A CONVERSATION WITH SEAN B. CARROLL, AUTHOR OF Remarkable Creatures
How was writing and researching this book different from writing and researching your previous books, The Making of the Fittest and Endless Forms Most Beautiful (which was a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize and a best science book of the year in Discover Magazine and USA Today)?
I would say that my first two books were for the head and that Remarkable Creatures is for the soul. What I mean is that The Making of the Fittest and Endless Forms are all about new scientific discoveries about how evolution works. This book is as much about what drives the passions of scientists as it is about the big picture of evolution that they helped to paint over the past 200 years. So my research and writing focused on who these naturalists were—their inspiration, attachment to nature, and devotion to their work. In short, these are glimpses into the souls of these naturalists that I think, in turn, strike chords that resonate with anyone interested in nature.
What inspired you to write this book?
The people in these stories have led such exceptional lives that one cannot help being inspired by their great spirit and accomplishments. I learned about many of these adventurers by reading a lot of material just for my own entertainment over the long span of my career. I wanted to share these stories, so I decided that by focusing on the central experiences of their lives, I could compact many great tales into one modest-sized book.
Reading Remarkable Creatures is a thrilling and inspiring experience—the way you bring pioneering naturalists like Darwin and Dubois and the Leakeys and their world-transforming passions to life is so compelling. In telling the story of these people who walked where no one else had walked, saw what no one had seen, and thought what no one else had thought—and transformed our knowledge and perception of the living world in the process—did you grow to feel particularly close to any of the subjects you were bringing to life?
While I admire everyone in these stories, I am drawn especially to Alfred Wallace, Charles Walcott, and Mary Leakey. Like many people, I root for the underdog and each of these individuals was very unlikely to rise to the greatness he or she did. None of them finished a formal education, but when each got the opportunity to pursue their passion, they were herculean collectors who made great discoveries. Their determination in the face of all sorts of obstacles, or outright tragedy, is very moving. They remain underdogs to some degree because their exploits and accomplishments are not widely known and could fade even further with the passage of time. With this book, I hope to shine some light that will help to prevent that from happening.
How did you decide which people and discoveries to include in this book?
I applied four criteria in deciding which stories merited inclusion. First, there had to be some adventure or quest, such as a voyage or an expedition. Second, the story had to involve some drama in the form of obstacles encountered—physical dangers, or other great difficulties in finding what was sought. Third, there had to be an important discovery in terms of understanding the origins of some creatures or of species in general. And fourth. . . well, to be honest, I had to admire the main characters. There have been and are a lot of great biologists, but not many have the epic experiences told here.
What was the most surprising part of writing this book? The most rewarding?
One delightful surprise, and the never-ending source of many rewards, was the richness of material for many of the stories. For example, in the past few years, most of Darwin's original writings (including notebooks, diaries, drafts, correspondence, and more) have become readily accessible online. It is thrilling to look at notes made in his own hand at the moment some fragment of a thought occurred to him. Some of the other great material is in various rare books, such as the chronicle of Roy Chapman Andrews' Central Asiatic expeditions that includes absolutely stunning photographs. It was great fun to comb through sources and to find each little gem in the form of an anecdote, letter, drawing or photograph.
The world is no longer an unexplored wilderness, the revolution Darwin ignited 200 years ago is still ongoing. What are the imminent prospects for exploration and discovery? What new adventures lie ahead?
I think we are in a new Golden Age of evolutionary science akin to those first decades of the Darwinian revolution. Many future discoveries will come from a new kind of collecting—of the genomes of thousands of species and the DNA of wild populations. These sequences reveal how organisms adapt and how new capabilities are invented. But expeditions will also contribute a great deal. As Darwin said, "the crust of the earth is a vast museum," and there is much more treasure to unearth. Realize, for example, that feathered dinosaurs (Chapter 9) and fishapods (Chapter 10) were discovered only very recently. And the study of ancient DNA of fossils, such as the analysis of Neanderthal DNA (Chapter 13), will offer unique insights into human history.
You've been described as the leading public voice of evolutionary science in the U.S. today, and you're a very popular speaker at venues like the American Museum of Natural History and the Field Museum in Chicago. What's your favorite aspect of evolutionary science to talk about? What gets your audiences most engaged?
I like to tell stories at the intersection of natural history with molecular biology, where we can explain how some aspect of a remarkable creature evolved. The natural history of some creature is what first engages me or my audiences, but we now have the means to know not just what exists, but to understand how it came to be. That power makes for a deeper and much more complete understanding of evolution and the history of life.
When readers close Remarkable Creatures after finishing it, what do you hope they will be feeling?
First of all, I hope that they can't wait to tell their friends to read the book! But most of all, I hope that they will come away with the sense that they have shared a few great moments with some of the most remarkable people who have explored the world, and that it was a pleasurable journey. I also hope that I have inspired their curiosity so that they are that much more interested in future stories of important discoveries about the evolution of life.
(Remarkable Creatures will be published in early 2009 in both North America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and the UK (Quercus).)