It wasn’t a mammoth, it was a mastodon. But it was still a big hairy elephant featured at the climax-end of the main exhibit hall in the New York State museum. And it was an exhibit to end all exhibits. The New York State Museum, during its heyday, was world class, and the hall of evolution, which seemed old enough to have involved Darwin himself as a consultant, featured the reconstructed skeleton as well as a fur-covered version, of the creature discovered in a kettle only a few miles away. That exhibit, along with a dozen other spectacular exhibits that to my knowledge have not been equaled elsewhere or since, are the reason I became a scientist, and probably helped direct me towards the study of prehistory and archaeology.
It is because of that background to my own thinking that I paid a lot of attention over the years to elephants and elephant evolution. I got to help excavate an African four-tusker one year even though I had to push off my other responsibilities to do so. I’ve studied the pseudo archaeological traces left behind by wild forest elephants in the Congo, and now and then, ate one, which may seem strange but I was living among the Pygmy elephant hunters at the time so it seemed like the thing to do.
Several years ago, I came across John McKay. First, his blog, then I met him in person. He had been writing about Pleistocene megafauna but focusing on mammoths. Over our many years of friendship, I watched as he steadily worked on a book putting together his findings, and finally, Discovering the Mammoth: A Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science has been completed and is out and in print now!
I liken the discovery of the Mammoth by western science to the mostly lost to history but critical coral reef debate involving Darwin. Both events shaped how we do science today and at the same time revealed mind-changing features of the natural world. I didn’t know until interviewing John on Ikonokast (check out the podcast!) that he had originally become interested in Mammoth by a somewhat indirect route because of the extinct animal’s role in, let us say, alt-theories about the Earth and its history. But regardless of how John became interested, he discovered a complex and almost inexplicable relationship between what people were thinking, the way they arrived at those thoughts, and reality which led to a centuries-long struggle to understand something that to us, today, is fairly simple but to 19th century scholars was outrageous.
Religion and cultural belief prohibited thinking about extinctions or the evolution of one species into another, while at the same time, these bodies of thought and knowledge provided explanations for ancient mammal remains that were, to our minds today, seemingly unbelievable. It was the process of going from being totally wrong and basing conclusions on a combination of bad information and unsupportable logic, to the state of understanding that mammoths are a different species of elephant that once existed where we find their remains, but that went extinct because of major changes in their habitats and possibly other causes.
And that is only part of the central story John brings to the reader in the engagingly written and carefully researched Discovering the Mammoth.
I tend to divide science books into two categories: those written by writers about science, and those written by scientists. Both categories have their duds and their great books, though the former category almost always lacks a certain depth and breath but often in a way the typical interested reader can’t see. Meanwhile, books in the latter category can easily go off the rails or assume too much, and be a burden to read. John McKay’s book is written by an expert on the field (this book is in lieu of his PhD thesis) who had previously spent years developing his craft of explaining scientific things, so it is well done in that regard. But there is another reason the typical reader of this blog will grok McKay’s Mammoths. John’s passion other than dead woolly elephants is falsehoods. This is an interest we share. John McKay is a Snope of science, especially in certain areas, but better. Unlike Snopes, which is content to find enough chinks in the armor of some myth or another to snarkily discard it, McKay often recognizes the ways in which a falsehood informs, and contains non-trivial truth, while various truths can misinform while at the same time containing insidious or at least interesting falsehoods. It is his thinking about the way people get things wrong, combined with scholarly training in various areas of literature and history, that uniquely allow him to tell this particular important story about the the evolution of modern scientific thought.
I highly recommend Discovering the Mammoth: A Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science. Also, consider it as a holiday gift for your favorite smart person, so they can get even smarter.