Finding, waking a sleeping giant

A team of scientists search for ancient DNA to clone a mammoth

There is a beast that roams through our imaginations, a majestic and terrifying pillar of mass and tusks. It lives in our minds like a mythical monster of yore, and for years people thought that's what it was. But the mammoth did, in fact, once walk the earth. Ever since people started piecing together the giant bones a few centuries ago, the behemoth has been firing imaginations and trampling the scientific landscape. The mammoth was the first animal found to have gone extinct, a finding that challenged the story of Noah and the flood.

Now, the mammoth may also be the first animal to be brought back from oblivion. In his new book, "Mammoth: The Resurrection of an Ice Age Giant," science writer Richard Stone tells of a team of scientists who, if they have their way with a good piece of DNA, will try to clone the lost giant.

There are many potential problems, but with the warp-speed progress of reproductive biology, it looks increasingly possible that someday, given the right specimen frozen in the Arctic, the mammoth may roam the Siberian plains again.

Some see this attempt as an act of redemption, given that human hunting may have caused the mammoth's extinction, along with that of the wooly rhinoceros, the giant beaver, and all the megafauna at the end of the ice age. But others see it as a reckless genetic stunt that could also resurrect super-diseases that may have wiped out the elephant's shaggy cousin.

Stone does an excellent job of navigating these murky scientific and ethical waters, mainly by pulling the reader along behind two groups scouring Siberia for frozen mammoths that will answer their questions about the giant's extinction and possible resurrection.

"Mammoth" is smoothly written and accessible, and gives fair play to vying groups and theories. The author clearly shares more than a little of the passion of these scientists, whose lives are ruled by the modern mammoth hunt.

As with many science books, "Mammoth" suffers from a weakness inherent in the subject: There is no real end to the story, and likely won't be. That may be why in his conclusion Stone abandons his even tone for a strange, saber-rattling crescendo about how he believes the wooly mammoth "will walk the earth again." This is a dangerous cry to arms, when (for reasons he spells out at length) the fact is that it might not. Another distraction is that, in places, Stone's first-person narrative becomes strained and self-conscious, as when he writes that he "lumbered as ponderously as a wooly mammoth toward shore."

But these are small flaws in an otherwise engrossing read that is as much about the past as the future. "Mammoth" is a snapshot of scientific endeavor and of people whose lives are ruled by the need to answer impossibly complex questions.

It also gives a delicious portrait of this beast that once ruled the earth, striding though what are now strip malls and freeways - and vivid descriptions of ice-bound Siberia and the struggle for survival of its current residents.

But most significant, "Mammoth" is a study in the forces of creation and destruction, of life and death, and of our quest to understand and master them. In studying these, Stone shows the earth as both fragile and resilient, and how our role may not be fully understood until much, much later.

Frank Bures is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore.

MaMmoth: The Resurrection of an Ice Age Giant

By Richard Stone Perseus 256 pp., $26

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