Can We Bring Extinct Species Back? Should We?
Beth Shapiro on the Princeton University Press Ideas Podcast
Could extinct species, like mammoths and passenger pigeons, be brought back to life? The science says yes. In How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction (Princeton UP, 2020), Beth Shapiro, evolutionary biologist and pioneer in “ancient DNA” research, walks readers through the astonishing and controversial process of de-extinction. From deciding which species should be restored, to sequencing their genomes, to anticipating how revived populations might be overseen in the wild, Shapiro vividly explores the extraordinary cutting-edge science that is being used—today—to resurrect the past.
Journeying to far-flung Siberian locales in search of ice age bones and delving into her own research—as well as those of fellow experts such as Svante Paabo, George Church, and Craig Venter—Shapiro considers de-extinction’s practical benefits and ethical challenges. Would de-extinction change the way we live? Is this really cloning? What are the costs and risks? And what is the ultimate goal? Using DNA collected from remains as a genetic blueprint, scientists aim to engineer extinct traits—traits that evolved by natural selection over thousands of years—into living organisms. But rather than viewing de-extinction as a way to restore one particular species, Shapiro argues that the overarching goal should be the revitalization and stabilization of contemporary ecosystems. For example, elephants with genes modified to express mammoth traits could expand into the Arctic, re-establishing lost productivity to the tundra ecosystem. Looking at the very real and compelling science behind an idea once seen as science fiction, How to Clone a Mammoth demonstrates how de-extinction will redefine conservation’s future.
From the episode:
Marshall Poe: My first question is simply this. Do you like the Jurassic Park movies?
Beth Shapiro: What a place to start. I even started some of my public talks out exactly with this. … I need to take a couple steps back here. So Michael Crichton in Jurassic Park acknowledged a group at the University of California at Berkeley called the Extinct Species Study Group, which was led by Allan Wilson, who is not with us anymore, unfortunately. But Allan Wilson’s group was amazing and they were doing really amazing things, with supercool new technologies, pushing the edge of what was possible just then. They, with some collaborators in Germany and the San Diego Zoo, were the very first group to actually get ancient DNA or any DNA out of something that was dead. They actually worked with a little tiny piece of skin from something called a quagga, which is closely related to a zebra. They got a short fragment of DNA out of this thing that they compared to all the other DNA that was published at the time, which was actually not that much because it was the early 1980s, and figured out that it was a type of zebra. So not exactly shocking the world from a paleontological perspective, but they could get DNA out of something that was dead, which was super cool. There was an article in the New York Times that interviewed Allan Wilson, and he got to be the very first person in ancient DNA to be asked by a reporter whether it was going to be possible to bring a mammoth back to life.
That is something that none of us have been able to live down. That is by far the most common question that we are ever asked by anyone covering this stuff we’ve been doing in the lab, and is actually the reason I wrote this book.
Marshall Poe: Yeah, I actually it was a question that was driving that, because one of the things you say is that we can’t exactly do what is presented in the movies, even though they’re fine movies. I like the first one especially. But let’s get to the science a little bit. Let me ask you this. People know that animals have been cloned. Dolly was cloned in 1999. What do you need, scientifically-speaking, to clone an animal? What sort of material?
Beth Shapiro: Well, there’s a lot of things that we need and the things are materials and things are technological. But at the core, the most foundational thing that you actually need in order to make cloning the way we know it right now work, is a living cell. This is something that we do not have from any mammoth or indeed any species or individual that has been extinct or dead for some time now. There are some species that are extinct that before the last individual died, living tissue was taken and put into deep freeze. So it’s able to be brought back as living tissue. This is, for example, the bucardo, which a lot of people have heard of. There was an individual the last living individual was a female, and part of her tissue, skin tissue was taken while she was still alive and put into deep freeze. Later on, that was revived and used in cloning, the same way that people cloned Dolly the sheep. In fact, a bucardo was born, but it had a problem with one of its lungs and it died shortly after it was born. …. The only way extinct species could be brought back is if there is living tissue that’s going to be found. Of course, mammoths actually lived until relatively recently. This surprises some people when they find out that mammoths were alive only maybe thirty five hundred years ago… Still, there is no living mammoth material. There are no living mammoth cells. So we can not clone a mammoth. I suppose that’s terrible. I shouldn’t have started the interview like that. Now no one is going to buy my book.
