Those very few times we have covered non-fiction titles here, they’ve all been pretty firmly and directly connected to our main focus, limited to reviews of biographies or critical of well-known fantasy/science fiction authors.
Today though, I’m going to wander a bit further afield with a review of Beth Shapiro’s How to Clone a Mammoth, a straight popular science book. Why? Three basic reasons:
- Jurassic Park, a science fiction franchise which made use of the concept of bringing back extinct creatures to the tune of some several billion dollars (and counting with the upcoming release of the fourth film). Other authors as well have used the idea, so while this book isn’t a genre title, its subject matter of “de-extinction” continues to have an impact on the genre
- It’s science, it’s Pleistocene, it’s humans “playing god!” What drives my interest in all these is at least in part what also makes me gravitate toward sci-fi/fantasy, and thus I wondered if perhaps our readers might share that interest
- It’s good
Whether you read the review or not, I’d appreciate if you could drop a note in the comments as to whether or not you think this sort of occasional review (of an “only loosely connected to the genre” non-fiction title) has any place on our site. Thanks!
How to Clone a Mammoth is a highly informative look at the possibilities of de-extinction, with particular focus on the titular animal, along with another candidate she is heavily involved in — the passenger pigeon. Thanks to its clarity, focus, and lack of hyperbole, Shapiro’s work is highly recommended for anyone interested in this particular topic and in environmental conservation in general.
The book is a true guide to the subject, as Shapiro takes the reader step by step through what the attempt to de-extinct a species would look like. Or actually, several possible attempts, as she explains several potential methods, though she comes down pretty strongly on which is the best and most likely. Her table of contents lays out her basic topics:
- Find a Well-Preserved Specimen
- Create a Clone
- Breed Them Back
- Reconstruct the Genome
- Reconstruct Part of the Genome
- Now Create a Clone
- Make More of Them
- Set them Free
- Should We?
Before she gets to de-extinction, she offers up a fast reminder of when and how mammoths, passenger pigeons, and other species went extinct — naming climate change and human intervention as the two prime causes. She then quickly skims through some modern early attempts/announcements (often poorly reported) on de-extinction attempts and a description of one of her own expeditions into Siberia in search of mammoth DNA. After this introductory material, she moves into seven major questions:
- Is There a Compelling Reason to Bring This Species Back?
- Why Did This Species Go Extinct the First Time?
- Is There a Place for This Species to Live if We Successfully Bring It Back?
- How Will Introducing This Species Affect the Existing Ecosystem?
- Will It Be Possible to Learn the Genome Sequence?
- Is There a Way to Transform the Genome Sequence Into a Living Organism?
- Will It Be Possible to Move The Resulting Living Organism From Captivity to a Natural Habitat?
Each question is answered in turn through clear, well defined, and mostly easy to follow explanations with no attempt to sugarcoat the many, many obstacles along the way. All science writing should be this crystalline and logical. The only problem area for some might be a few pages when Shapiro gets into some details about genetics involving base pairs, proteins, and the like, though really, a little concentration and some attempt to recall one’s old Bio class is all that will be needed to follow her explanation.
Along with explaining the underlying theory, and then detailing the ongoing work as well as exactly what will be needed in the near future in terms of new tools, greater sequencing capability, etc., Shapiro applies everything in concrete fashion to the task at hand — bringing an actual animal back from the dead — usually the mammoth but at times she discusses as well the passenger pigeon, the dodo, and others. In this way, she never spirals too far afield into theory/abstraction and the reader is always clear on just what her explanations mean in a practical sense.
And none of it is done in the breathless sort of fashion that is too often how popularized science is conveyed. Shapiro makes no promises and never glosses over the difficulties, whether they be problems of finding/extracting material, or creating fine enough genetic tools/manipulators, or simple math (current cloning works at X level of efficiency, gestation periods for elephants are X months, etc.). It is refreshing to have a scientist lay out not just the stunning potential of an idea but also its stunning difficulty.
At both the start and the end of How to Clone a Mammoth, Shapiro argues that really the goal here should not be species-focused — not to bring back a real mammoth or a real passenger pigeon — but instead should be on “ecological resurrection” rather than “species resurrection,” to restore a balance and a richness to an environment out of whack due to extinction. To this end, then, we needn’t worry about recreating a 100%-reproduced version of the extinct animal, just one that can perform the same environmental duties (say, an elephant modified with enough mammoth genes to be able to thrive in the mammoth’s tundra steppe environment and do all the good things for the habitat that the mammoths once did). In this vein, along with de-extinction efforts she also spends some time (briefly) discussing re-wilding attempts — both those already undertaken (grey wolves in Yellowstone National Park) and more fringe ones (recreating the Pleistocene time period in the US by reintroducing lions, cheetahs, horses, camels, donkeys and other species that have gone extinct here but have living descendants/near-relatives elsewhere).
Finally, she closes by addressing, in the briefest section of the book, various concerns about de-extinction, ranging from fears of bringing back a dangerous pathogen (almost certainly impossible she says) to the idea of harming current conservation goals (she can see the point but is more optimistic about people).
If Shapiro lacks the lyricism of some populizers of science or nature/environmental writers like Gary Ferguson or Diane Ackerman, she more than makes up for it by a rare ability to make somewhat arcane topics wholly understandable, without dumbing things down or making it all seems so easy or around the corner. How to Clone a Mammoth is one of the most logical, clear, concrete, focused, and balanced/realistic explanations of a scientific topic I’ve read on any topic and is highly recommended.