Jan 21, 2010

Mammoth

The Resurrection of an Ice Age Giant
by Richard Stone

Although the subtitle and jacket flaps make it sound like this book is all about trying to bring the woolly mammoth back to life through cloning, there's really much more to Mammoth than that. It's written by a journalist who visited the site in Siberia where a huge block of ice was slowly being thawed out with hairdryers in the hopes of uncovering an intact frozen mammoth carcass. That endeavor ended uncertainly, with the scientists still searching for cell tissue that wasn't too degraded from being in ice for thousands and thousands of years. However, although they didn't clone a mammoth, the research done in the attempt yielded a lot of fascinating information about these and other extinct ice age mammals, as well as their habitat.

So the bulk of this book, between the opening chapters which lead the reader on a journey into Arctic regions in search of frozen megafauna and the closing ones that describe the failed attempts to find intact DNA samples, is all about research on mammoths. Their evolution, their relationship to modern elephants, and the big questions about their demise: did they die out because of climate and habitat change? because early humans hunted them to extinction? or could it have been a viral disease that wiped them out? All these ideas are examined in depth. I also found it really interesting to read about the indigenous peoples of Siberia, who once thought the huge bones were from legendary giant rats that lived underground, dying when exposed to fresh air, and were against the disinterment of mammoth bones, believing that whoever disturbed the remains would be stricken with a curse and die.

There's also quite a bit of discussion about the ethical issues of reviving extinct species, if it ever can be done. It sounds crazy, doesn't it, to make the mammoth come back to life- but perhaps not entirely impossible. They have been able to clone mice from dead frozen ones, and microbes that have been frozen for thirty thousand years or more show signs of life when thawed out. So maybe someday in the distant future, they could clone a mammoth. I don't really think it ought to be done, though. Even though the book also addresses the issue of where would such a creature live? (reconstructing the mammoth's steppe habitat) it all seems pretty sketchy to me. However, I didn't know much about mammoths before I read this book, so all the additional information on discoveries about mammoths was pretty interesting.

When I tried to read Love War and Circuses, the chapters on mammoths held my attention. So when I saw this book at the public library, I picked it up.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 242 pages, 2001

7 comments:

Sandy Nawrot said...

I'm fascinating by this! (I guess that is the kid in me coming out...the kid that wanted to be an archaeologist!). I don't think there is any reason to clone one of these creatures though. I don't like the idea of messing with the master plan. Look at what happened in Jurassic Park! (haha)

Jenny said...

Science is insane what they can do - I'm referring here to the cloning mice, since they didn't succeed in cloning mammoths. But I think it's crazy that they even thought they could make new mammoths. I think I would find that equal parts terrifying and amazing, if they could really do it. (Well, mostly terrifying.)

Jeane said...

Sandy Nawrot- They mentioned Jurassic Park in the book more than once!

Jenny- It is insane. I was reading in a National Geographic a few weeks ago about how people with amputations can get "bionic limbs" that hook up directly to their nervous system! (very very expensive so few have that option, but wow, crazy!

Nymeth said...

This sounds like something I'd find fascinating! That big mammoth that they tried to thaw with hair driers was mentioned briefly in Cold, and I've love to read more about it.

Lenore said...

Wow - hair dryers? Really? Well, it is what I use to try to defrost my freezer. Might be a mammoth in there ;)

Jeane said...

Nymeth- I'm even more eager to read Cold now.

Lenore- I've done a freezer like that before, and it drove me crazy how long it took. I can't imagine being patient enough to thaw out a mammoth millimeter by millimeter.

Amy said...

This sounds fascinating. I think I may have to add this to the TBR.