Shapiro, a paleogenomics pioneer, provides a road-map for thinking about the possibilities of de-extinction in How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction.
Your research requires a mix of field work and laboratory work. Which of these do you enjoy more?
It’s more fun to travel to somewhere exotic than to go into the lab and move tiny bits of liquid from one tube to another. I think it’s important that my students and postdocs who work in the lab also get the chance to go out into the field. You gain a lot both personally and scientifically from being in the location where the animals once lived. My lab asks all kinds of questions about how climate change in the past affected the diversity, distribution, and abundance of different species. It’s one thing to talk about it, but it’s another thing to see the tundra landscape, to stand there and visualize what it must have looked like 20,000 years ago.
What do you think is the biggest ethical question surrounding the revival of extinct species?
If ethics were to be considered as strongly as they should be, then mammoth de-extinction might be one of the poorest options. We would need to get eggs from Asian elephants, and we might need to use them as surrogate hosts, neither of which we know how to do in a way that is ethical at this point. What we know about elephant behavior in captivity raises questions both about how we treat elephants that are being used as part of this experiment, and how we treat mammoths ethically in captivity. Is it ethical to bring back just one when we have strong suspicions that these were very social animals?
You’d like to separate “science” from “science fiction.” What do you feel is the current state of public science literacy?
People are aware of what’s going on in the world around them, and care more than they are given credit for. The audience I’m talking to in this book is not afraid of science and not afraid to think about some of the crazier potentials of science. If people are invested in science, nature, ecology, and the environment, they’re more likely to want to protect biodiversity, to do their part to make sure we can do that and our children can do that.
Did you encounter any surprises during your Arctic fieldwork?
A mosquito net is absolutely indispensable. Otherwise you can’t breathe without inhaling mosquitoes. There are millions of them, more than you could possibly imagine. Going to visit my dad in South Florida, I used to think, “This is as bad as it could possibly get.” But when I went to Siberia for the first time, I was taken aback. I didn’t understand how so many mosquitoes could survive if there weren’t many large mammals wandering around, but it turns out these mosquitoes in the Arctic have evolved to no longer need a blood meal to reproduce. The only time I did not have mosquitoes making me miserable was when I was hanging out with the Dolgan people. They had reindeer, which the mosquitoes preferred to us.