Here’s what we know: There’s a pair (father and son) of Russian scientists trying to resurrect (or rather, “rewild”) an Ice Age (aka Pleistocene era) biome (grassland) complete with (gene edited, lab-grown) woolly mammoths (derived from elephants). In Arctic Siberia (though, not at the one station there that Amazon Prime delivers to!).
Here’s what we don’t know: How many genes will it take? (with science doing the “sculpting” and nature doing the “polishing”)? How many doctors will it take to make? (that is, grow these 200-pound babies in an artificial womb)? What happens if these animals break? (given how social elephants are)? And so on…
In this episode of the a16z Podcast — recorded as part of our podcast on the road in Washington, D.C. — we (Sonal Chokshi and Hanne Winarsky) discuss all this and more with Ross Andersen, senior editor at The Atlantic who wrote “Welcome to Pleistocene Park“, a story that seems so improbably wild yet is so improbably true. And while we focus on the particulars of what it takes to make this seemingly Jurassic Park-like story true, this episode is more generally about what motivates seemingly crazy ideas — moving them from the lab to the field (quite literally in this case!) — often with the help of a little marketing, a big vision, and some narrative. And: time. Sometimes, a really, really, really long time…
- The problem of melting permafrost and climate change [1:06]
- Why scientists want to create a modern woolly mammoth [7:45], and the gene technology they may use to do it [15:09]
- The importance of grass in the development of early humans [17:51]
- How researchers market this project and others like it [25:02]
Sonal: Hi, everyone. Welcome to the “a16z Podcast.” I’m Sonal. Today, Hanne and I are doing another one of our on-the-road shows from Washington, D.C. And today’s guest is Ross Andersen, senior editor for The Atlantic’s science, health, and technology coverage. And he wrote a story earlier this year, in the April issue, called “Welcome to Pleistocene Park,” which you don’t have to have read to follow this conversation. But here’s what you do need to know. A small group — a very small group, in fact — of Russian scientists in Arctic Siberia are trying to resurrect an Ice Age biome, complete with lab-grown woolly mammoths, through a scheme for rewilding grassland instead of forest.
And while we focus on the particulars of all that, in this episode — in a hallway style riff beginning with the connection to climate change, and then moving to gene editing, to discussing the science of paleontology, and the sociocultural and economic aspects of radical geoengineering — this episode is really more broadly about what motivates seemingly crazy ideas, moving them from the lab to the field — quite literally, in this case — through marketing and narrative, which is where we end and begin the conversation.
The problem of melting permafrost
Ross: So, when I landed on the website and I see that these guys are trying to rewild all or a great part of Northern Siberia, and Alaska, and the Canadian Yukon with this Ice Age grassland biome — and that they wanna put woolly mammoths there — you know, I had the same reaction that everyone listening to this has, right, which is, like, “What?”
Hanne: “Jurassic Park. Is it real?”
Sonal: Yeah, “Jurassic Park,” totally. The Ice Age.
Hanne: “Is this a joke?”
Ross: “Who are these crazy people?” Yeah, yeah, yeah. Totally. Yet, I was excited to write the piece. And then the other thing about this project that was really compelling is that it’s not that these guys were only just romantic about bringing the Ice Age back to this huge stretch of the Earth. Their primary motivation for doing it is to act as a climate change mitigation strategy, which is to say that the Arctic is warming very fast, and under the surface in the Arctic is what’s called the permafrost. That’s ice that has been there for, in some cases, tens of thousands of years.
Sonal: And, in fact, very deep. I read in your article, like, up to, like, a mile deep in some places.
Ross: Yeah. That part of the world was so rich in grass and in large animals at that time. It’s got lots of, sort of, organic matter, which has lots of carbon in it, in fact, more than, like, the entire output of the United States right now.
Sonal: Let’s take a step back for a minute. First of all, what’s the connection between the permafrost and climate change? Like, how can a grassland steppe with some fluffy, furry animals stop climate change, bluntly?
Ross: Totally. Okay. So, most of that part of the world up in the Arctic is covered with tundra. You might think of it as the Arctic desert. Like, very little grows on it. It’s kind of, like, scrub. And what’s neat about grasslands is they actually keep the earth underneath them colder. First of all, they reflect away more sunlight than the darker, kind of, tree regions. You’re already hedging against the warming, right, by having grasslands out there. And in the winter…
Ross: Shade, boom.
