I can’t say that I have ever personally wanted to clone a mammoth, but you reach a point in your life where you should probably be prepared for certain things, right? Thankfully, Beth Shapiro has my back. How to Clone a Mammoth is a tour through what it would take to resurrect extinct species. It’s a perfect length, and while Shapiro occasionally gets into more complicated biochemistry concepts that you’ll need to skim over, the book as a whole is accessible and interesting.
Shapiro begins by identifying potential definitions and goals of de-extinction. To give you a sample: when do we say that a species has successfully been brought back? When we clone a single member? Or when we’ve established a captive breeding population? Or when we release a population back into the wild? Immediately, Shapiro asks us to confront and unpack our assumptions about the nature of de-extinction, clarifying that it is, like so much in science, a process rather than an event.
Indeed, most of this book seems to be Shapiro’s heartfelt attempt to demystify and de-sensationalize de-extinction. She laments (understandably) how media has (also understandably) seized only upon the most sensationalized, most exaggerated examples of de-extinction, which might lead laypeople like myself to think that we are mere years away from mammoths roaming the Siberian tundra or flocks of billions of passenger pigeons darkening our skies. Shapiro’s whole thesis is basically, “De-extinction is fucking hard, really fucking complicated, and woefully underfunded. But I also think it might be worth it.”
Beyond definitions, Shapiro asks us to consider the goals for de-extinction. Are we doing it for kicks? That feels irresponsible. Perhaps it’s because bringing back an extinct species might have a positive effect on the environment? Possibly, although there are probably less expensive and more practical solutions in many cases. In any event, I love that Shapiro asks us to consider de-extinction holistically, to consider its consequences for ecosystems and our world rather than simply viewing it as a cool but somehow isolated occurrence.
This is truly the strength of the book: at every turn, Shapiro reminds us of our ethical obligations, both of scientists like herself and of every human. These questions of ethics span the entire process of de-extinction, from the selection of species to the harvesting of DNA, sequencing of genomes, preparation of eggs (if that’s the route we go down), and use of surrogate parent species. Even when Shapiro gets into the nitty gritty of the science, she never loses sight of the humanistic need to consider the wider picture and implications of what we are doing.
The science in this science book is really fascinating too. I knew some very basic basics about somatic cell nuclear transfer. Shapiro hooks you up with everything you need to clone a mammoth, along with some different techniques that would work better for birds like passenger pigeons. Of course, one of the most difficult parts of the process is getting a mammoth genome—ancient DNA is very fragile and fragmented. As I mentioned earlier, there are a few points where Shapiro goes into enough detail that I had to carefully dust off my Grade 12 Chemistry knowledge to follow along. The good news is that you don’t really need to follow along to understand the gist.
I also appreciate that this book isn’t too long. There are points where it feels a little repetitive, but I think that’s because Shapiro is deliberately using a cyclic way of storytelling so that she can bring everything back to the beginning at the end. In any event, the book never overstays its welcome, coming to a close just as I’ve had my fill of understanding the immense challenges and potential rewards of de-extinction from this scientist’s point of view.
Definitely a great read if you are interested in ecosystems, communities, and how science can influence our environment (for better or for worse).