The Hippo


Aug 18, 2017








Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures, by Ben Mezrich
(Atria, 278 pages)


 You’ve got brilliant scientists. You’ve got genetic engineering. You’ve got the real-life version of Jurassic Park, only with creatures more majestic than terrifying. Throw in the fact that a movie is already in the works, and that the author wrote the book that became The Social Network, the 2010 movie about the founding of Facebook that won three Academy Awards.

So how do you make Ben Mezrich’s Woolly something bordering on boring?
First, by making the woolly mammoth a supporting actor, not the star.
Woolly is not so much a book about the quest to bring back the woolly mammoth, the hairy behemoth that has been extinct for 10,000 years, as it is a love letter to Dr. George Church, the renowned Harvard geneticist at the forefront of the effort.
Mezrich opens every new section from the book with not one but two or three quotations from Church, which seems bizarrely sycophantic and also makes you wonder why he chose these particular quotes. Church, a founder of the Human Genome Project, may be the smartest man strolling the streets of Cambridge, but you wouldn’t know it from some of these lines, such as, “You can’t just hoard your ideas inside the ivory tower. You have to get them out into the world.”
My theory is that Mezrich wanted to write a biography of Church, but an editor said it would never sell unless he threw a six-ton muppet into the mix. So instead of Church: The True Story of the Genius Who is Going to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures, we got Woolly. Church does deserve a biography, and will get it one of these days.
The second problem with Woolly is that Mezrich makes the reader work so hard to get at the story. Those of us who are eager to know the story promised in the subtitle would like to read that fascinating tale in a linear fashion, point A to point Z. 
Instead, Mezrich employs a narrative style that doubtless helped him sell the movie rights but does nothing to help the reader. It’s the literary equivalent of cracking pistachios: so much work for the meat. We must endure quasi-fictional asides, such as an opening in which an imagined woolly mammoth calf  faces a row of men holding spears, and an entire chapter about the grad student the lab hired to bring freshly delivered elephant placenta to Harvard.
This is not to say that the reason the scientists needed elephant placenta isn’t interesting, but we don’t need to know that the guy who delivered it used to drive an ice-cream truck  and that he hopefully buys drinks for flight attendants at airport bars.
The effort to bring woolly mammoths back — or, more correctly, as Mezrich notes, the effort to create woolly mammoths, because scientists are no longer reading DNA but writing it — is riveting stuff. It is cutting-edge science with life-altering implications and ethical conundrums. The science involved is far more important to our lives than most of what passes for news on the nightly cable shows.
Which is why it seems diminished by this particular manner of presentation, with made-up dialogue and a tone that borders on deferential, not only to Church, the god-hero, but also to woolly mammoths, which are capitalized throughout like some tusked deity. 
Only occasionally does Mezrich hint, through the questions of the “revivalists” (a term ironically pregnant with religious meaning), that perhaps it’s worth spending a little more time and ink pondering who is really served if de-extinction becomes real. The cover art, which shows the shadow of a woolly mammoth with a city skyline in the background, is cool but deceptive. Humans have yet to learn to live with deer peaceably; it’s hard to imagine mammoths politely keeping to the outskirts of  Concord or Manchester.
The good things: Mezrich does a decent job at explaining the complex machinations of what’s come to be known as “de-extinction,” the process by which scientists hope to fuse ancient and modern DNA, using a single, intact nucleus recovered from a mammoth entombed in ice, CRISPR gene-editing technology and elephant cells provided by Ringling Brothers. 
The tale contains many interesting asides, including the story of a Russian scientist who believes he can head off catastrophic global warming by re-introducing herds of animals to the Siberian tundra. (That is surely the holy grail of grant proposals:  Please fund this research because woolly mammoths in a petri dish will stave off human extinction.) 
But recent news that scientists have edited the DNA of embryos to successfully erase a type of heart defect makes creating a woolly mammoth seem more like a  sideshow or a cool science-fair project, like a baking-soda volcano. Science is moving faster than the capacity of the average person to understand it. Books like this are needed to help us make sense of a world soon to be populated with woolly mammoths and designer babies. It’s disappointing (tusk, tusk) that this one wasn’t more engaging; let’s hope the movie is better, and that it arrives before the first woolly mammoth does. C 
— Jennifer Graham 

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