Marshall Poe: Well, the way you presented in the book is hilarious. In the preface to the new edition, it’s very, very funny. So I recommend people read the book so they can see this very funny introduction in which almost the first words are, it’s been five years now and we still can’t clone a mammoth, and we never could. So you need a living cell, a viable cell. So one avenue to cloning an extinct animal would be to create a viable cell. Is that possible at all?
Beth Shapiro: Probably the technology that everybody’s heard of, because it comes up at least once a year, probably more often. George Church, who’s a friend of mine, is a scientist at Harvard’s Wyss Institute. He says something about how he’s got a little bit more mammoth DNA in one of his living elephant cells, and that means we’re going to have mammoths in the next year. This is a little bit disingenuous. We has skin cells from Asian elephants, which are the closest living relative of mammoths. Asian elephants and mammoths diverged evolutionarily about five or six million years ago. So there’s lots of differences in the DNA code between an Asian elephant and a mammoth, somewhere around a million or a million and a half letter differences. That’s the same number of differences that separate us and chimpanzees, to give you some idea of the sort of evolutionary divergence between these two. But if you take a living Asian elephant cell, you can use some of these newer biotechnologies like CRISPR DNA editing, so you can go in and sort of cut and paste your way from an elephant DNA sequence to a mammoth DNA sequence. Of course, if you’re going to do this one hundred percent of the way, you’d have to do one and a half million cut and pastes, which is not possible yet. Technological problems here, maybe someday we’ll be able to do this. George and his team have so far made about fifty different edits. So they’ve changed the elephant genome inside those cells that are living in dishes in his lab into a mammoth genome, a little bit, like 50 out of one and a half million changes, which is pretty significant. It’s a really cool and significant advance, but it is not the same thing as as actually having a mammoth cell. There’s a lot of differences there. Even if we were able to do that, there are steps after that that we don’t know how to do. Then we have a cell living in a dish in a lab. But that’s not a mammoth, right?
Marshall Poe: So let’s continue along this line of investigation. Let me take a step back. How many projects aimed at de-extinction are going on today. Are there people working on this in this way? What I’m talking about, so this animal didn’t die very long ago because animals are basically going extinct all the time. So they actually have one, let’s say, a very small set of this notional animal, and they managed to save it and they extract a set of cells from it, and then they attempt to reproduce or clone the animal. Are these kinds of things going on?
Beth Shapiro: We don’t really call that de-extinction because the lineage itself, the animal itself, whatever you’re going to call a species, and this is a confusing scientific thing that sometimes makes sense and sometimes doesn’t. If it’s not extinct, then you can’t have a de-extinction. Instead, what we like to think of this is a separate umbrella term, which we call genetic rescue. The idea that we can use biotechnologies like gene editing or translocations, which doesn’t involve actually manipulating any DNA, and like selective breeding programs to be able to reengineer diversity into populations that have lost diversity because they’re struggling to stay alive, because maybe there’s a disease that’s attacking them and things like that. There are many genetic rescue projects that are going on. I encourage anybody who’s interested this to check out the website of a not-for-profit based near me called Revive and Restore. They have some incredible details of supercool projects that are going on right now involving things including the mammoth. They have some details of George’s project with mammoth, but also black-footed ferrets, which are an adorable, very cute mammal that everybody thought was extinct for some time until one population was rediscovered and it was immediately put on the endangered species list and captive breeding programs began. This was great. They make a lot of black-footed ferrets in captivity, but when they are released back into the wild, they eat a prairie dog and they get plague and they die. That is not good news for black-footed ferrets.
Marshall Poe: So these species survive in small populations and they’re undergoing what is sometimes, I think, not technically called a bottleneck. So the population is almost too small to survive.