Sonal: They like wearing white on a hot day.
Ross: And then in the winter, you have — the snow cover is, like, on the grass, is really thin, such that, like, the Arctic cold in the winter when it’s really dark, and it’s just the auroras up there, can really penetrate the ground deep, and keep the permafrost even more frozen.
Sonal: Well, you actually use the language that it’s, like, locked in some thermodynamic vault…
Ross: I did. I didn’t want to roll that out.
Sonal: …which I think is, like, the best way of, “I’m rolling it out for you.”
Ross: Yeah, thank you. Thank you, thank you.
Sonal: That’s such a really good way of describing it. And so, what happens when those — because isn’t that a good thing to have all that organic matter? I mean, that creates oil, it creates, you know, this rich ecosystem that fertilizes our grass. I mean, what’s wrong with that melting?
Ross: What’s wrong with that melting is that bacteria will get at it, and through the process, they will decompose it and release carbon as part of that process.
Hanne: And it’s melting, not just because of the warming, but isn’t there an ecological contribution to the grass going away?
Ross: What’s so important about the animals being there is that the animals help to maintain that grassland ecosystem. And the woolly mammoth is involved because woolly mammoths, like many of their elephant cousins, are really good at knocking down trees. In fact, they were excited about it. Like, it was like one of their favorite things to do.
Sonal: But we could just, like, knock down trees ourselves. Like, why do we need the animals to do this? Why don’t we just raze a shit ton of forest trees, you know, pine trees, whatever, and just create grassland? Why do we need these woolly mammoths to be there?
Ross: In the absence of mammoths, they’ve just had, like, a huge Russian military transporter out on the plains that they’re literally just, like, slamming into trees with to knock them down.
Hanne: They’re weeding with their, like, military vehicles.
Ross: As you’d imagine, throwing out, like, a fleet of tractors that can knock down the trees of the taiga and, like, the entire Arctic region, would be a pretty carbon-intensive activity.
Sonal: So it’s, like, actually, making the problem worse and trying to solve it versus…
Ross: Like, we need all the world’s oil.
Hanne: But wait, can I back up and ask a question? Like, what I was trying to get — why do trees grow up that now are a problem? You know what I mean? That we need to, like, if you — why is the problem starting?
Ross: Well, one theory is that trees took over. First of all, you had the end of the Ice Age, which created a whole bunch of warming, right? And so the trees, kind of, that helped them spring up out there, but also, in the absence of large herbivores, like the woolly mammoth, it’s easier for trees to, like, spring up. And so, lots of people think that, when these animals went extinct — and we can talk about how they went extinct and some of the really interesting debates around that — that paved the way for these forests.
Sonal: Actually, one of the things that struck me and I feel like I reference “Sapiens” a lot on this podcast — the thing that just blew my mind is, Yuval Harari paints this picture of how humans are basically the worst predators in Earth’s history, and we’re so tiny relative to this huge megafauna, both on land and in water — from, like, huge woolly mammoths to whales in the ocean — and that everywhere humans move, you can immediately see a decline drastically in the number of large mammals that would walk the Earth.
Hanne: Yeah. It was so interesting when you talk about this birth period, and also, like, in quick succession, right, just ravaging…
Ross: That’s the word, yeah.
Sonal: It is. It is the right word.
Hanne: …absolutely, like, the wildlife and, you know.
Ross: Yeah. Yeah, it’s really interesting. A lot of that science has crystallized as our timelines for where humans have shown up in the world have gotten more refined. So, from very early on in paleontology, the consensus was, everyone noticed these large animals had died out at the end of the Ice Age, and they thought, “Well, the end of the Ice Age was just a period of warming, and these animals didn’t adapt.” And then as time went on, it’s like, well, glaciations — like, the Ice Age, was not 3 million years of glacial cold. It was, like, 10,000-year bursts of glacial cold and then interglacials, as they’re called, where things would warm again. And these animals had weathered, like, 30 of those.
Hanne: These tsunamis. You called them, like, ice tsunamis. Yeah.
Ross: Yes. And they’d been fine coming out of the other side of them. So why this one, did all of these megafaunas die? Humans show up, everything dies.
