Sunday, July 9, 2017

Review: Quest to resurrect mammoths remains woolly

Review of: Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures
Author: Ben Mezrich
Publisher: Atria Books
Source: Purchase, Interabang Books, Dallas
Grade: C

As a fan of all things Pleistocene, Ben Mezrich’s Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures? True, even fans of woolly mammoths (you didn’t think the book was about sheep, did you?) know only too well that the great Ice Age beasts no longer walk the earth. But until – if – living mammoths can be cloned or otherwise brought to life, we can feed our hopes with the possibilities of bringing them back to life.
book jumped out at me from a display table at Dallas’ newest independent bookstore, Interabang Books. How could I resist a title like

The book’s cover notes: soon to be a major motion picture, and Mezrich’s mosaic of opening scenes consciously mirror those of that other major motion picture about extinct monstrous animals, Jurassic Park. Mezrich’s technique can, however, be disconcerting in book form, with readers forced to jump from the viewpoint of the very last living woolly mammoths 3,000 years ago to a hypothetical scene of the future of the 21st century; from the early childhood in steamy Florida of American geneticist George M. Church to a truck drive across the icy Siberian wilderness; and on and on.

Scientifically minded readers should be warned that Mezrich (or his editors) can have a cavalier way with words. Elk antlers are blithely referred to as “horns,” small herbivores as “omnivorous,” and musk oxen as hybrids of an ox, goat and sheep. (Or possibly as hybridizing with all three of these species. I can’t quite make out which Mezrich has in mind.)

Less mammoth-infatuated readers may also wonder why anyone would spend the time (and money) to resurrect a long-extinct species when so many modern ones are in danger of extinction. Woolly tries to answer these skeptics, and in doing so skims through a host of stories as fascinating in their own right as any thriller.

There’s the eccentric and dyslexic scientist Church, zoologist turned geneticist intent on re-engineering the genomes of creatures from rodents to humans to mammoths. Church, Mezrich writes, decided after visiting the 1964-1965 World’s Fair that he was a time traveler from the future, desperate to find his way back.

And his wife, Chao-ting Wu (Ting to her friends), a Chinese immigrant whose race, sex, and yes, marriage blocked her scientific career path for years.

Or Stewart Brand, founder of the iconoclastic bible, Whole Earth Catalogue, and his wife, biotech entrepreneur Ryan Phelan, have dedicated themselves to resurrecting extinct species. (In an afterword to Woolly, Brand reports that the first proxy passenger pigeons may be alive as early as 2022.) Other leading candidates for revival, he writes, include the Tasmanian tiger, New Zealand moas, and ivory-billed woodpecker.

Most intriguing to me are Russians Nikita Zimov and his father Sergey, who for decades have worked to restore moss and lichen Arctic tundras to their Pleistocene lushness, which once supported vast herds of giant herbivores. Including woolly mammoths. The Zimovs’ dream doesn’t involve resurrecting extinct species for their own sake, but using restored Arctic grasslands to halt global warming. (The Zimovs believe the tread of large herbivore hoofs makes the upper permafrost area of soil more amenable to the growth of grass.)

So, even without living woolly mammoths, there would be plenty to report. Woolly, however, fails to deliver adequately on these promises. Near the beginning, and again near the end, Mezrich tempts readers with possible views of mammoths four years from today. . . and three years from today. Maybe he hopes that by the time of the cover’s promised “major motion picture” materializes, there will be more to show. In the end, Woolly can't deliver on its promises.

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