Book review – Life as We Made It: How 50,000 Years of Human Innovation Refined – and Redefined – Nature

7-minute read

Books can be like buses: nothing is written on a topic for ages and then two books appear in quick succession. The subtitle of Life as We Made It resembles that of the recently-reviewed Life Changing. Both books indeed cover the same topic: how humans have shaped the genetics and evolution of plants and animals around them. Despite some inevitable overlap, Beth Shapiro draws on two decades of her career as a geneticist to make Life as We Made It a beast all of its own. I found myself both thoroughly enjoying her fantastic science communication while disagreeing with her outlook.

Life as We Made It

Life as We Made It: How 50,000 Years of Human Innovation Refined – and Redefined – Nature, written by Beth Shapiro, published in Europe by Oneworld Publications in October 2021 (hardback, 352 pages)

Shapiro, who is a Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UC Santa Cruz, previously won several awards for her book How to Clone a Mammoth. Her particular speciality is ancient DNA: the DNA recovered from extinct organisms and archaeological remains. These genetic time capsules have given us astounding insights and although a history of the research field is still forthcoming, Shapiro already gives you a taster. Her book is divided into two parts, one looking at our past through the lens of ancient DNA, the other looking to our future through the lens of biotechnology.

The first half of the book is an absolute joy to read, showing what ancient DNA reveals about the influence of humans on life around them. This includes the evolution of the bison, charting their decline during the last ice age, their temporary recovery afterwards, and then their near-demise at the hands of humans. She shows human evolution is a complex history of mixing and migration, reiterating the picture presented in Who We Are and How We Got Here. She examines megafaunal mass extinction, Paul Martin’s Pleistocene overkill hypothesis, and the ongoing debate over how much can be attributed to past climate change and how much to our hunting ancestors. She covers the process of animal domestication and how it affected both the genetics of animals and ourselves. And, finally, she looks at very recent extinctions (e.g. the passenger pigeon), the problem of invasive species, and the rise of the conservation movement.

The second half of the book looks ahead, tackling the genetic modification of crops and livestock and the broad resistance it encounters in society. Shapiro looks at length at some of the initiatives that use biotechnological tools to help pull species back from the brink of extinction. She carefully and cautiously considers the topic of de-extinction and comes away not entirely convinced that resurrecting species is a good idea. Simultaneously, the recent development of gene editing tools has raised the possibility of ridding the world of certain pests and disease vectors, such as the mosquito species that carry malaria. There is an extended discussion about gene drives, CRISPR, and the science and ethics of editing the human genome.

“despite the range of subjects covered [Shapiro] retains the finesse and detail of these complex topics, repeatedly demonstrating how careful research refines simplistic narratives.”

What stands out is just how accessible all this material is, despite the range of subjects covered. Shapiro has a knack for communicating clearly, throwing in amusing anecdotes and self-deprecating humour as she recounts some of her academic bloopers. The annotated bibliography is a welcome bonus. More importantly, she retains the finesse and detail of these complex topics, repeatedly demonstrating how careful research refines simplistic narratives. Take one of archaeology’s most enduring discussions: how we peopled the Americas. Analysis of bison bones suggests that humans coming over the Bering land bridge had already moved southwards, using a coastal route to bypass the glaciers covering North America before an ice-free corridor opened up. Similarly, popular science articles often exclaim how other animals, e.g. ants, also farm. Although such mutualisms look like domestication, “neither species intentionally modified the other” (p. 113), which is a key difference from what humans do. And the ability of humans to digest lactose does not correlate strictly with the practice of dairy farming, either now or in the past.

Despite thoroughly enjoying Shapiro’s presentation of complex scientific topics, I also found myself disagreeing with her optimistic techno-driven outlook. This is perhaps nowhere more apparent than when she writes that “we are too embedded, our technologies too advanced, our population too large to disentangle ourselves from the habitats that we have invaded over the last 200,000 or so years […]. We must use our increasingly advanced technologies to shape the future into one in which people can thrive alongside other species” (p. 102).

I beg to differ.

Before I climb on that soapbox, let me clarify that I am not anti-science. I share Shapiro’s frustration about people’s irrational resistance to GMOs and have previously written about the appeal to nature fallacy. For me, horizontal gene transfer is proof positive that nature beat us at the game of transgenics ages ago. Maybe it was not her intention, but it is a bit of a straw man to paint all opponents of biotechnology as either hostile to, or not knowledgeable about science. There are other reasons to have concerns.

“[Biotechnological] tools are not the only option available to us, nor always the best. […] How about us not always getting what we want? If behavioural change and cultivating an ethos of self-limitation […] can address problems, should we not consider this first?”

Shapiro recognizes that overpopulation and overconsumption are at the root of many environmental problems. I ask you: since when have technofixes ever caused us to want less of something? Since when, as she mentions throughout this book, have new technologies not caused new problems or had unintended consequences? To propose that we embrace our role as Earth’s stewards takes human dominance of the planet as a given, the only solution being “to science the shit out of this“, to quote The Martian.

Let me be clear: I do not think this is an either-or proposition. However, having reviewed both Abundant Earth and Limits I question the anthropocentric notion that we are entitled to keep shaping the world around us for our benefit first and foremost. Appealing to our long history of doing this is no justification. Shapiro concludes that “the world is changing, and people and animals and ecosystems are suffering. Biotechnologies give us the power to help” (p. 290). I agree that we will need the best science can give us and she gives good examples where these solutions are desirable, such as introducing disease resistance genes into the nearly-extinct American chestnut. However, these tools are not the only option available to us, nor always the best. In many cases, biotechnology will only encourage the status quo of more economic growth and more consumption, not less. She observes that “we are aware in ways that our ancestors were not of the consequences of getting what we want” (p. 132). How about us not always getting what we want? If behavioural change and cultivating an ethos of self-limitation, both on an individual and societal level, can address problems, should we not consider this first? It strikes me that currently this notion rarely enters the conversation. That is my challenge to her and the research community at large, to consider that prevention is better than a cure and, with that in mind, to re-evaluate proposed technofixes.

This difference in outlook did not stop me from tremendously enjoying Life as We Made It. Shapiro is a fantastic science communicator who addresses the many nuances of each topic she touches, and she can be disarmingly funny. I heartily recommend you read this book, but I also invite you to afterwards critically reflect on her ideas in light of what I have written above.


Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

Life as We Made It

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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2 comments

  1. Thank you for yet another insightful, well-written review! Generally, your blog is just a fountain of concise analyses and interesting references.

    I almost jumped in my seat when I read this: “If behavioural change and cultivating an ethos of self-limitation, both on an individual and societal level, can address problems, should we not consider this first? It strikes me that currently this notion rarely enters the conversation.”

    It seems to me that this is the crucial point in our current conjuncture. Admittedly, one cannot rule out a priori that we can somehow quickly figure out how to make Earth-the-open-themodynamic-system-in-terms-of-energy fully compensate for the limitations built into Earth-the-closed-thermodynamic-system-in-terms-of-mass. I really have my doubts – especially considering the probably uncomfortably narrow time frame before non-linear climate and biodiversity dynamics really begin to make their presence felt.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Morten, glad to hear you are finding the reviews useful.

      I agree that we cannot exclude the possibility, but banking on it seems risky. I think “uncomfortably narrow time frame” is hitting the nail on the head.

      Like

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