Hanne: Well, not everything. A specific kind of thing, right?
Sonal: Grassland played a big role, because you no longer had this advantage where big animals could hide behind trees, or rocks, or big things. And so, humans had to adapt by becoming very good at hunting, like, shooting with spears or fire, in order to attack these animals and essentially learn coordination as they got out of trees.
Ross: Well, one interesting question around that, that I didn’t get to in the early 14,000 word draft — there was more on this — is that it’s always a mystery why Africa has kept a lot of its megafauna.
Sonal: Why? Why is that?
Ross: Yeah. So, one of the running hypotheses is that the megafauna of other continents were what’s called naive prey, because, like, humans show up, harmless little thing — whereas, in Africa, the megafauna there had grown up alongside us evolutionarily.
Sonal: Right, co-evolved sort of.
Ross: They saw, like, “Oh, these guys appear to be quite dangerous.”
Creating a modern woolly mammoth
Sonal: Yeah. So, back to your piece in The Atlantic — reading it, your use of this form of narrative journalism that gets you attached to the characters, the human characters — and I was actually more fascinated by the scientific characters. And that is, the grass, the mammoths, the role of, you know, elephants. And so let’s break each of those down and talk about, you know, what they are and how they connect to this.
Ross: Oh, interesting. That’s interesting. I never even thought about it that way. I mean, I obviously thought about the human characters. Sergey and Nikita, it’s these two guys, you know, this father and son in the Siberian Arctic, in the very far east, and they’re trying to rewild that part of the world into an Ice Age grassland with extinct woolly mammoths to fight climate change.
Sonal: Okay. So let’s break down the first character that I think is the most obvious and important one — is this idea of manufacturing mammoths, and specifically the woolly mammoth. Talk to us about that.
Ross: First of all, one of the other things that really attracted me to this story was — the woolly mammoth, when you talk about animals that are no longer with us, short of the dinosaurs, the woolly mammoth is the most romantic one, right?
Hanne: That’s so tied to this idea of, like, the first man, kind of. Like, it’s, like, how we have this idea of codependence on this, you know, animal from a very early age, even in popular culture.
Ross: We can tell, yeah, that’s right.
Sonal: Even if you think of things like “Clan of the Cave Bear.”
Ross: Yes, exactly.
Hanne: Yeah, exactly.
Sonal: That series by Jean Auel.
Ross: Although that’s, like, a huge Ice Age mythology, right, like “The Clan of the Cave Bear,” exactly. Yeah, they show up in cave paintings, right? They’re so resonant with, like, this kind of emergence of humans.
Sonal: And the woolly mammoth, just to give us a visual picture, basically is a big fat Snuffleupagus with tusks.
Ross: You got it. It’s a furry elephant. And that’s actually quite central to this piece, because if you do want to manufacture woolly mammoths, which is a crazy phrase, you want to do it the same way nature did, which is, you know, elephants were in Asia, in the temperate parts of Asia, before they were up north in the Arctic. As they slowly moved, nature modified their genomes through natural selection so that they had longer fur, and smaller ears, and you know, an extra layer of fat so they could stay warm in the Arctic. It’s nothing more complicated than that.
Sonal: Except, in this case, it’s happening through CRISPR, and scientists are manually modifying the genes to essentially edit in these characteristics from elephants, which are in the same family.
Ross: That’s right, yeah. They want to take, you know, basically, an Asian elephant genome and just make really a small number of tweaks. The guy who is really at the forefront of this is George Church, who is a geneticist at Harvard, and kind of has his hands on any number of, sort of, eccentric schemes like this. But I mean, when I first heard about this, I thought, you know, “Really?” But then I started talking to people in the field, and they were like, “Look, he’s out there.” Not “he’s out there” like he’s crazy. George is really at the forefront of this. I mean, like, he has the right approach, which is to make, like, again, as few tweaks to this genome as possible — just so you get these basic features — and then let nature do the rest. Get to, you know, 5, 10 generations of these and that will refine it.
Hanne: I love when you say you realized the idea isn’t why — how crazy this is to do it as actually, like, “Well, it’s actually not that crazy.” The reason is, like, why wouldn’t it work, right?
