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Academic & Professional Books  Organismal to Molecular Biology  Genetics & Genomics

Ancient DNA The Making of a Celebrity Science

By: Elizabeth D Jones(Author)
280 pages, 3 b/w illustrations
Ancient DNA is an intellectual history of this fascinating discipline that skillfully combines interviews with science study.
Ancient DNA
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  • Ancient DNA ISBN: 9780300240122 Hardback May 2022 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
Price: £29.99
About this book Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

The untold story of the rise of a new scientific field, ancient DNA research, and how Jurassic Park and popular media influenced its development

Ancient DNA research – the recovery of genetic material from ancient and extinct organisms – is a discipline that developed from science fiction into reality between the 1980s and today. Drawing on historical and archival material, as well as original interviews with more than fifty scientists worldwide, Elizabeth Jones explores the field's formation and explains its relationship with the media by examining its close connection to de-extinction, the science and technology of resurrecting extinct species. She reveals how the search for DNA from fossils flourished under the influence of intense press and public interest, particularly as this new line of research coincided with the book and movie Jurassic Park. This book presents the first historical and sociological account of the search for DNA from ancient and extinct organisms with attention to the intimate interplay between science and celebrity.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • An excellent intellectual history
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 5 Oct 2023 Written for Hardback

    When I say fossils, bones will likely come to mind. However, scientists can also use traces of ancient biomolecules such as DNA, proteins, and pigments to reveal more about extinct organisms. Join me for a truly excellent intellectual history by science historian Elizabeth Jones that outlines how this discipline developed, spiced up with quotes from more than fifty interviews, scholarly context provided by science and media studies, and the enduring legacy of a blockbuster movie.

    The recovery and analysis of ancient DNA (aDNA hereafter) from skin, bone, or other tissues of long-dead organisms has allowed an unparalleled peek into the past. Rather than relying on today's DNA, aDNA allows you to step back in time and sample DNA as it was, shedding new light on the evolutionary history of organisms. There are three major beats to this book worth highlighting.

    First, Jones's chronology covers all the key people and developments. After introducing the 1980s pioneers, two biotechnological inventions feature prominently. First, in 1983, was the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) that allowed easy amplification of small amounts of DNA. This brought with the problem of contamination, the accidental amplification of other DNA on or in your sample, leading to unlikely claims of very old aDNA. When these could not be replicated and became an embarassment, stringent protocols were recommended. Adherence to them became a batch of credibility for some and a sign of unwelcome gatekeeping for others. A second breakthrough was the 2005 invention of next-generation sequencing (NGS) that enabled analysis of complete genomes. Though Jones does not really explain the details, the reason NGS was such a godsend is that the first step normally involves the creation of a library of tiny DNA fragments. That pretty much describes aDNA. With NGS, contamination could be quantified and became a lesser concern. Some consider it the maturation and even death of the discipline, with aDNA becoming just another tool in the toolbox, on par with e.g. radiocarbon dating.

    Second, writing this book was partially an extensive oral history project that involved interviews with over fifty researchers. To prevent professional backlash in this competitive field, she has granted all her interviewees anonymity, encouraging some very honest reflections. Some recalled criticism of senior scientists who became self-appointed gatekeepers while others remembered being treated as outsiders, feeling unwelcome and ignored at conferences. In addition, her interviewees gave her access to a treasure trove of personal files, unpublished data, contemporary newsletters, and other such grey literature. All of the above provides numerous candid insights into the decades of tensions, rivalries, and triumphs, making for an engaging book.

    Of course, you cannot discuss aDNA without mentioning Jurassic Park, and this is a recurrent subplot. Few will know that Michael Crichton visited entomologist George Poinar in 1983 and based his idea of resurrecting dinosaurs by extrapolating from early research, creating a believable plot point. The success of the novel and subsequent movie adaptation in turn strongly influenced aDNA research. In the minds of the press and the public, it became inextricably linked with resurrecting extinct species. Though many scientists were quick to separate fact from fiction, point out this was rarely the goal of their research, and highlight the serious ethical and practical issues, they were nevertheless happy to reference Jurassic Park to garner public interest. While dinosaurs still seem out of the question, some scientists have in recent years entertained the idea of recreating mammoths or more recently extinct species such as the passenger pigeon or the thylacine.

