Book in Brief: How to Clone a Mammoth

“Will there ever be a real Jurassic Park?” I’ve heard this question more times than I can count. The answer is always “No“. Aside from the problem of getting a viable clone to develop inside a bird egg – one that scientists haven’t cracked yet – DNA’s postmortem decay happens too fast to give us any hope of saying “Bingo! Dino DNA!” someday. But just because it won’t work for Tyrannosaurus doesn’t mean that it’s impossible for other forms of life. In How to Clone a Mammoth, ancient DNA expert Beth Shapiro offers a thrilling tour of the science that might – might – recreate lost worlds from the not-too-distant past.

how-to-clone-a-mammothThe book’s title is a bit of a bait-and-switch. On the very first page, Shapiro explains that for long-extinct organisms such as “the passenger pigeon, the dodo, the mammoth – cloning is not a viable option.” If at all, these organisms are going to come back to us piecemeal as revived genetic material expressed in hybrid creatures that may, or may not, look like the lost species. And this cuts to the core of what de-extinction is really all about.

From a purist’s perspective, extinction really is forever. It’s impossible to recreate lost species exactly as they were, down to every last gene and quirk of behavior. But with a broader definition of de-extinction – creating organisms that can fill vacant ecological roles – an elephant with a touch of mammoth trundling around the Arctic steppe would count as what Shapiro dubs an unextinct species. This is the goal of de-extinction efforts – not to recreate extinct species down to the finest detail, but to generate organisms that rehabilitate ecosystems. Not so much resurrection as carefully-crafted reinvention focused on ecosystem-scale repair.

As a researcher who is shaping this field, Shapiro is the perfect guide to the ongoing discussion about de-extinction. While many news items and conference presentations have focused on the technology required to recreate extinct life, Shapiro carefully considers every step along the journey to de-extinction, from choosing a species to revive to making sure they don’t become extinct all over again. As Shapiro says herself, she’s a realist rather than a cynic, and her finely-honed prose cuts through the hype that has clouded the debate around whether or not we should be striving to recreate lost species when so many living species are hanging on by the barest thread.

In fact, Shapiro uses the tension between those advocating for the return of extinct species and critics who argue that the effort would be better spent saving today’s imperiled organisms to propose a third option that has barely been discussed. Whether or not proxy mammoths, dodos, or sabercats come back, exploring such possibilities may give conservationists new tools to manage and assist threatened species and ecosystems. We’re already carrying out conservation triage on the weak and wounded, so why not use every tool at our disposal to sustain – and perhaps even improve – what we’re already managing by hand? Or, as Shapiro writes near the end of the book, “De-extinction is a process that allows us to actively create a future that is really better than today, not just one that is less bad than what we anticipate.”

Will genetically-modified pseudo-mammoths or passenger-ish pigeons be the first symbols of a new age in conservation? That’s still unclear. But even if we never see shaggy elephants or the shade cast by immense pigeon flocks, de-extinction research already underway has the potential to both tell us about the past and provide us with new tools to decide the future shape of nature. Whether you’re all for de-extinction or against it, Shapiro’s sharp, witty, and impeccably-argued book is essential for informing those who will decide what life will become.

9 thoughts on “Book in Brief: How to Clone a Mammoth

  1. An underlying theme is that we need to conserve habitat, even if it is to release analogous taxa…in the end we save wildlife and wild places.

  2. I dunno, as thrilling as it would be to have a “Pleistocene Park,” I’d rather funnel that money into conserving what we already have.

  3. I’m only interested in these shenanigans happening after all other at-risk species have strong sustainable populations.

  4. The problem Zach, is that more people would want to funnel ‘that money’ into a Pleistocene Park, and see living, breathing pseudo-mammoths and sabre-tooth cats than buy more habitat for the famililar species we have seen all of our lives. Even a completely fake ‘Jurassic Park’ brought more money and interest into dinosaur paleontology than any other single event in history.

  5. We can’t save what we have without bringing back what we wiped out.

    example 1: California condors are native to the entire North American continent, but with the human-caused (it’s pretty much safe to say this) extinction of megafauna, they were extirpated from most of their range. To truly save this species, it needs to be reintroduced to its native home in the East, which is impossible without cloning megafauna.

    example 2: Large browsers were major seed dispersers for tree species with large fruits and seeds, which are now barely hanging on. Unless we want to manually grow all of these species, we have to clone megafauna.

    example 3: Many of the prairie/steppe habitats used to be kept open and fertilized by mammoths, but with mammoths extinct due to humans, that habitat either no longer exists (in other words, habitat loss is the effect, not cause, of mammoth extinction) or is dwindling.

    Example 4: All of Australia’s native apex predators have been extirpated (Komodo dragon) or wiped out (everything else) by humans. Dingoes, being introduced species, cannot and should not be used as population control for the explosive growth in kangaroo numbers.

    We have to save entire ecosystems to save what’s already here. The only way to do this is to restore the missing pieces.

  6. De-extinction is an extremely exciting new field of research. However, creating resurrected species implies that nature must fit some human-concieved purpose; especially if we create hybrids with targeted functional characteristics. For example we may introduce mammoth-like elephants into Europe for re-establishing and maintaining grasslands, because we believed that the natural state for some parts of Europe at some point in time was such. But nature isn’t predestined to achieve these states which for various reasons we think are desirable, nature is just a product of what works at the current time. Our desire to re-establish certain ecosystems and ecosystem functions may come from value-judgements, personal perspectives and even emotions. We first need to decide for what purpose will we resurrect, before we decide what to resurrect. Will we resurrect purely to repair something which was lost and is now needed to maintain balance in the biosphere? Or will we resurrect due to guilt, curiosity, or even profit?

  7. The idea of de-extinction being considered as “carefully-crafted reinvention focused on ecosystem-scale repair” sounds promising, as it would attract masses of people keen on observing these reinvented organisms and in so doing would generate the funds needed for this presumably costly method to better the future.

  8. I’m not sure why cloning and environment conservation have to be mutually exclusive. It’s not one communal pot of money.

  9. We can’t save what we have without bringing back what we wiped out. We can’t just save the ones we have here. It’s a false dilemma.

    Maybe yes, it might channel funds and give us a 50% chance of losing what’s already here, but if we don’t do it, we have a 100% chance of not saving what remains.

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