Sonal: I love it too.
Ross: Right. Right, right, right.
Hanne: Do we know exactly what the woolly mammoth was? Do we know exactly what we’re aiming for, or are we guessing?
Ross: We have used several DNA fragments to sequence, like, the entire woolly mammoth genome. However, we are not trying to make — so, I’m speaking out of two corners of my mouth here because I’m saying we’re gonna manufacture mammoths, but what we are actually gonna do is manufacture a furry, fatty Asian elephant. Like, we are not aiming…
Hanne: A mammoth look-alike.
Ross: …for the original genome, for the exact genome of the original mammoth. We’re just looking to remodify Asian elephants.
Hanne: An Asian elephant with the characteristics of a woolly mammoth in certain key areas.
Sonal: Just to give some textural feel, you described that Church and his group are adding cold-resistant hemoglobin, a full-body layer of insulating fat, they’re shrinking the ears.
Hanne: Why are they shrinking the ears?
Sonal: Why are they shrinking the ears?
Ross: Good question. Well, imagine, you know, in the Arctic, you get, you know, 70 below during the winters.
Ross: The African elephant has these huge ears, and those are not needed in the Arctic. And then you said cold-resistant hemoglobin. I wanted to call it antifreeze blood.
Sonal: Like a new version of True Blood, like, “Drink this antifreeze blood.”
Ross: That’s right. And they wouldn’t let me get away with it.
Sonal: Hanne, you asked an amazing question about, you know, is it actually doing it from truth or not, but is there a truth? Because you also pointed out, we have this dead DNA problem. Like, you think of DNA as this thing that lives on for ages and eons, but in fact, those DNAs decompose and [are] not really available even to draw from.
Ross: That’s right. One reason that we’re looking to just modify Asian elephant genomes instead of, like, doing the Jurassic Park style, like, “Oh, we found it in the amber,” is that, look, even after a few thousand years, DNA gets really decayed, and by cosmic rays, and by microbes, and by any number of — nature is really — you know, the universe is a really harsh place. Oh, yeah.
Hanne: So it sounds like you’re sort of saying like it almost doesn’t matter. As long as an elephant can live there, it’s okay. But once we start giving them these different — and we’re introducing a new animal into this very complicated ecosystem environment, like, does it maybe matter that they’re not exactly the woolly mammoth?
Ross: My view is that it’s worth what will probably be some considerable suffering on the part of the first few, if not more, generations of these mammoths. And like, I’m alive to that, and I actually try to talk about, in particular, the social suffering. I mean, elephants are really social animals. They hang out in matriarchal herds. Their grandmothers are around, like, teaching them, you know, all of these behaviors. They grieve their dead. They have, like, a really rich communication with, like, you know, these little rumbling sounds, many of which are inaudible to the human ear. They’re some of the most social animals on the planet.
Hanne: How do we even know, you know, these unformed, untaught — these poor difficult new things, dropped into this new landscape?
Sonal: And by the way, all at the same age.
Hanne: How do we even know they would know to do what we want them to do? I mean.
Ross: I suspect that — have you ever seen in the zoo, they have the guy who gets in the mama tiger suit, you know?
Hanne: Yeah, yes.
Ross: I think there might be something like that happening early on. I mean, I can’t imagine.
Sonal: We think of these as purely biological things, and we forget that there’s a transmission of culture that has to happen as part of it. And in fact, even the language you use in the piece — I actually was a little taken aback. You have this language, and it’s beautiful. As an editor, I’m like, “Oh, gorgeous diction.” You talk about how we sculpt them to survive the winter but let natural selection do the polishing. It felt more like playing God, just bluntly. Like, it’s like creating a Galatea clay. I don’t know, Pygmalion and Galatea, like, you know, whatever.
Hanne: Well, I think, yeah, it reminded me — it feels to me like making a golem, kind of, right, because we’re shaping the outside, and we’re not doing any of the — and when you’re describing all the complexity of, like, you know, the biology of the gut to eat the tundra and, like, all of that complicated, you know. And then we’re just, like, shaping this stuff out, the exteriors and then plopping them down.
Ross: Well, the other thing — I mean, I think this really gets to one of the philosophical tensions that I wanted to confront, to your point about playing God. Another thing that’s like playing God is removing 95% of the megafauna from the surface of the Earth.
