Book review: Fascinating science gets buried in ‘Woolly’

  • Author: David A. James
  • Updated: January 20
  • Published January 20

Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive one of History's Most Iconic Extinct Creatures

Ben Mezrich; Atria Books/Simon & Schuster; 304 pages; 2017; $26

“Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive one of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures” by Ben Mezrich

No creature is more thoroughly associated with the ancient Arctic and Ice Age worlds than than the woolly mammoth. A relative of today's elephants, it was ideally suited for frigid environments due to its thick coat of fur and resistance to frostbite. Emerging some 400,000 years ago, it coexisted with humans once they arrived on the scene, but only for a while. The woolly mammoth's extinction was driven first by climate change as the last Ice Age ended and its habitat receded to the Arctic, and then by humans, who hunted it into oblivion. The last remnants lived on Russia's Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean, where they were decimated by hunters a mere 4,000 years ago.

Woolly mammoths are the stuff of popular legend, but they're also the target of scientists currently striving to bring the animal back to life and reintroduce it to its former habitat. The obvious questions are, how would this be done, and more importantly, why? The answers can be found in best-selling author Ben Mezrich's recently published "Woolly," but unfortunately readers will have to sift through lots of filler to get them, because it's a mess of a book.

The science side of the story, when Mezrich gets to it, is fairly simple to grasp and operates on three main fronts. The primary one is the laboratory of the renowned Harvard geneticist and molecular engineer George Church. Church was first drawn to the the mammoth after learning that scientists at Penn State wanted to sequence its genome. In his mind, which sees no limits on the possibilities for science, the next logical step would be to revive the creature. He assembled a team and went to work.

They decided to essentially sequence woolly mammoth DNA from scratch. Beginning with the Asian elephant, the mammoth's closest living relative, the idea was to isolate the differences between the two animals' DNA, engineer elephant tissue into mammoth tissue, create an embryo and bring it to term. Church's team, Mezrich writes, "understood they weren't going to clone a woolly mammoth. They were going to make one. They weren't going to transfer genetic material from a frozen carcass, they were going to create the material in a dish and implant it within a living elephant cell."

Cloning the mammoth is exactly what the South Korean company Sooam Biotech Research Foundation seeks to accomplish. The company clones dogs for wealthy owners who want a second round with a beloved pet, but has a scandalous history from false claims about human cloning. Still, building on Sooam's past successes, geneticist Jy Minh has been spearheading efforts there to create a new woolly mammoth out of tissue drawn from corpses that have been found preserved in ice.

As for the question of why, it turns out the driving reason is the main threat facing humanity today: climate change. While the majority of excess carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere comes from human activity, melting permafrost threatens to overwhelm our production by a factor of three. So much carbon and methane is locked into the melting permafrost underlying the Arctic and subarctic that, if it does escape, it threatens the planet with runaway warming.

This is where the mammoth comes in. When it ranged over the Arctic, the region was covered by grasslands, not tundra. This was because the animals' constant movement kept the topsoil continuously churned, creating good conditions for the grasses it fed on to thrive, but an impossible situation for much slower-growing tundra to take root.

Russian scientist Sergey Zimov, who lives a hermetic existence in the far eastern Siberian Arctic, has discovered that grasslands do a better job of insulating permafrost from surface temperatures than tundra does, and is looking to populate the far north with herds of large animals capable of restoring the Arctic to its Pleistocene Age grassy state. In other words, he wants to re-engineer the planet itself in order to save it from ruin.

It's heady stuff and bound to stir up plenty of controversy, and when he is sticking to the story, Mezrich tells it well. The problem is, he keeps dancing around the story instead of telling it. Much of this book is spent exploring the personal lives of the primary players, and while a little background on who they are and what drives them is needed for any science book written for a general audience, Mezrich far too frequently sacrifices the science itself to tell anecdotes about the people involved.

The examples are plenty, but perhaps the most demonstrative is an entire chapter devoted to a truck accident involving Zimov's son. Apart from the fact that he was transporting elk to Zimov's research site, it has nothing to do with what readers come to this book looking to learn. The chapter also suffers from another annoying habit on Mezrich's part. Throughout the book the author begins chapters by hinting at some great piece of the puzzle, then spends the balance meandering back and forth through time and excess details before finally revealing the topic in the closing paragraphs. Thus we only learn that the younger Zimov was transporting elk at the end. We never learn, however, what has resulted from introducing them to Zimov's research site, a far more salient point then a nonfatal truck crash.

And so the book falls apart. By midpoint, many readers will have given up. A good science writer will use the lives of the scientists being written about to draw readers into their work, then start explaining what they have discovered. This 1,000-word review explains most of the science Mezrich offers his readers. He does get additional information about genetic engineering in, but that can be found in better works than this volume. When a science book is boring not because the science is too dry, but because it is deeply lacking in science, it's a failed effort. Something as spectacular as reviving the woolly mammoth deserved better.