1 March 2016
I just finished an interesting book with a provocative title. How to Clone a Mammoth, by Beth Shapiro, is a readable, sober assessment of de-extinction, the idea of bringing back extinct species through a variety of techniques. She defines very clearly at the outset that the purpose of de-extinction is ecological – to restore critical / desired organism/organism or organism/abiotic environment interactions in ecosystems. It is, in other words, a potentially powerful tool in helping to solve problems with biodiversity. It is happening now, whether you approve or not, and it’s both extremely challenging and very expensive. Shapiro recounts historical efforts and societal reactions, expeditions, and lab work in great detail. She does a great job of beginning with the big picture, and then getting down into the weeds of genetic engineering. For anyone who’s captivated by the notion of glimpsing species that have vanished from the Earth, or anyone interested in biodiversity conservation, or anyone interested in molecular genetics’ cutting edge, this is a book worth reading. It’s a great choice for a companion to other contemporary works on environmental degradation, such as Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, or Gaia Vince’s Adventures in the Anthropocene. Particularly fascinating to me were the lattermost two chapters, that examine the legal and ethical ramifications of proceeding with de-extinction efforts. Are de-extincted species GMOs? Invasives? Endangered? All three? When is it the right choice to “re-extinct” a de-extinction that has gone awry? Shapiro has written a book that lacks hyperbole, and addresses these questions in clear prose. Her experience working in the field and teaching about it has resulted in an informative survey of the state of the art in this fascinating cross-disciplinary field.