Hanne: That’s right.
Ross: We have natural human biases around things like gene editing that, like, get us all prickled and, like, “Oh, we’re playing God.” But in fact…
Hanne: But in fact, we’ve been editing everything.
Ross: …we have this tremendous effect on the Earth.
Sonal: So let’s break down some more of the science on playing God. So we talked about CRISPR, the gene-editing tool, and let’s talk about the genes. So we described some of the characteristics and features that we wanna add, but by my count, there are 95 genes to do the job. 15 that were completed, 30 that are being tweaked, and he says George Church was guessing that we need maybe 50 more.
Ross: He actually was saying, you know, a total of 50. Beth Shapiro, who I regard as sort of the world expert on this stuff — she was, like, you know, “Not so fast. You have to see what those changes do to the rest of the body, and how they interact with each other.” So like, sure, maybe 50, but it’s too soon to say.
Sonal: Right. Well, the other thing that I found very fascinating, especially in the tales of that recent news about the artificial womb in an animal being able to be incubated, is that you essentially grow these mammoths in an artificial womb. So what’s that process?
Ross: Yeah. And I’m glad you brought that up, because actually, that is the most science-fictional aspect of this whole thing.
Hanne: That’s the biggest stumbling block.
Ross: That’s the biggest leap, yeah.
Ross: Gene editing, you know, it’s a known technology, it’s a matter of trial and error. It’s like, “Let’s, you know, keep spitting out embryos with, like, different changes, and eventually, we’ll get there.” Growing an embryo, especially this is the animal with the longest gestation period.
Sonal: Which is what, 22 months or something?
Ross: Two years. Yeah, yeah, almost two years. That’s right. And it’s, you know, 200 pounds at the end of it, and you’re gonna do all that, like, really complex fine-tuning, maternal fine-tuning, like, hormonal work in this huge closet-sized tank. Like, that’s more than 10 years away. George Church thinks that you can make a mammoth, like, genetically, within five years. And he said to me, “Just like there’s uncertainties on the pessimistic side,” like, “Oh, actually it’ll take 20,” he’s like, “It could take shorter, you know.” But growing an actual elephant, a furry elephant, in a tank — we’re not there yet, technologically. That is a thing that, it’s like, no one is working on even as hard as these guys are with the gene itself.
Sonal: I hear you when you say it’s the most science fiction of this whole piece, but when I heard the recent news about the artificial womb, it actually gives me great hope, because you think about all, you know, the collateral good things that come out of this kinda science and work. Like, will we be able to have true artificial wombs for human beings as a result of this work, or other things that we can essentially let women have kids? Like, that’s just a beautiful idea to me, that we can actually manipulate that on some level.
Ross: It’s completely lovely. But just to put that in context and to illuminate the challenge, if you were to make it analogous to human beings, women have, like, a 40-week gestational period. These are, like, preemie lambs. Like, they were born at, like, the equivalent of 22 human weeks. And they stuck into these artificial wombs, and they were able to go to term.
Why grass was essential to early humans
Sonal: Let’s go back to breaking down the characters one by one. We need to talk about grass. You mentioned that Ice Age is actually really a grass age and, by the way, that the formal name of Ice Age is the Pleistocene Age. I actually didn’t connect [that] all three of those things are actually the same thing.
Hanne: Is it exactly what we think of as the Ice Age?
Ross: It is the Ice Age, it is. So it’s 3 million years, and the really interesting thing about it is, it’s kind of, like, the nursery period for human beings. Like, this is where we sort of, you know, discovered fire, learned to harness fire, developed language, developed advanced tool use, and then, all of a sudden, we kinda pop up, history starts, what, like, you know…
Sonal: Accelerates out of there.
Ross: …5,000, 6,000 years ago where you have, kind of, genuine writing. But all those behaviors really incubated in the Ice Age, so I’ve always been kind of fascinated with that period.
Sonal: And timescale-wise, that ended 12,000 years ago.
Hanne: Can I just have a moment of fan mail here?
Ross: Oh, God, please.
Hanne: I love when you looked at one blade as, like, this little soldier fighting this grand army, you know, of the wages of, like, the planet.
