Genetic Engineering: Build-a-Pope

"I'll give you two reasons why this is a bad idea."

“I’ll give you two reasons why this is a bad idea.”

I don’t know if you heard but recently Pope Benedict XVI resigned citing reasons of being old and declining health. Whatever the minimum levels of health required for popeing are, Pope Benedict no longer feels he has them. He is stepping down to allow a younger more dynamic Pope to replace him. But who will this new Pope be? As with all talent competitions there are some names already being mentioned as frontrunners. Names being mentioned include Cardinal Angelo Scola, Cardinal Arinze of Nigeria and that fox Cardinal from Dogtanian and the Muskehounds. One of those may not be correct. Additionally comedian Richard Herring has previously offered his services and more recently Dean Burnett in his popular Brain Flapping science comedy blog for The Guardian reckons he’d be a good choice. I have a slightly different suggestion. Build a Pope.

                Being the head of the Catholic Church has some pretty specific demands and it must be difficult for one human to fulfil them all while appearing wise and good. Cynics would say that most don’t try. In this age of scientific advancement I say we don’t have to put up with that. There is a shop whereby if you want a special bear or stuffed animal for someone and you want to build this bear from scratch then you can go to this shop and build a bear to your exacting specifications. I forget the name of the shop. These days we can incorporate the DNA of one species into another for useful effect. I say that rather than choose a likely flawed, elderly human for the job we pick which qualities we desire from other animal species and construct a better Pope that will last for years to come. That the Catholic Church don’t approve of genetic engineering, that this act of science is not technically possible in the form that I’m proposing it and that this is obviously a flippant excuse to make some badly thought out jokes while listing some facts about the natural world should be no barrier.


To Catholics the Pope is the successor to Saint Peter. According to Roman Catholics, Jesus (you’ve probably heard of him) named St Peter and subsequent Popes, as the “shepherd” and “rock” of the Catholic Church. I don’t know what a Venn diagram of shepherds and rocks would be of (except that the intersection would contain the Pope) but I do know that a rock doesn’t have DNA. As such we must select a shepherd from nature to construct our ideal Pope.

There is a type of ant which farms and herds aphids. Sadly Jesus did not name St Peter the “aphid herd” of the Catholic Church. As such I have chosen the Border Collie in its capacity as a dog selectively bred in the English-Scottish border region for herding livestock, especially sheep, to contribute to our Pope.

The part-Border Collie Pope may have to change his costume somewhat as there is some superstition about collies. Handlers avoid mostly white dogs due to the idea that sheep will not respect a predominantly white dog. And you know you’re in trouble when you’ve lost a sheep’s respect. Hopefully the church will be able to accommodate random, seemingly superstitious demands.

Ultimately the ability of the Border Collie to take direction when herding via voice and whistled commands as well as its herding instinct would certainly help the Pope in his shepherding duty. I don’t know who would be giving the voice and whistle commands. God probably.


                One of the many pieces of jewellery the Pope has, presumably to consolidate his position in the rap community is the Ring of the Fisherman. The ring features St Peter casting his fishing net and symbolises the role of the apostles in being “fishers of men.” So as well as herding people the Pope has to be good at fishing for them. Many animals in nature are adept at catching fish because of not wanting to starve. I have opted to include the behaviour of the humpback whale to add this capability to our design-a-Pope.

The diet of the humpback whale consists mainly of krill and small fish. One feeding method used to catch small fish includes the amazing bubble net feeding technique. To accomplish this a group of whales swim in a decreasing circle while simultaneously blowing bubbles to encircle a school of fish. As the ring of bubbles shrinks the fish are confined to an ever-narrowing cylinder of bubbles. The whales then swim upwards through the cylindrical bubble net with their mouths open to swallow the trapped fish. This incredible act of cooperation could be an excellent addition to the make-up of our Pope. Also the image of a Pope encircling the Vatican, blowing bubbles to keep the visitors in for mass is a fantastic one.


The word “Pope” is from the Latin for “father”. While the Pope himself is not literally going to be a father for obvious reasons, it would seem prudent to include some parenting tendencies so our Pope feels the need to look after his church.

To meet this need I shall include the parenting trait of the male Darwin’s frog. The Darwin’s frog is native to the forest streams of Chile and Argentina. The female of the species lays the eggs and the male guards them until they hatch approximately two weeks later. The male then takes the developing young to carry in his vocal pouch. Once the tadpoles have developed sufficiently they hop out of the adult’s mouth and swim away. It’s probably asking for trouble to ask the Pope to carry young folk around in his mouth but the example in nature is an interesting one and having the DNA of Darwin’s frog may make our Pope more open to the teaching of science or at least the concept of evolution.


Popes don’t tend to last that long in general with the average reign being about 7 years. This is probably because when they become Pope the gentlemen in question already tend to be quite advanced in years. We won’t really have that problem as we are constructing our own Pope but it would still seem sensible to have one that will last a good long while. The bristlecone pines are the oldest single living organisms known. The oldest known living organism (which is non-clonal) is a bristlecone pine tree nicknamed “Methuselah” in California, USA. Methuselah has been aged by measuring core samples (in 1957) to be just under 5,000 years old. If we include this tendency for longevity in our Pope we should be getting good value for money.

Asexual/Radiation Resistant

Catholic priests aren’t allowed to have sex and the Pope is no different. Given the tendency of humans for religious wars and the terrifying prospect of nuclear weaponry it seems sensible to have a Pope that can survive high levels of radiation. Luckily there is a species we can incorporate into our Pope which can provide both these ideals.  The rotifers make up a phylum of microscopic and near-microscopic animals.  They are common in freshwater environments with some species surviving in saltwater. Bdelloid rotifers have reproduced without sex for many millions of years. So our part bdelloid Pope won’t miss it. There are no male bdelloid rotifers and females reproduce by parthenogenesis. Technically this would make our Pope female which isn’t permitted in Catholic dogma. However our Pope is a genetic combination of various species which is also previously unknown in this religion so hopefully we can get past this minor issue and move with the times. Also should the time come for us to need a new Pope we could just get ours to reproduce parthogenically. After all the Catholic Church were quite keen on that one virgin birth that time.

Bdelloid rotifers are also extraordinarily resistant to damage from ionizing radiation. Which is handy. Perhaps it can become a plot point if our Pope is included in the next Dan Brown novel.


                Perhaps I’ve been remiss in not focussing on the religion or morality of our new Pope.  It’s certainly difficult to find examples of religion in nature. B.F Skinner claimed to have found the route of superstitious behaviour in his behavioural experiments with pigeons but that isn’t (quite) the same thing. As such I guess we should have human DNA in the mix and hope that religion and more importantly human morality becomes a force for good in our Pope. In the very least the Pope is known as the Primate of Italy and humans are definitely primates.


Perhaps you’d like to contribute to this frivolous and illogical exercise. What species do you think we should use when we build a Pope? Don’t worry, it’s almost definitely not going to actually happen. They’ll probably just go with some Cardinal. Like always.

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