How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction by Beth Shapiro - review by Tori Herridge

Tori Herridge

Shaggy Elephant Story

How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction


Princeton University Press 220pp £16.95 order from our bookshop

Early on in How to Clone a Mammoth, Beth Shapiro warns the reader against making emotional decisions over whether extinct species should be brought back to life. Informed evaluations are critical when considering de-extinction. I’ve never understood why reason and emotion should be mutually exclusive and I suspect that deep down Shapiro doesn’t either, because How to Clone a Mammoth is a personal manifesto for de-extinction where her (informed) emotions are apparent. Therein lies its power. She doesn’t care that the genetically modified facsimile of a passenger pigeon that her lab is trying to create is not – and never will be – the real thing. She does care, however, about how genetically engineered elephants might transform the Siberian tundra, were they allowed to graze and trample and – importantly – defecate there. We learn that George Church, a powerhouse of genomics research, is one of her favourite scientists. Shapiro’s thoughts and feelings are ever present in this breezy introduction to de-extinction science and the reader is soon on first-name terms with not just George, but also Stewart (Brand), Sergey (Zimov) and the other leading lights of the de-extinction effort. She hovers on just the right side of an undergraduate introductory lecture: never exhilarating, but always warm and accessible. Shapiro’s informal approach, peppered with deadpan asides, is a welcome change from the hyperbole and grandstanding that have come to characterise popular debates on rewilding and de-extinction, and mammoth cloning in particular.

Shapiro has a few bones to pick with the media about their mammoth-cloning obsession. Her world-weary eye-rolling and sarcastic asides are the standard – almost expected – response of scientists suffering from ‘mammoth cloning fatigue’. But it’s important to remember that mammoth cloning is newsworthy, in a way that the

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