    The third noteworthy beat is that Jones places her findings into context, referencing the work of science and media historians, philosophers, and sociologists. For instance, early aDNA research saw rampant speculation. Science philosophers Adrian Currie and Kim Sterelny have written about the importance of speculation in generating new hypotheses, so-called "productive speculation", and warned against the dangers of idle speculation. Jones's interviews reveal aDNA researchers were well aware of both. Sociologists have written about hype cycles in technology and science, where high expectations are followed by disappointments, hard work to make sense of it all and establish limits, and ultimately a productive phase. Jones shows how aDNA research went through two such cycles with the invention of PCR and NGS. Lastly, science studies scholar Thomas F. Gieryn's concept of boundary-work describes how scientists separate science from non-science. Jones shows how aDNA scientists were doing double boundary-work as both DNA contamination and excessive media attention could undermine their credibility if allowed to get out of hand, thus requiring policing and gatekeeping.

    This book also represents Jones's contribution to the field of science studies by proposing the concept of "celebrity science". It is an extension of communication studies scholar Declan Fahy's concept of celebrity scientists (think Carl Sagan or Stephen Jay Gould), but instead focuses on a branch of science. Celebrity science exists and evolves under intense and continuous (rather than periodic) public and media interest. This was true of aDNA research, especially once Jurassic Park hit the movie screens. Her book carefully documents how researchers were constantly trying to balance between cultivating this interest (and with it publicity and funding opportunities) and controlling it (which proved challenging once ideas were out in the public domain). How widely applicable is this idea? I can dream up some examples (Research on black holes in the wake of the movie Interstellar? Dinosaur palaeontology? Zoological research on charismatic megafauna such as lions?) but it would have been interesting had she commented on this.

    Ancient DNA is a truly excellent intellectual history of this fascinating discipline. So far, Doing Ancient DNA by Elizabeth Bösl was the only book-length outsider's perspective on this field, though as Jones mentions, it focuses on Europe and on archaeology (and, I add, is written in German). Jones's book is thus a very welcome addition. It is more than just a well-written chronology as it incorporates an extensive oral history component and contextualizes its subject using concepts from science and media studies. She strikes a fine balance between these three facets, effectively writing a scholarly page-turner. Incidentally, she also shows the value of writing the history of a discipline while its participants are still around to tell their part in the story.
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Elizabeth Jones is a historian of science and postdoctoral research scholar at North Carolina State University. She lives in Cary, NC.

By: Elizabeth D Jones(Author)
280 pages, 3 b/w illustrations
Ancient DNA is an intellectual history of this fascinating discipline that skillfully combines interviews with science study.
Media reviews

"Elizabeth Jones reveals ancient DNA to be a field of scientific research driven by two forms of contamination – DNA from living organisms and public celebration of the idea of old DNA. She demonstrates the often-underappreciated power of celebrity in driving modern science."
– Beth Shapiro, author of How to Clone a Mammoth and Life As We Made It

"A fascinating narrative history of ancient DNA [...] Elizabeth Jones's insightful arguments and riveting storytelling make this book a pleasure to read."
– Caitlin D. Wylie, author of Preparing Dinosaurs: The Work behind the Scenes

"Groundbreaking. This book not only explains in careful and clear detail the gradual development of ancient DNA techniques, together with the successes, but also interweaves skillfully the story of how the movie Jurassic Park influenced the science. If you read but one book this year on the making of science, it should be this one."
– Michael Ruse, author of Darwinism as Religion: What Literature Tells Us about Evolution

"Ancient DNA fills a major gap in the history of a relatively new science, and in the intersection of modern culture and science communication and practice. I expect it will become very influential and likely will attract the same kind of media attention that its subject generates."
– Dennis O'Rourke, Foundation Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, University of Kansas

"Elizabeth Jones's original contribution to science communication studies richly conceptualizes a novel type of scientific field – a "celebrity science," one that evolved within the dynamics of publicity, journalism, and popular culture."
– Declan Fahy, author of The New Celebrity Scientists: Out of the Lab and Into the Limelight

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