Beth Shapiro: A bottleneck just means that there’s very few individuals left and so they end up losing diversity and this can be bad. So when a population goes through a bottleneck, sometimes what will happen is if there’s a mutation that is bad… the Florida panther is a good example here. So the Florida panthers were actually a genetic rescue success story, even though the genetic rescue didn’t involve any manipulation of DNA itself. It did involve understanding that if you augment the pool of DNA that’s in a population, you can rescue them. You can save them from whatever bad stuff is happening because they’ve lost their diversity. So Florida panthers got to be very small population, highly inbred, and only a few individuals, and they started to show signs of of this inbreeding. So they had kinked tails, a crooked thing in their tail. Many of them didn’t have testicles that would descend, so they couldn’t reproduce. They were making very few mobile sperm. They had heart defects. They were really susceptible to disease. And what people did was they took panthers from Texas, just the nearest population to Florida panthers, and introduced a few healthy individuals into Florida. That addition of DNA overwrote those bad signals that were in the DNA from the inbreeding and saved the Florida panthers. The idea here is that we can do this same thing and overwrite any maladaptive mutations that are in these populations, but if there isn’t another population that we can borrow from the population, in Texas to stick in the panther or population somewhere else to stick into our black-footed ferrets, can we actually go to the past? So instead of going geographically, we go to a place called the Frozen Zoo in San Diego where before black-footed ferrets nearly went extinct, they captured some few individuals. They took some cells, and they put them in the deep freeze. So now we have these living deep frozen cells from individuals who have different DNA sequences because they were alive before this near extinction event. Can we use those individuals and clone those individuals and introduce them to that population, providing an increase in diversity and giving them and giving them a chance at surviving?
Marshall Poe: Right. Because with these very small populations, cloning is not exactly what you need because that produces a copy. What you need is increased genetic diversity. And that’s being done, I guess, is the right word artificially?
Beth Shapiro: You are cloning, but in this case, you’re cloning cloning individuals who used to be alive where there’s frozen cells and then you’re breeding those individuals into the population. So you’re increasing the diversity by cloning something that is dead, that’s been dead for decades, and then ad using technology to do that and then breeding that diversity into the new population, which is pretty cool. It’s not gene editing. We’re not editing. We’re not making any changes in DNA sequences. It is cloning; it is just cloning something that’s been dead for a long time, which is cool, it is kind of cool.
Marshall Poe: So if I understand correctly, you don’t think de-extinction as it’s described or portrayed in Jurassic Park, is possible?
Beth Shapiro: In Jurassic Park, it’s a weird thing. They took frog DNA and they stuck it into other things. I don’t know why they picked frogs, which is weird because even then we knew that birds were the most close living relatives to dinosaurs, not frogs. So why so far away in the evolutionary tree is a little weird, but whatever. But they were smashing things together, you know, filling in holes with different species, which is kind of crazy. The idea of de-extinction, finding something that’s been dead for a long time and somehow fixing the broken-up, tiny little junky pieces of DNA that have been decaying for tens of thousands of years, that’s not possible. But, you know, what do we mean by de-extinction? What is the goal of the de=extinction? Is it really to have a mammoth that we can look at and hug and maybe put in a zoo and maybe have kid rides on and stuff like that? Is there some ecological rationale for wanting to bring them back? I think for some recently extinct species whose extinction might have thrown their community that they lived in out of balance, then maybe there is a reason to try to bring them back and to reestablish ecological connections that that existed prior to their disappearance. But then you have to ask yourself, do you really need that exact species, or could you use something in its iplace? Is there something that’s closely related to it that does the same things? Or do we maybe need to use a little bit of our technologies here and say, well, we have elephants rights and let’s say we believe we really need mammoths up in the high Arctic. There’s a father-son team that have a place up in northeastern Siberia called Pleistocene Park. It’s Sergey Zimov and his son, Nikita Zimov, and they really want mammoths. They want mammoths to be back in Pleistocene Park because they think mammoths play a really critical role in establishing this ecosystem just by wandering around and knocking down shrubs, just like elephants do. They have this very pivotal role in maintaining their ecosystem, and they’re going to say we need a mammoth here in order to do this. But do they actually need a mammoth, or could they use an elephant that maybe has been modified using gene editing technologies to be able to survive and even thrive in the cold habitat up in Siberia? Elephants are tropically adapted, so obviously it wouldn’t work just to take an elephant and shove them into Pleistocene Park. That’d be bad for everybody. But if we could identify mutations in their DNA that would make them better able to survive in that environment, then maybe we could just create a cold adapted elephant. That is, in fact, what George’s team is working to do. They’re focusing on genes that are associated with things like metabolism and fat and hairier fur or things that would help these animals to survive in the high Arctic. So if they were to succeed, maybe they would create a cold adapted elephant. Now, here’s the question, and I think the answer depends on who you are. Let’s say they do create an elephant that’s capable of living in Siberia by taking some mammoth genes and cutting out the elephant version in the elephant cell and pasting in its place the mammoth version. So you have an elephant cell, mostly elephant, that has a bit of mammoth DNA in it. Does that count as a de-extinction? I don’t know. To me, no, I guess. I mean, it’s not really a de-extinction, it’s something else. What do you think, Marshall? Is that a de-extinction?
