Traveling Back in Time: Discovering the Woolly Mammoth

McKay, John J. Discovering the Mammoth: A Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science. Pegasus. Aug. 2017. 256p. illus. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781681774244. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9781681774817. NAT HIST
When people first encountered the extinct mammoth remains, opinions varied on what these creatures were. In a thorough look at the beginning of paleontology, especially cultural influence and assumptions, technical writer McKay traces how people interpreted this mystery. The author organized centuries of sometimes messy findings into a coherent report spanning continents. History enthusiasts will appreciate learning how the mammoth and other discoveries were documented or lost. Shipwrecks, fire, and improper preservation destroyed evidence; inaccuracies in maps, sketches, and written descriptions impeded comprehension. Readers will find it humbling that the greatest minds of past centuries were adamantly wrong and will enjoy reading about their rationales: of course, it made sense to believe that mammoths lived underground and couldn’t survive upon reaching the earth’s surface. Similarly, those who held to a literal interpretation of the Bible assumed that the mammoth skulls belonged to giants who once roamed the land (the concept of a defunct species would have implied a flaw in God’s design, a heretical thought). VERDICT For those seeking a scholarly, straightforward examination of paleontology’s origins and key players.—Elissa Cooper, Helen Plum Memorial Lib., Lombard, IL

Mezrich, Ben. Woolly: The True Story of the Quest To Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures. Atria. Jul. 2017. 304p. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781501135552. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781501135576. NAT HIST
What’s the point of bringing an extinct animal back to life? Mezrich (The 37th Parallel) tells the story of geneticist George Church and others working to create, not clone, wiped-out species, including mammoths. Such endeavors are not for our amusement—the author readily acknowledges and dismisses the parallels to Jurassic Park. Rather, they are intended to help in today’s world. Mammoths, for instance, could balance the ecosystem by trampling the permafrost in places such as Siberia’s Pleistocene Park, thus lowering the permafrost’s deadly carbon emissions. The ethically minded Church is well known for his open and collaborative spirit in mainstream media, and the idea of “science fiction becoming science” is intriguing. However, despite the intellectual matter at hand, the narrative is simplistic and often gets bogged down in details that make the story seem unfocused. VERDICT Readers unfamiliar with Church’s work and looking for a lighter touch of science might be able to power through the superfluous bits. Still, its commercial appeal, furthered by a movie already in the works, will attract popular science readers. [See Prepub Alert, 2/6/17.]—Elissa Cooper, Helen Plum Memorial Lib., Lombard, IL

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