Ross: I went down deep in this ice cave with Nikita, the son in the story, like, walking around in a geode. Almost every surface is covered, you know, with sparkling ice. And we get to, like, the bottom of this little chamber, and you know, he sort of, like, scratches at the ice wall, and he pulls out this, you know, pale dead blade of grass from the Ice Age from 30,000 years ago. And at the time, I will confess to you guys a little sort of writerly craft. I watched…
Sonal: I thought you were gonna confess fear, because I was thinking about that whole thing, and I was, like, “Holy fuck, claustrophobia, cave, freak out, cold.”
Ross: Totally, totally. Fair, fair. So going into the piece, I really thought that the kind of reigning mythology that people will have in their mind reading this article is Jurassic Park. And so, how can I, kind of, subvert that, right? When they’re kind of explaining how they do the resurrection of these dinosaurs, there’s a moment where they’re in a cave, and they hold up to the light this amber, and there’s an ancient mosquito trapped in it. And I thought, like, “Is there a way I can get an image like that?” And so, then, at the bottom, when he pulls out this piece of grass, I was like…
Sonal: Here it is.
Ross: “That’s my zip line into the deep past.” I’ll have to admit, I had always been much more romantic about forests than grass going into this piece. Sergey was talking about grass and its importance in the rise of humans, in particular. That really captured my imagination, and was an idea that I felt like was not out there in the world.
Sonal: And what is that? What is the connection between grass and humans?
Ross: Well, grass is, like, kind of the newest big plant-based biome on the planet. Like, forests have been around for, you know, 300, 400 million years, and grass is, like, less — well, big grasslands are less than, you know, 60, 70 million years old. And they’re really neat, like, grow really fast. They just, like, erupt out of the earth, and they make food very easily for animals. And they’re not — a lot of them are not afraid of being eaten. They love to be eaten. So you have trees, you know, well, like, or other plants, will invest all this energy into thorns and into poisons because they’re, like, “Get away from me.”
Hanne: “Back off.”
Sonal: To repel people from eating them.
Ross: “I don’t want you to eat me. Let me do my thing. I wanna grow.” And grass is, like, “Eat me. Eat me. Eat me. Eat me.”
Sonal: They’re sweet. They’re like, “Yeah.”
Ross: “And just poop me back out, so then I can grow even more, and you can eat me again, and you just go, go, go.”
Sonal: Into this feedback loop. You have this line actually — had so much packed into it. By allowing themselves to be eaten, they partner with their own grazers to enhance their ecosystem’s nutrient flows.
Ross: Yes. The animals poop them out, and they poop — you know, the great thing about poop, while we’re, you know, talking about things that we didn’t know were so great, like grass, is that it’s really sort of warm and kinda seeps into the earth very quickly, and it’s been processed by microbes. It’s like, kinda, you know, juicy.
Hanne: It’s ready to go. Natural fertilizer.
Ross: Yeah. It’s just fertilizer, right? We know, right, so what do we use for fertilizer? And so, it makes these grasslands just, like, cycle, cycle, cycle really quickly.
Sonal: I agree, this idea of the grass is so counterintuitive, and I first came across it in “Sapiens,” and one of the things he says is that humans tamed — created humanity, because it allowed us to use wheat to, like, drive our lives, and there’s all these different forms of grass that exist now. You’re describing rice, wheat, corn, sugarcane.
Hanne: I thought it was really interesting how, like, this is a portrait of all these, you know, cutting edge, sort of, science and tech discoveries and capabilities. And we’re using it to, like, reach deep into our, like, no longer accessible past. Like, you described this moment of solastalgia, right, like, this yearning for what once was. That’s kinda part of the human condition.
Sonal: And by the way, solastalgia, as in an existential grief for a vanished landscape — because that was the first time I ever heard that word.
Sonal: I didn’t know what the hell that was.
Hanne: No. Me, too. Yeah.
Ross: Yeah. It’s a very minor philosophy. Yeah.
Hanne: Good. I was hoping you would define it. Yeah.
Ross: Yeah. So I’m really drawn to stories that show humans interacting on long timescales, which is a thing that I think we’re doing more and more now.
Sonal: By long timescales, you mean like cliodynamics or just anything that’s, like, the arc of history? What is that?