Marshall Poe: I would call it speciation or something like that. You’re essentially creating a new species. It’s like the old one, but it’s not identical to the old one. It’s like something else, but it’s also unlike something else. It reminds me of the process of speciation, where a new species emerges in a kind of natural way. I have to stop and ask you this question. What do you think of the metaphor of DNA as the blueprint for life? It’s a kind of tongue in cheek question.
Beth Shapiro: [laughs].
Marshall Poe: Right, it’s not the right metaphor.
Beth Shapiro: The challenge with that and it feeds right back into some of these issues associated with why we can’t actually create identical copies of things that are there. The idea of DNA as a blueprint for life assumes that everything that we are is rooted in the A’s and C’s and G’s and T’s, which are the four letters that represent the chemicals that make up our DNA code. We know that that’s not true. We’re a product of the DNA and the order of the letters that are there. In fact, a lot of what we look like is really based on that. If you want to know how important the DNA letters are in determining what somebody looks like, then just see identical twins. They look identical. They have the same DNA, but extend that a little bit and no identical twins as they get older, as they live different lives, and experience different things and have different illnesses and different stressors and different joys, they diverge in the way that they look and the way that they act. This is because we are a combination of what is coded by our DNA and the environment in which we live. The same would be true for any clone. A clone is just an identical twin that happens not to be born at the same time. We’re just born into entirely different environments, and also the prenatal environment is entirely different. So if we clone a mammoth genome by editing and copying and pasting our way from an elephant genome to a mammoth genome, and then we stick it inside an elephant mom, a maternal host, something we also don’t know how to do. Technological hurdle, number whatever. Would it be a mammoth or will it be an elephant? We know that the the prenatal environment is determined by mom’s stress hormones, mom’s food and mom’s DNA saying when to express different genes and not to express other genes. And mom in this case is one hundred percent elephant. So what sort of effect is that going to have on your mammoth DNA that’s inside that developing fetus? I don’t think we know. And then after it’s born, it lives with a bunch of elephants and it eats elephant food. Elephants do this weird thing where they feed their babies a bit of their poo, and that’s to establish the community of microorganisms that live inside their gut so that they can have the right community to break down what they eat. That would also be an elephant’s community of gut microorganisms. Scientists are only just beginning to understand how important that community of microbes is to making us look and act the way that we do. So there are lots of differences that come into creating an individual that have nothing to do with the sequence of the letters in their DNA code.
Marshall Poe: I’m not sure it’s a blueprint. I don’t know exactly what would be metaphor for it. It might be sui generis, but let’s move on a little bit and you’ve discussed this a tiny amount. You favor the de-extinction of distinct traits, if I’m not incorrect. What do you mean by that?
Beth Shapiro: By that, I just mean if there is a good ecological reason or evolutionary reason to bring something back, we might not necessarily need to bring the whole organism back, but just some traits that allow an organism to fill whatever niche is at the moment not occupied by something. You also have to remember that ecosystems are not in stasis. Everything is constantly in flux. When a species disappears, the ecosystem will change. New species will come in, other species might go extinct. Everything is constantly in flux. Everything is changing. And so if something has been extinct for many, many thousands of years, it’s not clear to me that it’s a great idea to bring it back and shove it into an ecosystem from which it’s been absent for a long time. That might again destabilize that ecosystem and send it off in some other direction. Every action that we take or don’t take affects the organisms in the communities and the ecosystems that are around us. This is just our role as humans, and we need to embrace that this is our role as humans.
