largest animals.
The ability to clone animals such as mice is not new — since the 1996 breakthrough of Dolly the sheep, everything from cats and dogs to pigs and horses have been cloned. But those relied on living cells. What makes the Japanese scientists' research noteworthy is its ability to replicate using genetic material extracted from cells damaged in freezing.
You might wonder who wants to clone thawed common mice. Nobody, it turns out. The scientists suggested that among the real value of their technology is its substantially larger application beyond their freezer and in the Earth's — namely, the solid ground of Siberia, where thousands of woolly mammoths remain frozen in space and time.
Why woolly mammoths? One reason might be the ecological benefit of reintroducing megafauna to the areas from which they've been expelled. Indeed, in October Wired magazine reported on attempts to reintroduce European bison into a Latvian reserve. Eliminated from the wild in 1927, the species has since grown through strict breeding to 3,500. At the reserve, the large mammals' grazing habits have begun shifting the landscape back to its environmentally historic meadows and wetlands, inviting back other species such as wild boar and geese.
But it's hard to see how woolly mammoths could successfully be reintroduced to the Kansas plains, at least in any wild way. What is most interesting about this development, then, isn't so much its possible application, but instead what the desire to resurrect the mammoth highlights: The fact is, we have a very strange relationship with large mammals.
The biggest mammals creatures play a shifting role in the vision of nature we construct for ourselves. On the one hand, they represent our highest affection for the animal world. They are sports mascots, stuffed toys, embodiments of noble traits such as bravery and intelligence. They dominate zoos, their habitats necessarily being the largest, to be sure, but our affection for them shaping zoo maps, gift shops, and adoption programs (the nominal support of a rhinoceros costing more than that of, say, a naked mole rat).
At the same time, ours is a tense relationship. Large mammals are never allowed to just be, as squirrels and groundhogs and rabbits are. Even when they're wild, we almost always define large mammals by their impact on or contribution to humans. They are nuisances, as with expanding populations of bears and wolves. They are prey, as with deer. They are appropriated as symbols of environmental causes, as with the polar bear, and of environmentalism gone too far, as with sarcastic "Save the Whales, Kill the Babies!" pro-life bumper stickers.
This complexity may be due to the fact that large mammals, great apes and beyond, are our closest relatives in the natural world. Yes, this a fourth-grader knows. But they're close to us not through genetics alone, nor (especially) through visual similarities.
Instead, because of their size, large mammals tend to spatially navigate the natural world in much the same way we do. There are few places for such species to hide. We lack the ability of the shrew to avoid danger by slipping under a rock, of the sparrow to fly away. We spend most of our lives exposed, and as such have had to develop blunt abilities such as Intelligence or Speed or sheer Strength. We are, as a whole, a proud, powerful group. We are not the snakes or rats or weasels of the world. We do not rely on the chicanery of the chameleon or the skunk or the poison dart frog.
Closeness comes, as well, through behavior. We have a tendency to seek an understanding of large mammals that's couched in what we consider to be human values. I'm not speaking here of the Disneyesque anthropomorphizing that imposes human values on animals, but instead on the human values we believe we can see in animals. We like, for example, to watch a mother lion showing affection for her baby. It satisfies us to teach a gorilla to communicate via computer touchscreen. It intrigues us to see a painting of an elephant that was made by an elephant. It comforts us that dolphins masturbate, too.
This closeness, however, translates into a murky relationship that's grounded both in a wonder of and a trepidation toward large mammals. The fact that some of them have maternal instincts, that some of them can use complex human technology, that some of them make self-portraits, and that some of them enjoy sex for sex's sake establishes in us a sense of kinship that tells us that they should be valued and saved.
But at the same, these same facts give us pause. If such similarities exist, we wonder, what makes us so special? Baby yoga? A shark preserved in formaldehyde? Dancing with the Stars?
So we delineate. We create boundaries both physical and abstract to preserve the large mammals by keeping them away from us. We acknowledge their powers as similar, but are careful to qualify ours as supreme. (Remove Orwell's metaphorical intentions and we're likely to agree that "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.") It's a friends close/enemies closer approach to Nature. We've learned how to avoid the corporeal threats of these large creatures. The real danger they pose, then, is not physical, but emotional.
In the end, the implications of the Japanese scientists' research would please the metaphysical poets. "Death, be not proud," for from your cold grip we will raise the mammoth! May it bring the boar and geese back to Latvia. More important, may such God-like abilities help maintain the illusion that we are not merely a part of Nature, but at the center of it. • 17 November 2008
Jesse Smith is managing editor of The Smart Set.