Author: Ben Mezrich
Title: Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures
Narrator: Ben Mezrich with epilogue read by George Church and afterward by Stewart Brand
Publication Info: New York : Atria Books, 2017.
This book at heart is a biography of George M. Church, a Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, who was a key part of the Human Genome Project. The every curious and somewhat eccentric Church is currently working on a project to clone and de-extinct the wooly mammoth. Besides being awesome, there’s good reason to do this as the effect megafauna have on their habit can actually combat climate change by helping to lock in the permafrost.
Mezrich details Church’s childhood and rise to prominence in scientific research. A long section of the book details his romance with molecular biologist Ting Wu and how their marriage caused a Harvard administrator to discriminate against her getting a tenured position (its odd after this story that Ting doesn’t play much of a role in the rest of the book).
The bulk of the book focuses on the effort to create a mammoth, which seems oddly possible and unlikely at the same time. There arehumorous stories like the one where one of Church’s team attempting to get an elephant placenta in order to find elephant stem cells. Unrelated to Church’s story there’s a Russian scientist seeking mammoth remains in the Siberian tundra and a Korean scientist seeking redemption who are also interested in cloning a mammoth.
All in all, this book is incomplete, because mammoths have not been successfully cloned and it may be decades, if ever, before it happens. The science of genetics and the biology of mammoths – and there surviving relatives, the elephants – are all very interesting. Did you know that elephants don’t get cancer? But it feels like Mezrich is adding lots of details to the narrative to fill it out and give it some drama that’s just not there.
Recommended books: Where the Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators by William Stolzenburg