Marshall Poe: But that new animal, the one with the different traits that actually has its roots in another species that is not on the verge of extinction, that species would be invasive then.
Beth Shapiro: Invasive. That’s a loaded term. Maybe, but we are constantly introducing other species. Also not even deliberately, but as secondary effects of things that we’ve done, the climate is changing considerably and species are expanding outside of their ranges, even without us doing anything like physically picking them up or accidentally putting them on a boat or an airplane. They’re moving into other other habitats. And if every time a new species is introduced into a new habitat, perhaps by walking there or by flying there on its own accord, we call it an invasive species. That means that we are taking an action as conservationists to say that, no, we don’t like the future way. We like it exactly as it is in December 2020. So why do we pick December 2020? Why do we pick pre-European colonization of North America as some perfect time? Why not the peak of the last Ice Age or the last interglacial right before that? We have to keep in mind when we think about invasive species or other loaded terms that consider the appearance of new communities of organisms as necessarily bad things, that everything is constantly changing. By not allowing things to change, we are making a decisive action. By allowing things to change, we are making a decisive action. What we have to do is come up with some logic by which we think we can manage the planet in a way that is probably best going to satisfy our own needs, because that’s what we’ve been doing for at least the last hundred thousand years.
Marshall Poe: So you talk about two methods for cloning. … The first one is back breeding. Can you describe back breeding? I found this just fascinating.
Beth Shapiro: Back breeding was in the book in context of the early part of the twentieth century, and the German government at the time, let’s just call them Nazis, decided that they wanted to recreate the aurochs, which is the extinct ancestor of our cattle that are wandering around today. But the aurochs was bigger and better and meaner than the cattle breeds that we have today. Because they were the big, bad, mean Nazis, they wanted to be able to have these guys that they could go fight them with swords and things. So they decided they were going to recreate the aurochs by taking the breeds that we had today and looking for ones that had traits that they thought looked like aurochs and then making offspring by breeding those guys together. So they were taking the individuals that we have right now and then breeding them to each other in order to create some traits that used to exist. Now, this was a silly idea. They had no idea what aurochs looked like anyway. They were just imagining what was going to happen, and obviously it didn’t work. But people are using back breeding now to try to do similar things. There’s a group in the Netherlands who are interested in breeding cattle to get aurochs traits now because we have better idea of what they looked like from the archeological and paleontological record. But they want to have these not to punch and hunt, but to reestablish on disused farmland so that they can try to get these animals to go roaming around and eating the grasslands and plains and maybe bringing back some of the habitat that used to be there on land that’s fallow at the moment. So they are using this approach, back breeding, just looking at traits and trying to bring traits together that they think are optimal to create some target offspring. It’s really similar to selective breeding, which is the way we’ve made everything from horses to the dogs, corn and wheat, etc. except it’s trying to get something that used to be in the past and that used to exist to come back out of the DNA.
Marshall Poe: But to really do it, if I understand this correctly, you would need to recreate the selection environment in which that species emerged so you had selection on the traits that you wanted. That’s a big job.
Beth Shapiro: Yeah, we do everything with artificial selection now, too, though, right? So if we can imagine that what we want is something with longer horns, then maybe we can do it just by picking individuals that have longer horns and forcing them to breed together rather than creating a habitat that would favor individuals with longer horns and therefore make them the most likely to breed and produce. So we create selective environments for everything now.
Marshall Poe: That’s what we do, and you can see it at the table we probably eat out every day. So then there’s another approach to cloning and that’s genetic engineering or insertion for traits in a living animal. How do you know which traits to include? I know the phenotypic ones are probably obvious. You want hair on your mammoth, but are there other ones that we don’t know about?
