The conceit of Beth Shapiro’s disturbing and thoughtful new book, How to Clone a Mammoth, is that it is a how-to manual, a cookbook for wannabe lords of (re-)creation. Nine of its 11 chapters describe steps in the process of bringing an animal back from extinction, beginning with how to select an organism to resurrect, and ending with how to look after it once it has been released into the wild. Along the way, the reader is treated to a sometimes dry exposition of the basic principles of the latest recombinant-DNA technology. Somewhere between wild, witty, speculative pop science and tediously technical genetics primer, the book is a bit of an uneven read but well worth the effort, because Shapiro knows whereof she speaks. At the “ancient DNA laboratory” at the University of California, Santa Cruz, she and her colleagues study, among other things, the genetics of the mammoth, a cold-adapted relative of the elephant absent from this planet for 37 centuries.
A few years ago, Shapiro was contacted by the maverick environmentalist Stewart Brand, who recruited her to a network of scientists engaged in developing the basic techniques for de-extinction. In 1968, in the first issue of the Whole Earth Catalog, his instruction manual for geeky DIY liberationists, Brand announced: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” His mantra today, nearly half a century later, is that we must get good at exercising our Olympian powers as we hurtle ever closer to ecological catastrophe. For Brand, de-extinction—along with nuclear energy and geo-engineering (deliberately introducing reflective particles into the atmosphere to mitigate the greenhouse effect)—is one of the more promising technologies to help humans ride out global warming. Every month, the members of his organization Revive & Restore share news via teleconference about their progress toward the goal of resurrecting mammoths, dodos, passenger pigeons, and other extinct creatures. Partly as a result of Brand’s missionary zeal, most of the people Shapiro hangs out with “believe that de-extinction is inevitable.” “I’m nearly certain,” she says, “that someone will claim to have achieved de-extinction within the next several years.”
How might an aspiring deity go about the astonishing business of reversing the extinction of the mammoth? First, Shapiro instructs us, find a well-preserved mammoth bone from which the whole genome can be sequenced. Then identify the differences between it and the genome of its nearest living relative, in this case the Asian elephant. Tinker with the elephant genome to make the animal hairy, fatty, metabolically cold-tolerant, and in possession of enormous curly tusks. Engineer a cell containing the altered DNA. Turn the cell into an embryo. Implant the embryo into the womb of a female Asian elephant. Wait for a baby mammoth to be born.
Each step of this process is at least theoretically achievable, given the current state of genetic research. The devil is in the details, and most of the book is devoted to a thoughtful rehearsal of the difficulties and complexities of the undertaking, as well as the reservations Shapiro has about its desirability. Describing herself as an “enthusiastic realist” concerning the project, she lists the daunting obstacles in the path of de-extinction, as well as some of the compelling reasons we might want to call a halt to the whole endeavor, while at the same time cheerfully insisting that it’s a worthy enterprise, on balance, and will happen soon whether we like it or not. She comes across as disarmingly modest and refreshingly cautious, and it’s a relief to learn that the de-extinction project is in such sensible hands.