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Book Review September 19, 2002
Thaw Me a Mammoth
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 2 of 3
Stone's account of the succession of idiotic interpretations of mammoth bones and fossils suggests that the mammoths' demise has drawn a long succession of obsessive mediocrities eager to explain the vanishing according to the received ideas of the moment -- Bouvard and Pecuchet wandering the steppes, sniffing for decayed mammoth flesh, hoping to prove whatever drivel is in vogue.

The resurrection of the mammoths is one of the biggest stories of this decade; pity it was entrusted to a careless, sentimental hack like Richard Stone. Stone is a veteran of mainstream journalism -- alas. (He's even written for the eminently respectable Moscow Times.) This means that he tries to liven up what is already a very exciting topic by a series of "profiles," which are meant to bring to life the more important researchers in mammoth-necromancy. This is a typical mainstream move, rooted in contempt for one's audience. Why should the resurrection of the great Pleistocene mammals, the most magnificent creatures ever to walk this planet, need to be enlivened at all? Far better for Stone to have taken his job seriously, shown some respect for his readers, and surveyed what we really now know about mammoths.

In this task he fails very badly. Stone does not even tell the reader how many mammoth subspecies there were, nor their sizes. At one point he says casually that the mammoth was "no larger than the African elephant"; at another he gives the average shoulder height of the Columbia Mammoth as 14 feet -- which IS larger than the African elephant. He informs us the common view that the Wrangel Island subspecies was pygmy is false. But he never explains the small size of the bones found on Wrangel, except to say that they were the remains of old females, who would naturally be smaller. This begs the question: why would only the bones of old females be found?

So casual is Stone about the job of conveying any serious information to his readers that he does not even supply a map of Siberia. I had to resort to an Atlas to get any sense of where the finds were located. It's a long, long way from the Lena River delta, site of one of the first big mammoth finds, to Cherskii, headquarters of a big recent hunt. Readers unfamiliar with Siberian geography will miss the huge scale of the finds entirely unless they resort to an atlas.Shoddy, careless work like this characterizes Stone's slight, hurried-looking book.

Stone has so little respect for his readers that he wastes space on "human interest" while slighting important information. Stone spends half of this very brief book blathering about the home lives of mammoth researchers in the most tedious Time/Life manner. His illustrations show the same emphasis: there are photos of all the major researchers and bonehunters, but not a single clear reconstruction of what a mammoth would have looked like.

The researchers who come across as serious and worthy are the geneticists who are trying to put together a DNA sequence which may (or may not) eventually allow us to clone, or retro-breed, a living mammoth. The Japanese, Goto, and his nobly crazy patron, Kobayashi, who funded several mammoth-hunting trips and plans to build a mammoth theme park with the resurrected beasts, are an especially noble, unworldly pair who almost justify the space wasted on their capsule bios.

This can't be said for the saccharine sketch of an American amateur mammoth-hunter, which shows Stone's scurvy hackwork at its astonishingly bad worst:

"Fast approaching their silver wedding anniversary, Larry and Wanda Agenbroad...still flirt and kid each other like newlyweds. But Larry is quick to point out that the high school sweethearts encountered some bumps along the way, including a melodramatic letter that Larry remembers getting when he was in the Navy stationed in Morocco in the early 1950s. 'She said she was going to forget me and go and be a stewardess,' Larry says. He thought they were finished, but when he came off duty three years later, he says, 'I called her from New Jersey and she said, "I bought the bridesmaid dresses today." I said to myself, "Uh-oh." I was going back to Morocco to see if I could have made a living there. You can have four wives in Morocco,' he says, teasing Wanda, who smiles back."

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