Ben Mezrich takes genetic science, the attempt to de-extinct the Woolly Mammoth, and applies a style of writing usually found in a thriller. Out of this he crafts a fascinating science book that will appeal to a wide audience.
Mezrich’s 15th book is the first one I’ve read. His style distracted me at first, as he takes the creative side of creative nonfiction seriously. He reimagines the distant past when the last of the Woolly Mammoths look upon their demise, as human hunters approach the last remaining herd.
He then imagines the near future, when people in Siberia look upon an impossible sight that has become reality: a live Woolly Mammoth. Once I settled in with his style, I was swept away, wondering: Is it truly possible to de-extinct the Woolly Mammoth? And, setting the possibility aside, is it ethical?
Mezrich makes the case that not only will it soon be possible, but there is a strong ethical and environmental case to de-extinct the Mammoth. Modern science reveals that the great Northern herds of the Pleistocene era helped maintain the earth’s temperature. A Russian experiment called Pleistocene Park is attempting to recreate the effects of these megafauna on the permafrost. Their initial studies showed that megafauna-simulated activity reduced the permafrost temperatures “by an average of fifteen degrees.”
The Mammoth is not the only species that could return to history. The passenger pigeon, heath hen, New Zealand moa, and Tasmanian tiger are all possibilities. It’s a staggering achievement, if scientists can do it.
This sounds a bit like Michael Crichton’s hit novel, “Jurassic Park.” But Mezrich warns us that Jurassic Park remains science fiction, not science. it is likely impossible to ever recreate dinosaurs. Millions of years is too much time for DNA strands to survive. Only recently extinct species are viable candidates. (Though “recently extinct” is a relative term.)
The hero of Mezrich’s book is George Church, a professor at Harvard and MIT. Mezrich traces Church’s life from a child to an adult and details how he came to push the boundaries on what is possible in genetic engineering. Along the way, Church marries another brilliant scientist, Ting Wu, and the marriage has ramifications for science and both of their careers.
Mezrich has a knack for finding illuminating moments in people’s lives. Science, of course, is more than just science. People, and their messy lives, bring science into being. He highlights the drama - and the comedy - in various situations. He zooms in to focus on the personal, and then zooms away to engage the wider issues at play.
The book cover of “Woolly” proclaims, “Soon to be a Major Motion Picture.” Mezrich has a track record on this front. His book “The Accidental Billionaires” was turned into an Aaron Sorkin-scripted movie, “The Social Network,” which turned the creation of Facebook into a suspenseful movie. Here’s hoping they can assemble a talented team to turn this material into a movie, because we can use as many good stories about science as we can get.