Beth Shapiro: Santa Cruz Author Talks About The Science of De-Extinction

Nov 19, 2015

The first thing you may notice about Evolutionary Biologist Dr. Beth Shapiro is how good she is explaining complex science to non-scientists.

You see it not only in her book, “How to Clone a Mammoth, The Science of De-Extinction”,  but also in how she uses humor to inform like in her 2013 TEDx presentation where she introduces herself saying: “I am a molecular Paleontologist, sound sophisticated?  Actually, I just made it up.”

Explaining complex subjects in simple terms is a skill she developed early in life.

I had a job when I was in high school working at the local television station, and I was actually on television every morning, and I wrote news and was the substitute anchor for the local news at night,” says Shapiro.

Her career goal at the time was to become a journalist, but it was a cross country field trip for a college course that literally took her down a different road.

“It was a geology and anthropology and ecology course and I learned a lot about being outside and natural history. And I was fascinated by this and decided at that point I wanted to be a science journalist,” says Shapiro.

So she began taking science classes. Later while studying at Oxford as a Rhode Scholar she met  a professor named Dr. Allen Cooper, an early leader in the study of ancient DNA. He told her he was looking for a PhD student to send to Siberia to study the DNA of ancient creatures.

And I thought well that’s about a good a reason to make a decision about what I want to do as any, never been to Siberia, quite like to go. So I signed up and the rest is history,” Shapiro says.

Today she teaches Evolutionary Biology at U.C. Santa Cruz. She still travels to Siberia and her research now focuses on  the DNA of mammoths; giant extinct members of the elephant family that roamed the earth more than 4000 years ago.

Shapiro says her research looks at how climate change back then might have contributed to the demise of the mammoth and what present day climate change might mean for creatures today. But when most people hear the words mammoth and DNA their thoughts turn from Science to science fiction – like in movie Jurassic Park where dinosaurs where cloned from ancient DNA.

She says, “when I get a call of talk to somebody on the phone really the only questions they want to answer is 'does this mean we can clone mammoths?'” 

So being asked the question over and over is the reason she wrote her book, “How to Clone a Mammoth; The Science of De-Extinction.”

Oh and spoiler alert,  the answer is no we can’t clone a mammoth at least not right now. Which points to a problem with book’s title, “How to Clone a Mammoth.”

"A better title might have been, 'how one might go  about cloning a mammoth should it become feasible to do and if it were ethically and ecologically a good idea and which it might not be right now', but that’s not as compelling a title," says Shapiro with a laugh.  

All of those issues, the science and the ethics of cloning extinct species are explored in her book.

So with mammoth cloning out for the time being, she remains focused on climate change and  how we use this science to clean up the mess humans created in the environment

“I think as members of that species with our big brain, our big brain that has allowed us to make these innovations, these inventions, that have caused this destruction of the planet, we have the capacity also to stop this destruction. That it is our job as people, as smart thinking species living on this planet, to do something about the damage that we already caused and try to make the world better,” says Shapiro

The book is called “How to Clone a Mammoth, The Science of De-Extinction” by Dr. Beth Shapiro. It is published by Princeton Press and is 220 pages.