Beth Shapiro: That’s a great question, and can we call it technological hurdle number whatever plus one? We don’t know. You say those phenotypic traits are probably easy. Great. Yeah, I know that, for example, that I would like my cold adapted elephant to have thick layers of fat under their skin so that they don’t get cold. How many genes are associated with that and what genes are associated with that? No idea. I would love it for a black-footed ferrets to somehow have natural resistance to plagues so they don’t die. So what genes are associated with that? And how do we even know? If we think about what we do know today, what we do know today is about humans, because we’ve sequenced and studied a lot of humans, and about mice and fruit flies and arabidopsis plants because those are model organisms. And C. elegans because we don’t want to make the worm people mad because that happened. Did you see how the C. elegans war happened on Twitter a few months ago and it nearly caused a meltdown? You don’t make the worm people mad. They are just as important as fruit flies, which do not help at all to figure out what traits make mammoths fatter. But the things that we do know that link genotype to phenotype or physical traits are few and far between. So we’re really guessing. If we really want to be able to use genetic rescue or any form of de-extinction of traits as a form of conservation, we need much more detailed information about non-model organisms, about endangered species. And this is a problem. If the species is endangered, we don’t want to go out and grab bits of tissue from all of them. It’s a bit of a conundrum for a conservation.
Nonetheless, I do think that it’s a super promising approach. I guess one of the greatest success stories right now is the American chestnut tree story. Do you know the story?
Marshall Poe: No, I don’t. Please tell it to our listeners and me.
Beth Shapiro: Sp American chestnut trees were once the most abundant tree on the East Coast. There were millions of individuals that lived across the East Coast. Their most famous association was with passenger pigeons, although passenger pigeons went extinct before the American chestnut trees did for different reasons. American chestnut trees became extinct almost suddenly because a blight caused by a fungus was introduced from Japan or China and into probably botanical gardens in New York, and then it started to spread. Within just a few years, all of the millions of American chestnut trees were dead, all of them. But they’re not entirely dead. So what happens is the roots continue to live because the fungus doesn’t get to the roots, and every now and then they shoot up these little shoots and the shoots can survive for a little bit. But then the fungus gets in there and it causes a canker that causes the shoot to die and it never gets to reproductive age and the trees die. But there are lots of plants that actually have DNA sequences that allow them to coexist with this fungus by breaking down the acidity and neutralizing the acidity that causes the fungus to actually kill the plant. And so there is a team of people led by William Powell from SUNY who went about trying to figure out what it was that could stop these chestnut trees from being able to die from the blight. And then they found a gene that they picked from wheat, but which is just one of the many plants that has an innate way to fight this fungal disease, and they inserted it into genomes of the American chestnut tree. Now they exists because of genetic rescue, because of inserting DNA from a different species into American chestnut trees, a blight tolerant American chestnut variety that is currently jumping through the hoops of getting approved to be able to be planted in forests across the eastern part of North America. And it is an amazing success story of bringing this tree that is, was and could again be a foundational tree in these forests back by manipulating its DNA just a little bit.
Marshall Poe: I’m hesitant to ask this question because it’s a long tangent, but this does get us back into the question of what constitutes a species and speciation and what doesn’t. Is that chestnut tree really an American chestnut tree, or is it something else?
Beth Shapiro: I think it’s an American chestnut tree. It has a gene that we have inserted into it that comes from something else, but it doesn’t matter.
Marshall Poe: It doesn’t matter. It’s a taxonomical question.
Beth Shapiro: It’s an interesting idea. We as humans have a proclivity to want to categorize stuff because it makes it easier to talk about them. But how is a species actually formed? What is the process of speciation? Do the two organisms wake up one morning and think, oh, I am no longer you. I am a different species. That’s not how it works at all. We know that species barriers are permeable. I mean, some of the very first ancient DNA genomics work showed that Neanderthals and humans interbred way after we diverged. People are happy calling us different species, yet we know that we passed genes back and forth, and that those genes have actually been important. I mean, there are human populations, for example, the population of people that lives in high altitude Tibet, have a gene that is inherited that is derived from admixture with Denisovan people that live there that allow them to be able to breathe and use oxygen better when they’re up there. That isn’t a human-moved gene from one lineage to another. We didn’t deliberately do it. It just happened by normal processes of evolution. We like to think of evolution in a tree as this perfectly bifurcating thing, but it is not that. It’s not that all species will interbreed and exchange genes as long as they can. Sometimes genes are moved back and forth between lineages by viruses or by microbes. They don’t even have to be closely related lineages. Just because we are doing it with our technology that makes us feel a little bit more nervous about it. Maybe we’re a little bit more reticent to accept it, but it’s not necessarily unnatural.
