RYAN DENISON, PHD
The old cliché that something went “the way of the dodo” could soon have a very different meaning.
As Antonio Regaldo writes for the MIT Technology Review, scientists at Colossal Biosciences in Austin, Texas, are currently working to resurrect the bird that has become synonymous with extinction. If your mind is trending toward Jurassic Park flashbacks as you read, you’re not too far off base.
Colossal’s process works by genetically altering the Nicobar pigeon—the dodo’s closest living relative—to gradually turn it into its long-dead ancestor. This process is made possible by the research of Beth Shapiro and her team at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who recently recovered the extinct bird’s DNA from the five-hundred-year-old remains of a dodo at a museum in Denmark.
However, the dodo is not the only creature that Colossal is trying to bring back to life. By 2029, Ben Lamm, Colossal’s CEO, estimates that they will have successfully turned an elephant into a wooly mammoth, with the Tasmanian tiger also on their list of current projects.
Still, with any of the experiments it remains unclear just how many changes will be needed before one could actually say the extinct creature exists once more.
As Mike McGrew, an avian biologist at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, noted, “That is one of the big questions. At what point is your editing done? Is it hitting a hundred genes or one thousand genes?”
Whatever the answer may be, the possibilities of what such incremental changes could bring about have piqued the interest of an interesting assortment of people. Billionaires like Thomas Tull and Robert Nelson, as well as the CIA’s venture capital arm, have all decided to back Colossal’s efforts.
I bring this story up today, however, not because I’m overly excited about the possibility of seeing a dodo anytime soon—though a wooly mammoth may be a different story—but rather because the technique of relying on small changes rather than large leaps to accomplish something extraordinary offers some important parallels for Christians today.
“The best way to address social problems”
In a recent article for Persuasion, Greg Berman and Aubrey Fox approached this conversation from a more philosophical point of view.
The pair discussed the idea of incrementalism, claiming that it represents “the best way to address social problems in a climate where it is difficult to agree on basic facts, let alone expensive, large-scale government interventions.”
The foundation of their argument is that big plans often fail because they require “access to high-quality information, agreement about underlying values, and effective decision-making on the part of government planners” at a time when none of those conditions tend to exist in the real world. By focusing instead on small changes that build on one another, over time we can actually accomplish more than by trying to do everything at once.
They allow that “we still need dreamers and visionaries and rabble-rousers who want to pursue moon-shot goals like curing cancer and ending hunger. But our default setting should be to admit the obvious: our problems are big and our brains are small,” so our solutions to those big problems should start small as well.
What if small changes are the most lasting changes?
What would it look like if we took a similar approach to trying to change our culture for Christ?
Granted, it would be great if we could set forth a plan that would result in a sweeping spiritual awakening and see our culture turn back to God. But that’s not likely to happen, and we can’t afford to wait for such an opportunity to arrive.
By contrast, an incrementalist approach to sharing our faith and shaping society means each of us must take advantage of the opportunities the Lord brings our way to help people know him better. It means making sure that our lives match up with the message we’re sharing. And it means being satisfied with the knowledge that we’ve done our part even if it doesn’t always appear to make an immediate difference.
Such an approach may lack the appeal of big changes and historic impact, but history shows it’s actually more likely to make the kind of difference we’d really like to see.
None of the spiritual awakenings in modern times began with Christians making a five-step plan to change the world, and they certainly did not include any reliance on government intervention to save the day. Rather, they started with believers who felt a burden for their culture and that burden led them to pray. Those prayers resulted in Christians starting to take their faith more seriously, and only then did non-Christians begin to take notice.
The same pattern holds true today as well.
From ordinary to extraordinary
While history may highlight the big movements and leaders that made an outsized difference, the most important work was often done by those who remain anonymous to everyone but the Lord.
If we can learn to be content with that fact, not allowing our ambition to grow larger than our calling, then we can begin to make the incremental changes that could eventually result in the kind of spiritual awakening and cultural renewal that often seems out of reach today.
Christianity is never going to go the way of the dodo and God will always have his remnant. But you and I can begin to make a difference simply by taking advantage of the incremental opportunities the Lord provides to share both his love and his truth with those around us.
As Oswald Chambers once remarked, “All of God’s people are ordinary people who have been made extraordinary by the purpose he has given them.”
Christ made our purpose clear in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16–20).
How will you fulfill it today?