Book Review: Woolly by Ben Mezrich


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.
Summary/Review:

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
Rating: ***

Book Review: The Wild Ones by Jon Mooallem


Author:  Jon Mooallem
TitleThe Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America
Narrator: Fred Sanders
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2013)
Summary/Review:

Wild Ones is an honest look into the status of endangered species and their relationship to humans in the present day.  Mooallem makes three trips – sometimes bringing his young daughter – to see animals who may be extinct within our lifetimes.  He first visits Churchill, Ontario, the only location where polar bears live adjacent to a human community and their strange celebrity status there.  Next, he visits the Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge in the Bay Area of California where Lange’s metalmark butterfly clings to survival in a post-industrial environment.  Finally, he visits the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) breeding centers that attempt repopulate whooping crane populations with minimal interaction with humans (the staff where crane-like disguises) and follows the annual Operation Migration where cranes are lead by light aircraft. At each spot, Mooallem interviews the people trying to rehabilitate the endangered animal populations as well as amateur participants and observers.

Supporting his journalistic endeavors, Mooallem also researches the relationships of humanity to animals in America, focusing on figures ranging from Thomas Jefferson to 19th-century zoologist William Temple Hornaday to 1970s whale advocate Joan McIntyre.  Mooallem frequently recognizes that the idea of wilderness is impossible in a world so widely-populated with humans.  The idea that endangered species can be simply rehabilitated and reintroduced to the wild is being replaced with the reality that they will require perpetual management to survive.  He also notes how people’s appreciation of wild animals is inversely proportional to their populations, and animals once endangered – such as Canada geese and white-tailed deer – are now considered pests.  But Mooallem also sees hope in a world where humans and animals are more interconnected as the ideas of a seperate wilderness are dismissed.

Mooallem writes in a snarky, fatalistic tone that, while understandable, I find off-putting.  Nevertheless, I find this an informative and thought-provoking book.

Recommended booksWhere the Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators by William Stolzenburg, Central Park in the dark : more mysteries of urban wildlife by Marie Winn
Rating: ***1/2

Podcasts of the Week Ending May 26


99% Invisible :: Curb Cuts

An important history of the disability rights movement and how curb cuts ended up benefiting society in a broader sense than originally intended.

WGBH News :: On ‘Melnea Cass Day,’ Remembering The Boston Civil Rights Activist And Her Legacy In Roxbury

A day for a great Bostonian.

Smithsonian Sidedoor :: Don’t Call Me Extinct

The story of rehabilitating the scimitar-horned oryx population.

Upon Further Review :: How Actor Jesse Eisenberg Doomed the Phoenix Suns

A funny story of how a young fan’s guilt over a letter to his favorite basketball player.