Ghengis Khan loved cheetahs.
No, not graffiti on some Shanghai bathroom wall. The emperor of all Russia, China and Persia was a collector of symbols of power, and the great Khan had a particular passion for the cheetah, the world’s fastest feline. The conqueror from Marco Polo’s tales actually went so far as to mobilize all his horses and his men, sending them out to collect every cheetah they could find in Southwest Asia.
They were actually quite successful, bringing a significant fraction of the population of cheetah to Ghengis Kahn’s compound in China. One thing however that Ghengis never achieved was to convince his cheetah to breed in captivity. Following lives in which the high points were probably the mauling of a few Christians, the thousands of cheetah in the Kahn entourage died. Their genetic heritage remained unpacked baggage on some molecular way-station in the Far East.
Meanwhile in the jungles of Southeast Asia the number of remaining cheetah had been reduced to a relative handful. A close shave for the cheetah? Perhaps closer than you think: There are some things that can be broken apart and put back together, others that can’t; reversible and irreversible phenomena.
For millennia the cheetah had outrun evolution, its highly developed torso musculature, and incredibly flexible spine making it the fastest mammal on the planet, capable of bursts of speed up to sixty miles per hour. Comparative anatomists tell us that a cheetah, with all four limbs removed, might still have ‘run’ at six miles per hour simply by flexing its spine—fast for a creature with no legs!
But when environmental pressure threatens a species, evolution doesn’t run, it walks. Step by step, genetic memory acquired over eons and stored in the variety and multiplicity of individuals within a system, is tested for solutions. Biological history is a memory contained in the genetic material of every creature involved in an ecosystem.
In the massive loss of population triggered by Ghengis’ affections, the cheetah had effectively lost much of its biological memory. With all its speed and specialization, the cheetah found itself out on an evolutionary limb.
Imagine a crisis in which only selection from among the variety within a population can restore balance. Diversity is then the key to adaptability, and each individual variation becomes a unique answer to a question asked of life by time.
The cheetah had very few solutions left to bring to any environmental duress. In Southeast Asia the cheetah is now extinct; the few cheetahs remaining in Africa are so genetically identical that a skin graft can be successfully transferred between unrelated individuals. Even human brothers and sisters can’t do that! Variety within the remaining cheetah population is also virtually extinct and the African cheetah may well follow.
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Time—the history of life on our planet in all its minute details—is codified in the variety and multiplicity of forms within our ecosystem. Filed within the nuclei of the cells of each creature is a library of living history. With enough horses and men—with enough technology—we might one day replicate all of the length, width and breadth of the cheetah’s DNA, but we’ll never be able to replace its history.
So what about Humpty-Dumpty? Not enough albumen? The wrong type of glue? Maybe it’s all just a question of time. Life happens in time. Although technology may move faster and faster, still—alongside the cheetah—king’s horses and king’s men everywhere continue to march irreversibly and in one direction only.