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Will bringing back the woolly mammoth save humanity from itself?

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A chat with author Ben Mezrich about bringing back long-extinct animals

Image courtesy of Simon & Schuster

The Trump administration is known for its anti-science stances, except maybe when it comes to resurrecting the woolly mammoth. Newly appointed White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci is apparently a fan of Woolly, a new book about the quest to use genetic engineering to bring back the extinct animal, and has promised to “do what he can to bring up” the book with the president.

That's according to author Ben Mezrich, who's been DMing with Scaramucci on Twitter. Mezrich hopes his book can help bridge the gap between scientists and politicians. “There’s this fear and dislike of scientists, and I think that has to change,” he says. “So I think this is one way of getting people to be more interested and optimistic.” (Scaramucci is a fan of Mezrich's previous books, which include The Accidental Billionaires, the book the Social Network movie was based on.)

Woolly is written like a novel, with a few chapters taking place in the future and past. The opening, for example, takes place from the perspective of a calf — the last of the woolly mammoths. This is typical of Mezrich’s style, which often includes composite characters. Previous books, such as his 2002 book Bringing Down the House, have been accused of practically being fictional, while Accidental Billionaires was called “nonfictionish.”

The book follows the life of George Church, the Harvard University geneticist who leads the effort to bring back extinct species by extracting mammoth DNA and combining it with the DNA of an Asian elephant. We learn about an important childhood trip Church took to the 1964 World’s Fair and how the famous academic almost flunked out of a graduate program because he didn’t do the coursework, even though he published important papers.

Church’s life is intertwined with that of other characters, like de-extinction proponent and Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand and the Russian father-and-son team of Sergei and Nikita Zimov. The Zimovs are trying to populate a place in the Siberian tundra they call Pleistocene Park with huge animals. The hope is that if the mammoth is brought back, and then brought to Pleistocene Park, it can help fight climate change.

In February, Church said his team may be only two years away from creating this hybrid embryo. Before that happens, The Verge spoke to Mezrich about genetic engineering, Jurassic Park, and whether bringing back this animal is really a good idea.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

What do you think drew scientists like Church and Stewart Brand to de-extinction?

There are different motivations. Stewart Brand is a lover of the environment and a true conservationist. For him, de-extincting the mammoth and passenger pigeon is righting karmic wrongs. We ate them out of existence and he believes that to make the world work, we need to do this. For a lot of the young scientists, it was Jurassic Park and being fascinated by this science fiction idea. George Church himself is a very ethical, responsible scientist who wants to help the world. He says that he feels he’s this time traveler. Even starting from a young age, [he] believed he was someone from the future who had come back to the past, and his goal was to bring us to that future. He thinks this project can do good and help save the world.

Woolly author Ben Mezrich.
Photo by Eric Levin

So, how could resurrecting the woolly mammoth help us save the world?

That’s the crazy part of this story. The reason to make woolly mammoths is not just to make an amusement park full of them. They can actually do good. Permafrost is a giant ticking time bomb. The permafrost carries a lot of carbon dioxide [which contributes to global warming]. It’s slowly thawing and releasing it, and when it does release all the carbon dioxide, it’s going to be game over.

So these Russian scientists, the Zimovs, roped up a huge section of the permafrost starting in the ‘80s and are repopulating it with these large animals: reindeer, horses, bison. They’ve been able to lower the temperature of the permafrost by as much as 15 degrees [Fahrenheit] by reintroducing large herbivores. The mammoth project is all about this. If we can introduce a mammoth herd to the tundra, we can maybe save the environment for another 100 years, because they’ll help put into place these very natural processes to keep the environment colder.

[The idea is that mammoth herds could graze and trample trees and help the area become grassland again, as it was before we overhunted the animals. That would slow the thaw.]

People used to say that the mammoth died because the environment changed. The reality is that it’s the other way around. We ate the mammoth, the mammoths died, and the environment changed. There’s really a symbiotic relationship between mammoths and the environment.

Were there any people you encountered in the course of reporting and researching, aside from the actual protagonists, that stood out?

Absolutely. One character is Justin Quinn on the Woolly Mammoth Revival project. He came at it from an odd place. He was a car salesman who couldn’t afford to go to college. His mother passed, he didn’t have money, but he was obsessed with genetics and he essentially worked his way up, cleaning test tubes and selling cars. He talked his way into the woolly mammoth revival team. At one point he was sneaking into Harvard. He didn’t have a Harvard ID so he’d have to stand by the elevator and wait for someone to push the right floor for him to go to the lab.

He’s one of these people who just believed in science for science. He’s not gonna get rich, he’s not gonna get famous off of it. He’s trying to do something wild and big and revolutionary, and he was one of the characters that I did not see coming.

I was interested by the story of Ting WuChurch’s wife, also a Harvard geneticist and the struggles she faced in her own career. Why did you decide to highlight that?

I find it fascinating how science works, and how academia works. She went through some real trauma. Being a woman and being a minority are two things that were big trouble for her, but what she didn’t expect is that being the wife of someone as powerful and as famous as George ended up being a huge negative for her career. She’s on par with her husband, she’s an incredible scientist, but she was held back by all these things that were not really in her control.

When I sat down to interview her, she was very open with me and said, “When you’re building my character, don’t think of me as just this supportive wife, there’s a lot more to this story than that.” In the past when I’ve written books, I haven’t handled women characters as well as male characters, but in this book both Ting and Luhan [Yang, another Church collaborator] are incredibly strong personalities who had to deal with a lot to get where they are and I needed to include them.

Your nonfiction books are known for reading more like novels, with reimagined dialogue and sometimes composite characters. Why the decision to write like this? What’s the process like?

Well, in this story it’s all real characters. I essentially became part of the lab. I would sit in the corner, go to lunch with the post-docs. I tracked down the Zimovs and was Skyping with them and interviewed Stewart Brand out in California. Church and I spent a lot of time together. He was very generous to read every chapter and go through it and make sure the science was correct. And he wrote the epilogue.

When I sit down to write narrative nonfiction, I do it in a way that reads like a movie, and to do that, you have to sort of pull out the really high-octane, good stories within the story. Reality actually fits within a three-act system. There’s already this inherent sort of Oceans 11 drama to building a woolly mammoth, so it wasn’t hard to tease that out. But the question is how deep do you go into each person’s background, how do you make them fully realized characters without losing the pacing, so I often attempt to go more thriller than a lot of other narrative nonfiction writers.

The woolly mammoth project has received a lot of criticism. What do you think of the argument that it’s just a vanity project, or that it’s not ethical to bring back these extinct animals?

Absolutely, there are a lot of ethical issues to this. There are some conservationists who are like, “You are pulling attention away from endangered species.” The science is so out there, but I look at it as a moon shot project: you’re getting so many good things out of it. The same technology that allows you to bring back a woolly mammoth is going to lead to cures to cancer. It’s all using CRISPR to insert genes to make an animal healthier and stronger. If anyone is going to save the world, it’s not going to be politicians, it’s not going to be people recycling, it’s going to be scientists coming up with big answers to these questions. Here’s one big answer to one small part of the environment issue. I believe the future really lies in the hands of scientists and we should be supporting it and reading about it and throwing money at it.