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Book Review: “Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures”

Yes, it’s true: scientists want to try and bring back the Woolly Mammoth, and they believe they can do so within the next few years.  Woolly, by Ben Mezrich, describes the effort involved in making that happen.  It’s another good piece of narrative nonfiction.  However, it does lean heavily on the “narrative” side.

Although the story hops back and forth between different people involved in the plans to bring back mammoths, Mezrich mostly focuses on geneticist George Church.  Church and his team have been analyzing the DNA from frozen mammoth carcasses to find the special traits that make it what it is, i.e. the long, shaggy red hair and the ability to withstand extremely cold temperatures without freezing.  Using isolated cells from Asian elephants, they experiment on splicing the DNA and inserting the genomes that would give an elephant these qualities.  Using an artificial womb to grow their creation, they would have a Mammoth-elephant hybrid that could survive in places such as Siberia.

And why should scientists toy with Mother Nature and resurrect a dead species?  According to Mezrich, the Woolly Mammoth used to play an important part in our ecosystem.  There’s a layer of permafrost that covers the Siberian plains of Russia, and if it melts due to global warming, it will release dangerous amounts of carbon gasses trapped underneath the earth’s surface.  Animals such as mammoths used to trample the earth and expose the permafrost to the extremely cold temperatures in Russia, thus preserving it.  So bringing them back could significantly help the environment.

Woolly is a very interesting read, but it also feels like a book published too soon.  Since nobody has been able to resurrect the Woolly Mammoth yet, the story remains incomplete.  A few chapters describe a team in South Korea that believe they found a mammoth carcass containing liquid blood, which would allow scientists to see a complete string of its DNA.  But we never find out if they really found a carcass with blood or not.  That part is left hanging.

Then there are chapters that take place in the hypothetical future.  They’re interesting to read, but since the conversations and meetings within them haven’t happened yet, there’s no guarantee that they will ever happen.  This damages the credibility of the book overall.

All that to say, I found the general topic fascinating, so I do recommend reading the book.  If you’re interested in learning more about the Woolly Mammoth Revival Project, before or after reading the book, I recommend checking out the official website, Revive & Restore, or this National Geographic interview with Ben Mezrich.

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