The De-Extinction of the Wooly Mammoth Would Be an Evolutionary Mistake

Now that Russian scientists claim to have retrieved a vial of blood from a thawing wooly mammoth carcass from the permafrost of Siberia, the scientific community has been buzzing with speculation that we could finally be on the cusp of bringing the wooly mammoth back from extinction. But even if we could do that, would we want to?

Until now, the basic argument in favor of species de-extinction was that it offered humanity a chance to redeem itself for the wrongs committed over thousands of years. Humans, one could legitimately claim, have been mucking up the planet since time immemorial. As a result, many of the species that have been the targets of de-extinction efforts have been chosen because they seem to possess some basic fundamental right to survive. Often, they look much like species that have survived until today. If it hadn’t been for humans interfering with their natural habitats and delicate ecosystems, the argument goes, they would have been flourishing today.

Take the passenger pigeon, for example. Until 1914, the passenger pigeon was among the most plentiful species on the planet, numbering in the billions. Along the Eastern seaboard, residents could look up into the sky and see flocks of them flying overhead in such numbers that the skies went almost completely dark. And then humans got involved. Within a span of 25 years, the passenger pigeon had gone extinct, due primarily to commercial hunting and exploitation (e.g. passenger pigeon feathers were used for things like mattress filling). As a result, humans should feel at least a tinge of regret for wiping out the passenger pigeon

But that same argument - a chance to redeem human wrongdoings over a wrongful extinction - doesn’t hold in the case of the wooly mammoth. The wooly mammoth, with its massive hair coat to preserve warmth, stood no chance for survival once the Ice Age ended. As Darwin first theorized, evolution is like an algorithm followed by nature. If an adaptation helps a species to survive and prosper, the adaptation will stick. If it doesn't, it will eventually disappear from the gene pool. For better or for worse, certain species will go extinct when they can no longer adapt to their environment. It wasn't just that wooly mammoths had heavy hair coats - they had all sorts of other adaptations that helped them thrive during the Ice Age, like huge tusks to clear away snow and ice. Bringing back the wooly mammoth would be tantamount to bringing back a species that deserved to go extinct.

To get around this argument, though, some scientists are starting to make the case that it wasn't Mother Nature who did in the wooly mammoth -- it was humans. Once the planet started to thaw out, humans came into contact with the wooly mammoth in greater numbers, and began to hunt them ruthlessly for their meat, bones and even skin. It's essentially the passenger pigeon thesis, extended to the wooly mammoth. De-extinction fans will surely tell you that humans bear a type of evolutionary guilt for having wiped out the wooly mammoth, never mind climate change.

Yes, de-extinction is a mind-blowing concept and it's easy to understand why a number of very smart scientists are leading the charge to bring back extinct species. Most of the folks who turned out for the TEDx De-Extinction event in Washington, D.C. in March seemed to be good-intentioned scientists who were genuinely excited by the advances in DNA sequencing and cloning. In this TEDx video, for example, Hendrik Poinar invokes our childlike sense of wonder, suggesting that the wooly mammoth was a kind of Ice Age Babar who took a few wrong steps and unfairly got wiped out

Even if we go with the Jurassic Park scenario – creating a highly-controlled environment (i.e. a theme park) where the wooly mammoth could conceivably flourish – it doesn’t reason that you can simply hit the “rewind” button on evolution. As some conservationists are already warning, bringing back a species like the wooly mammoth could lead to the disappearance of other species who share similar habitats. Once you bring back a new species, you have to start thinking about ecosystem effects -- and about Butterfly Effects. Bringing back the wooly mammoth would require massive changes to existing ecosystems.

As a society, we need to recognize that the de-extinction of the wooly mammoth would be an evolutionary mistake. Just because we can do something doesn't mean that we should. We often assume that evolution works in a purposeful fashion - upward and onward, with each successive step bringing us that much closer to perfection and increasing complexity. However, evolution does not necessarily follow a linear progression, enabling us to neatly re-trace our steps. There are jagged steps, hints and feints, that are impossible to replicate by simply "evolving backwards."

At the end of the day, de-extinction implies that scientists have a better algorithm than nature does for determining which species should flourish, and which ones should not. If that's not scientific hubris, then what is? As a result, the looming battle over de-extinction might end up being one of the few times in the history of the world that scientists and Creationists can line up on the same sideline and root for the same team to win.

image: Wooly Mammoths on White Field / Shutterstock

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.