In the winter of 1990, George Church and Ting Wu — he resplendent in his bushy beard, she wearing a skirt, which she rarely did — rode their bicycles to city hall in Cambridge, Mass., to be wed. For years they kept their marriage an open secret, and that relationship would have ramifications, both positive and otherwise, for their careers: They worked together in a Harvard lab, trying to unlock the secrets of DNA.
Ben Mezrich's new book, Woolly, is about science's attempt in recent years to use genetic engineering to revive the extinct woolly mammoth. But as with his previous bestselling works of narrative nonfiction — such as Bringing Down the House, the basis of the film 21, and The Accidental Billionaires, the basis of the film The Social Network — Woolly dwells on close-ups before zooming out to the big picture.
Church and Wu are two of the main characters in Mezrich's taut yet detailed dramatization. Theirs is a synergistic relationship, and while it would be an overreach to call Woolly a love story at heart, the couple's dynamic is one of the essential threads of Mezrich's story. By all accounts geniuses, the two form the nucleus of a group of Harvard scientists whose revolutionary research leads them to a staggering conclusion: They must use their knowledge and abilities to manipulate the genome of Mammuthus primigenius, the hairy pachyderm that perished from the face of the earth over 3,000 years ago.
Their reasons, as Mezrich spells out, are more than academic. By pioneering the methods it would take to clone a mammoth and gestate the fetus successfully in the womb of an elephant, Church, Wu, and crew would open the door to further efforts to revive extinct species — and, through the impact these reintroduced species would have on the environment, to help reverse the damages that modern civilization has had on Earth's ecosystem and climate.
The Harvard group isn't the only one working toward this end. In Russia, the father-son team of Sergey and Nikita Zimov launch Pleistocene Park, a wildlife preserve on the steppes of Siberia, where the mammoth once freely roamed — and where they could possibly roam once more.
It all sounds very Jurassic Park, of course, and Mezrich doesn't hesitate to draw that parallel. The hubris of such scientific endeavors, as well as the ethical issues involved, crop up in Woolly, although it's clear the author's sympathies lie with his subjects. Anecdotes like the wedding of Church and Wu form the backbone of the book, rather than serving as ornament. Mezrich's eye for characterization is as sharp as his ability to break down scientific jargon into easily digestible chunks.
The true protagonists of Mezrich's saga, though, are the great mammoths themselves. Through his fluid use of close perspective, poetic license, and present-tense recreations of past events — not to mention his occasional speculation into the future — the author dramatically illustrates his tale. It's paced like a thriller, with the frustrating politics of the research industry bleeding over into the maneuverings of capitalists who see dollar signs in investing in widespread genetic engineering. Mezrich also frequently reconstructs dialogue between the plot's players, which at times feels overly contrived and distracting.
Thankfully it's not enough to inhibit the intimate look into the lives of the men and women who are humbly — and at time not so humbly — hoping to put the power of creation at their fingertips. With all the passion and vision of the scientists seeking to bring the mammoth back to life, Woolly reanimates history and breathes new life into the narrative of nature.
Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.
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