The Busy Reader

 

Pages in Motion. Passion for Stories.

Woolly

February 2, 2018

Video Length 2:14

Who Should Read It

Anybody who is a fan of the Jurassic Park franchise and wants to know what is currently possible in the real world.

 

Why Should We Read It

Reviving an extinct species is cutting edge biotechnology, and has wide ramifications for its application in medicine and even climate change.

 

What Will We Learn

We will receive a refresher crash course in molecular genetics in the context of reviving the woolly mammoth.

 

Book Summary

 

"“Uh uh uh, you didn’t say the magic word!"

 

Speak to me about reviving a completely extinct species back to life, and I will instinctively recall one of cinema's most famous scenes: Dr. Alan Grant laying eyes on a thirty-foot brachiosaurus for the very first time in Stephen Spielberg's Jurassic Park. But speak to me about actually making a species de-extinct, then I will think of a completely different Jurassic Park scene: “Uh uh uh, you didn’t say the magic word!” It turns out there might actually be a magic word in our real world: molecular genetics (touché, my astute reader; that’s two words). Straddling this world of science and science fiction is Ben Mezrich’s work of creative nonfiction, Woolly, which chronicles our modern-day scientists’ efforts to make de-extinction a reality.

 

"Geologically speaking, they went extinct just yesterday, and their living Asian elephant descendants might still be closely related enough to carry a woolly baby to term."

 

The current proposed method for reviving an extinct species is eerily identical to Michael Crichton’s imagined Lost World: find an extinct species’s DNA and integrate it into a living host’s cellular reproductive systems. Life, however, can only imitate art for so long. No complete dinosaur DNA could possibly survive until present day (not especially via fossilized mosquito amber), and frogs are too alien by dinosaur standards to be a viable reproductive host. The woolly mammoth, however, is a much more compelling case. Geologically speaking, they went extinct just yesterday, and their living Asian elephant descendants might still be closely related enough to carry a woolly baby to term. Current research suggests that we might be able to achieve such a feat by the end of the 21st century.

 

"The same human ingenuity that killed off the woolly and countless other species, when used constructively, might bring them back and therefore be the keys to our own survival against global warming from our own hands."

 

Like Drs. Grant, Sattler, and Malcom of Jurassic Park, our real-world scientists also grapple with the ethical implications and moral obligation behind developing de-extinction. The most salient driving force: life on our planet might depend on it. The weight of megafauna roaming and grazing the entire tundra may have previously contributed to a historically dense and packed permafrost soil layer.  Without this continual stomping and mixing of extreme cold air into the soil, the entire permafrost could melt and release massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the air. The same human ingenuity that killed off the woolly and countless other species, when used constructively, might bring them back and therefore be the keys to our own survival against global warming from our own hands. “Life,” Dr. Malcolm might quip in between velociraptor attacks, “[always] finds a way.”

 

"It (this book) makes for fast-paced cinema-like entertainment, but also undermines my ability to learn more about a fascinating topic."

 

The full title of Ben Mezrich’s Woolly is a succinct summary of his work (albeit wordy for a title)- Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Species. I take issue with his liberal use of “True”, which I recognize is part of my distaste for “creative nonfiction” in general. Mr. Mezrich indeed offers (probably) factually true information about this topic, but it is woven into a narrative of conversations and situations among key scientists and their families that may or may not have actually happened (hence the “creative” in “creative nonfiction”). It makes for fast-paced cinema-like entertainment, but also undermines my ability to learn more about a fascinating topic (his bibliography list for a nonfiction work is uninspiring). If I wanted to read a realistic techno-thriller, I would simply return to Michael Crichton.  But if I actually want to learn just how close are we to rampaging woolly mammoths in San Diego, then Mr. Mezrich’s Woolly will have to do.

 

 

 

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