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Good Reads  Organismal to Molecular Biology  Genetics & Genomics

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

Popular Science
By: Beth Shapiro(Author)
341 pages, no illustrations
Ancient DNA specialist Beth Shapiro examines our past impact on evolution, showcasing science communication at its finest.
Life as We Made It
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  • Life as We Made It ISBN: 9780861544370 Paperback Oct 2022 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 1 week
  • Life as We Made It ISBN: 9781786079404 Hardback Oct 2021 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 1 week
Selected version: £18.99
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About this book

Virus-free mosquitoes, resurrected dinosaurs, designer humans. Such is the power of the science of tomorrow. But this idea that we have only recently begun to manipulate the natural world is false. We've been meddling with nature since the last ice age. It's just that we're getting better at it – a lot better.

Drawing on decades of research, Beth Shapiro reveals the surprisingly long history of human intervention in evolution through hunting, domesticating, polluting, hybridizing, conserving and genetically modifying life on Earth. Looking ahead to the future, she casts aside the scaremonger myths on the dangers of interference, and outlines the true risks and incredible opportunities that new biotechnologies will offer us in the years ahead. Not only do they offer us the chance to improve our own lives, but they increase the likelihood that we will continue to live in a rich and biologically diverse world.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Fascinating and thought-provoking
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 25 Oct 2021 Written for Hardback

    Books can be like buses: nothing is written on a topic for ages and then two 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.

    Shapiro's particular speciality is ancient DNA: the DNA recovered from extinct organisms and archaeological remains, which are genetic time capsules that have given us astounding insights. 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, temporary recovery, and then near-demise at our hands. She shows human evolution is a complex history of mixing and migration. She examines megafaunal mass extinction and the ongoing debate over how much to attribute to climate change vs. human hunting. 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 save species from extinction. She carefully and cautiously considers the topic of de-extinction and comes away not entirely convinced it 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.

    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.

    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.

    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. Its long history 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.
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Beth Shapiro is a Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UC Santa Cruz. She has appeared on the BBC, National Geographic and Discovery, and written for the Financial Times and Observer. She is the author of the award-winning How to Clone a Mammoth.

Popular Science
By: Beth Shapiro(Author)
341 pages, no illustrations
Ancient DNA specialist Beth Shapiro examines our past impact on evolution, showcasing science communication at its finest.
Media reviews

"A brilliant combination of science, natural history, and first-person experience, Life as We Made It shows how our species has been manipulating nature for nearly as long as we've been around. Anyone who wants to better understand the future of life – human and otherwise – should read this book."
– Jennifer Doudna, winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

"For the past two decades, Beth Shapiro has pioneered using ancient DNA to understand the diversity of life. In Life as We Made It, her twin passions for cutting-edge science and natural history leap from every page. This book will entertain and challenge you to think in new ways about our role in the future of life on Earth."
– Neil Shubin, evolutionary biologist and author of Your Inner Fish

"Very few people write about the insane complexities and power of biology with greater clarity, insight and levity than Beth Shapiro."
– Adam Rutherford, author of A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived

"In this brilliant new book, biologist Beth Shapiro tells the incredible story of how we're remaking much of nature and lays out a thoughtful path for how we can survive and thrive by learning to more wisely apply our god-like powers."
– Jamie Metzl, author of Hacking Darwin

"Shapiro chronicles the many ways humans have influenced the evolutionary trajectories of other species, from prehistory through the present day. Tools like CRISPR are just the latest way we have shaped the life on this planet. She effectively makes the case that our use of evolution as a tool is ethically acceptable, if done carefully and with informed consent."
– Emma Marris, author of Wild Souls

"In an age when "technology" has become synonymous with the information kind, it is worth being reminded that other sorts are available. And with one of them people can, if they so choose, remake themselves."
The Economist

"Throughout our existence, humans have been unconscious genetic engineers. In this excellent summary of the most exciting parts of 21st-century biology, Beth Shapiro shows how we have inadvertently shaped the natural world, producing extinctions and slowly altering domestic animals. Above all, she optimistically describes how we might be able to use our new conscious ability to engineer genomes to save species and deliberately change the world for the better."
– Professor Matthew Cobb, University of Manchester

"An engaging account of how our ancestors' actions, over tens of thousands of years, ended up modifying our genomes and those of countless other species, a thanksgiving for the beauty and bounty wrought by these changes, and a thoughtful, refreshingly optimistic anticipation of what is to come as we, one way or another, exert ever greater control over evolution."
– Austin Burt, professor of evolutionary genetics, Imperial College London

"[a] fun-filled survey [...] Shapiro's anecdotes are full of energy [...] Perfect for fans of Mary Roach, this is science writing with much to savour."
Publishers Weekly

"Deeply thought-provoking [...] Around two to three decades ago the protests against genetically modified food types seemed warranted and necessary due to far too many unknowns. Now, with more precise genetic editing, examples such as Golden Rice discussed by Shapiro demonstrate that we are now in more nuanced times, and this is a topic that does need to be examined and more closely debated. Shapiro's book is timely and well worth reading."
– Simon Cocking, Irish Tech News

"The scientific study of ancient DNA preserved in extinct species and the possibility of de extinction make for truly fascinating reading. Employing just the right amount of paleontology, history, genomics, and archaeology, Shapiro warns that we stand on the precipice of fashioning a new, unnatural nature. The risk of messing up the future of other species and even the planet itself looms large."

"Shapiro takes readers on a succinct and compelling journey through historical events, inventions, and decisions that have forever changed the course of life on Earth [...] In what is perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Life as We Made It, Shapiro clearly articulates key questions whose answers will define how we think about and use the power we now yield [...] Shapiro offers readers a history lesson from which to pull both caution and inspiration. In doing so, she sets the table for a needed conversation about our lasting imprint on the tree of life. It is up to us to take a seat."

"Beth Shapiro's unmissable book [...] My advice is not to waste time on COP26, and read this book instead [...] She is a thoughtful academic [...] This book brings readers up to date, assessing the impact on research of the COVID-19 event and the appetite for adopting riskier technologies more quickly [...] Life as We Made It turns a potentially chilling threat into a promise – so long as those charged with the process are as far-seeing and practical as its author. That's the challenge upon which readers will be left reflecting."

"Beth Shapiro takes readers on a journey of scientific discovery, explaining how symbiotic relationships between humans and the environment around us have changed – but not always for the better [...]"

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