Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Woolly by Ben Mezrich

Hardcover, 304 pages Expected publication: July 4th 2017 by Atria Books ISBN13: 9781501135552

Mezrich picks interesting topics, I will concede that. Readers may already have heard some years ago that a Harvard lab was working on de-extinction of the Woolly Mammoth. Mezrich brings us up to date on this project; indeed, the first and last chapters in this nonfiction are set in the future.

If you are familiar with Mezrich’s writing, the author weights the concept of narrative nonfiction heavily on the narrative and fiction sides, ostensibly to stoke momentum and get folks interested. The only problem is that his very good instincts about what is intrinsically an interesting story fights with his method. Sometimes the reader has to thrash through pages of invented dialogue to reach a critical conclusion, a real buzz killer if there ever was one.

But this story works on many levels, and while we are following his careful step-by-step thrust with one eye, our mind is busy on the operations of a lab and the implications of the study for medicine, for wildlife, for every aspect of our visible and invisible world. Mezrich eventually addresses many of these key issues in the text, usually making the science sound responsible and considered.

I started to grow more uncomfortable towards the end of the book, when we are reminded that the science has progressed so far so fast that genomic modifications have escaped the lab environment and can be undertaken in a made-over garage for relatively small costs, and that billionaires of every stripe are lining up to make their money count for something big.

The real excitement of this story is in our imaginations, and what the skills and knowledge of present-day scientists can allow us to imagine. Mezrich places us in fund-raising meetings with billionaires, allowing the most humble among us to enjoy the same stories and sense of excitement that fuels movers and shakers. If the glamour of the whole thing begins to seem suspect at some point, I think you’ve caught my sense of unease.

Mezrich shares the history of the project, including the work by Nikita Zimov in Northern Siberia, determining that woolly mammoths seemed to have played a role in preserving the permafrost levels of the tundra, by upturning the soil and exposing lower layers to the freezing temperatures. His father, Sergey Zimov, apparently theorized that reestablishing animal herds that roamed Siberia earlier in human history might play a role in keeping escaping carbon and methane, now sequestered in permafrost, from accelerating the speed at which the earth warms.

The fact that woolly mammoth remains are discovered regularly now in thawing and melting ice and snow of the north is something I had not known. The ancient ivory from the tusks is not protected and is therefore an important source of income for hunters, sold in lieu of protected elephant tusks, for the same reasons, to the same buyers.

The scientists involved in the story at one of the Church labs at Harvard are fascinating individuals in their own right, each with a backstory that only fuels our interest. The project has been going on long enough now that the twenty-something personnel involved at the beginning of the project are turning it over to others, younger ones still, to ensure continuity of skills on such a forward-looking project. The whole concept and execution of the mammoth idea is sufficiently…mammoth…and complex enough to make readers feel as though they have been subtly changed by the experience.

The real life story ends with woolly mammoth DNA implanted in an elephant cell. Dr. Frank Church, the originator of this project, to his credit, decides not to use elephants to gestate the beast that might develop, but to construct a synthetic uterus. That is currently underway. Stay tuned.

Due out July 4th.

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