Marshall Poe: I think we should leave the question of what constitutes a species to the philosophers or something, because it is a very tricky question and not a very meaningful one.
Beth Shapiro: When we start having discussions about these technologies and what we can do with them and what we should do to them, this is a question both of technology and of ethics and understanding and having this discussion about what constitutes a species, what is us going too far, what are we most comfortable with, what is possible to be natural? And now I’m going to use scare quotes for natural, because this is the way we think about natural and wildness is all very confusing, given what we’re learning from nomics and about evolution and what we’re capable of doing now with our technologies. But that is a subject for a different discussion I think.
Marshall Poe: That is a segue to my last question, and I have written down in my notes should we do this? But I think we’ve established that we probably should. The more interesting question, I think, is how do we pick a species for de-extinction. We we have limited resources and we need to make a decision that’s defensible to other people. How do we choose them?
Beth Shapiro: This is a great question and one that doesn’t really have an answer. I think people will give you different ideas depending on what they’re interested in. P people imagine that there are billionaires throwing money at this idea or potentially government organizations throwing are money at this idea. That’s not really true. I mean, there are people who are excited about the technology and we appreciate that people are excited and able to do this. But often this excitement is because this is an opportunity to be able to save species that are alive now from becoming extinct.There is excitement about maybe bringing something back, but if you think deeply about it and really try to imagine the effort that’s going into it and then not just bringing something back, but then what? Releasing it and creating sustainable populations and making sure that they’re physically and psychologically? Well, this is a big open question and something much easier to imagine in the short term doing to save species as a form of conservation, biodiversity conservation and using technology. And I think this is where the real benefit is going to come from investment. It’s exactly the same technologies. It’s just applied to species that are struggling today rather than species that are already gone. I think really this is where we are focusing and where we should be focusing.
Marshall Poe: Yeah, it’s a fascinating question. And I’m sure that the people that work in the field have thought about it a lot. I had never thought about it at all until I read your book, but it is something to ponder. Well, thank you very much for all of that. Let me ask what is the traditional final question on the New Books Betwork, and that is … what are you working on now? You can’t answer everything.
Beth Shapiro: Well, I have a new book coming out in the fall next year, and it is called Life As We Made It. This is all about how humans have been messing with things for as long as we’ve existed for a long time and really dives into some of these questions that you’re bringing up at the end here about what does it mean to be a new species and what does it mean to be manipulating things. I do talk a lot about the past, about what we learn from ancient DNA, about how we got where we are, about driving things to extinction and domestication and conservation, which people like to think of as leaving stuff alone but it’s in fact like making every decision about who gets to survive and reproduce. So it is the opposite of leaving things alone. Then about new technologies and where we might go from here. So it was a fun book to write. I am in the throes of doing the final touches on this. I’m very excited about that new project at the moment.
Marshall Poe: It’s really terrific. You have to come back on. Also, I want to say these questions about how we impact other species have really been on my mind recently because I have started to feed bluejays peanut’ out my back door. These bluejays are very smart, but I’m thinking to myself, I’m doing a kind of hard selection on the bluejay population in my neighborhood because the blue Jays that get the peanuts…
Beth Shapiro: I actually think the jays are very smart. They might be doing a hard selection on you.
Marshall Poe: I hadn’t thought of it but you’re totally right. I will prosper and have more children because I was nice to the jays.
Let me thank you for being on the show today. We’ve been talking to Ben Shapiro about her wonderful book, How to Clone a Mammoth. It was first published by Princeton University Press in 2015, and it’s out in the new edition with a new introduction or preface in 2020. I encourage you to go out and get it.
Beth Shapiro is professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She received a MacArthur Award in 2009.
Marshall Poe is the editor of the New Books Network. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.