Ross: Yeah. I mean, like, when we think about what it’s going to mean to be human beings now and in the future, that we’re taking into that context 10, 20, 30, 40 millions of years into the past, and perhaps 10, 20, 30,000 years into the future. And this is, I should, again, give a shout-out to Stewart Brand, who obviously has had many fertile thoughts along this path, but…
Sonal: Stewart Brand who is the father of the “Whole Earth Catalog” and now runs The Long Now Foundation.
Ross: Yeah. But this idea of looking at our existence in a way that really zooms out from our current moment, which is certainly a relief in this particular historical moment we find ourselves in.
Sonal: There’s this interesting juxtaposition between past and present that’s so fascinating, both mechanically and then historically. But even down to some other random details, like, you mentioned — the first most popular Arctic station besides this one is the one in Alaska, and that’s one place that Amazon Prime delivers to.
Hanne: I know.
Ross: I know.
Hanne: I totally was struck by that too.
Sonal: I was just, like, “What the?” That was, like, “Wow.”
Hanne: It was unbelievable.
Ross: Didn’t that sound awesome?
Sonal: That is so awesome. And it’s so funny because the other Arctic station is, like, “Okay, we don’t have Amazon Prime, but we have alcohol. Lots of vodka.”
Hanne: Like a little competitive, like.
Ross: They really go all-in on it too. The town that’s close to Pleistocene Park is, like, a really depressed mining town, and so I was wondering, like, “You must have poachers.” And he said, “Well, no.” You know, they hunt in all the forest around it, but they don’t hunt in the park. And I was, like, “Well, why not?” And he said, like, you know, personal relationships. And then he says to me, like, you know, “When the leader of the local mafia died, you know, I gave the opening remarks to his funeral.”
Sonal: I mean, it is an interesting thing about science meeting society. Like, when you have science not in a lab and playing out in the physical environment, you are gonna bump into things like cultural realities, poachers. One of my favorite things I’ve ever done in my life was go to this Jurassic Park of India. It was just a few years ago that I went. It’s called Balasinor. And it’s the world’s most ancient enclave of dinosaur eggs.
Sonal: Yeah. And I’d found it by accident, because I was doing, like, some local research. And I rented a special truck. It took us forever to get there, even though it’s so close, because it’s on these down, windy roads. And the thing that was so amazing is you see these dinosaur eggs fossilized in the rock, but all the dinosaur pieces — the whole way that Balasinor was found is because some local women in huts nearby were using it for plates and bowls.
Hanne: Oh, my gosh.
Ross: Oh, my gosh.
Sonal: And they had no idea of the value. And they actually then put it on the market, some scientist came across it, and then all these scientists descended. But you have the government, you have the locals, you have the scientists, and you have all these characters. And one thing that did strike me in your piece is — that was kinda left unanswered is — who’s paying for all this?
Marketing long-term study projects
Ross: They’ve got NSF funding, and funding from the Russian government at the moment, and they do that partly because if you wanna study the permafrost or the Arctic, in general, you need to have these various outposts. And so it’s worth their money to do that. The more interesting question even than the funding, to me, which you’re kind of getting to when you’re talking about this lovely story about the dinosaur eggs in India, was that, for this to expand. Like, Yellowstone right now, which is a thing that everyone loves, right, like, you can’t get people to say bad things about Yellowstone. People universally acknowledge it as being an amazing thing in the world. But, like, its expansion impinges on real people’s lives, you know, because all of a sudden, big predators are showing up in their backyard, etc. And so, for something like Pleistocene Park to be successful, it’s going to have to interact with and make peace with the human world on, like, quite a grand scale, if they are gonna do all of Northern Siberia, and Alaska, and Yukon, etc., etc. And that as being representative of the larger tension we have of trying to figure out how we coexist with wild animals and with the wild, in general.
Sonal: There’s a socioeconomic component too, because you think of these towns that don’t have a lot of money to survive. They don’t have a lot of economic opportunity. Why wouldn’t you wanna sell, like, ivory, you know, from these tusks and make some money for yourself to survive or support your family?
Hanne: Or dinosaur egg china.
Sonal: Right. And so it’s really striking when you do think about this question of who funds it, because there’s a lot of science and money that goes into this. And there’s just a lot of tradeoffs that people have to make. And anyway, another open question is, like, this project is so radical in scheme and scope that — is anyone else doing anything this ambitious in the world anywhere?
Hanne: Well, you compared it to one other major climate project, right?
Ross: Oh, yeah. They’re geoengineering projects or proposals. Also, the American Prairie Reserve is another large grassland rewilding project. It doesn’t have, sort of, sexy extinct creatures to sell it or, like, a major climate change mitigation strategy to sell it, but it’s really interesting, and it’s, like, part of Montana.
Hanne: Tell us, I would love to hear the story behind the stories.
Ross: Funny story is, going up there — this is, like, a protected area, and so you have to get official Russian permission, not just like a regular visa, just to actually go to this region. So we get there, and I had a really good friend of mine, Grant Slater, who’s an amazingly talented documentary filmmaker. We’d kinda worked together. I knew that he would have this, sort of, deep time sensibility alongside me. And so I was really excited to see what he would do with it.
Ross: And there’s also a really interesting creative tension, being out with a filmmaker, because, like, he has things he needs to get, I had things I need to get. Anyway, I’m rambling.
Hanne: Yeah. It’s a different kind of storytelling.
Ross: But Grant’s paperwork, his, like, official permission had not come in on time, and so we had to, like, go get — we went and got questioned at the military base by, you know, these Russian soldiers who are, like, in full fatigues, pretty big dudes. And what was funny about it was, Grant had lost one of his suitcases in Moscow. He had to buy clothes, like, at the airport. And the shirt he was wearing during our interrogation was this shirt that said, in Russian, “Russia is a great power.”
Sonal: It’s like a scene out of a comedy movie.
Hanne: And didn’t they — they went, like…
Ross: I was devastated when he got caught. Devastated.
Hanne: They thought he was a spy, right? Like, they were, like, “You’re obviously…” and he’s wearing this t-shirt that says Russia is great.
Sonal: No, no. Even worse, they asked him if he was a spy.
Hanne: No, that’s right.
Sonal: Like, a spy is gonna say, “Yes, I’m a spy.” That’s just crazy. So just to close, I think the most striking thing about this piece, that this idea sounds so crazy at first. The thing that really struck me is that the region that you were in was once famous for beaming propaganda throughout the country of Russia, and at the same time, there’s an element of marketing that has to happen in this idea, for someone to convince other people, to drive people towards their vision, to get them to believe it.
Ross: I’m also captured by this question of how, you know, when you have these really esoteric science projects that are tied into questions of human meaning in all kinds of different ways, how you can present that.
Sonal: And sometimes cults of personality as well.
Ross: And cults of personalities, and how do you, kind of, make that — I mean, something that Elon Musk is really adept at, right, taking ideas out.
Sonal: I remember you did that Q&A with them at Aeon, a long time ago.
Ross: Yeah. Like, he’s really good at packaging crazy-sounding ideas and, like, getting lots of governments, investors, to throw lots of money into them, while managing to keep control of them. Part of that is the narrative, right? He does hook it into, like, larger questions and existential concerns in a way that I don’t think is just manipulative, I think he sincerely believes those things.
Hanne: And I also think a lot of it is, like, just saying, like, “This is happening now.” Like, sort of making us realize, like, “Actually, this is happening now.” You know, that’s a lot of turning it around to feel possible, basically.
Ross: Yeah. People are working on it. It’s a thing. You can go there. Yeah.
Hanne: Yeah. It’s a thing. Yeah.
Sonal: Well, also that it takes time, because one of the most telling anecdotes in your piece — because you know, there’s a whole debate we don’t have to go into in this podcast nor do we have time, about climate change deniers, climate change science, what’s legit, what’s not — a whole other conversation. But what I found fascinating was that science initially rejected Sergey’s paper about the dangers, you know, in the warming…
Ross: Of the permafrost. Yeah.
Sonal: Right. And in 2006, the journal then asked him…
Sonal: …he didn’t have to approach them again, to resubmit it. And it was published later that year.
Sonal: And that just goes to show you, there’s also a right time for some of this.
Sonal: Like, there’s a readiness that has to happen. Thank you for joining the “a16z Podcast.”
Ross: Well, thank you for having me on.
Hanne: Thank you.
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