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Evolution Matters: David Quammen and Carl Zimmer

Evolution Matters: David Quammen and Carl Zimmer


This is a very, very special
night for us for two reasons. First, of course, the
reason most of you are here, is we have the
privilege of hearing to world-renowned science
writers, David Quammen and Carl Zimmer. And we’ll hear more
about them in a minute. But there’s another reason. And that is that
we are celebrating the 10th anniversary of
the Evolution Matters series, which is our flagship
lecture series for HMSC. [APPLAUSE] And I can say, because
I was looking– over the last 10 years
this lecture series has featured distinguished
evolutionary biologists both from our own Harvard
faculty and colleagues from outside the university. Topics have ranged across
the tree of life from E coli, to Darwin’s finches,
to the humble– or, according to the
speaker, not so humble– mushroom, from the
earliest history of earth to rapid evolution
happening in our own lifetimes. Talks have ranged from
finding your inner fish to the amazingly
titled Paleo Fantasy– What Evolution Really
Tells Us About Sex, Diet, and the Way We Live,
as well as taking us around the world from island
biodiversity in the Caribbean, fishes in the Congo, and humans
in Framingham, Massachusetts. And of course, Tens
of thousands of people have watched our lecture
videos as well– so people from around the world. Since the very beginning,
Evolution Matters has been generously supported
by two of the museum’s greatest friends– doctors Herman and Joan Suit. [APPLAUSE] And they’ve given me permission
to say this– this evening, I’m thrilled to announce that
they have made a major gift to endow the lecture series,
thereby securing its future. And, Herman, Joan, we wouldn’t
be able to do this without you. And I’m so grateful that you
share our passion for education and providing opportunities
for people to learn so much more about this
subject matter that is fundamental to our
understanding of life on Earth. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] But it’s now my pleasure to
introduce a dear friend, Janet Browne, Aramont Professor
of the History of Science, who will be introducing
our speakers and moderate the Q&A later. Janet was actually our very
first Evolution Matters speaker, in February 2009,
when she gave a talk– Darwin at 200,
Rethinking the Evolution. As many of you know,
she has specialized in reassessing
Charles Darwin’s work, first as associate editor
of the early volumes of the correspondence
of Charles Darwin, and more recently as
author of an award winning two volume biographical
study that I’m sure, as me, many of you
have in your libraries, and the integrated Darwin’s
science with his life and times. There was no one better to
give our very first lecture, and no one better to
introduce our speakers. Please join me in welcoming
her to the podium. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] It’s a real pleasure for me
to be able to welcome you, as we’ve already been
welcomed by Jane, but to also say it again
from those of us who have an interest in the
history of natural history and natural history
in its own right. It’s such a delight
that we have two such dynamic and eloquent
writers to speak to us today. Most of us will know our
guests through their pages. But it’s a real pleasure
that we actually have them here to talk
to each other and to us about their work. That is actually how I have come
to know both of our speakers, is first through their pages. And tonight is special
for me because it’s the first time I’ve actually
met Carl in the flesh, which is delightful. But I do know David– David Quammen– from
before and might perhaps just forego all the
formal structure about the introduction and to
say that we met, David and I, with a number of other people,
at a very forbidding weekend that he perhaps will remember as
well as I do where we were all meant to chat about the
craft of science writing and be recorded
and then published. But it was never published. [LAUGHTER] So I’m assuming,
perhaps with David, that we didn’t have
the right kind of chat. [LAUGHTER] Which I’m sure
we’ll get tonight. So that’s fine. And I of course know Carl
through his illuminating books on evolutionary theory. We’re very fortunate to have
two such gifted writers with us tonight. What I would like to say is
that both of our speakers have had a long and
distinguished career. And I understand that they
began their intellectual lives as contemporaries at a
university further south from here in New Haven. [LAUGHTER] And it may be that we’ll
hear a little bit about that as we go through the evening. And both of them took to science
writing through early careers in newspaper– writing
journals, periodicals– and have then gone
onwards to become I think the most widely regarded
writers on scientific matters to do with natural history
I would say in the world, certainly in North America. David Quammen and Carl Zimmer
both have new books out, which I hope we will
hear about this evening. David perhaps will
be best known to you through The Song of the Dodo. Many other books
that he’s written, but that is a very evocative
text that most of us– many of us, maybe all
of us– have read. And Carl has a
long career writing on a number of different topics. Evolution is only
one of his topics, but that is the one
which I know best. I would like to mention that
he is the only science writer– I don’t know if this is– yeah, you claim it
on your website– he’s the only science writer
to have a species of tapeworm named after him. [LAUGHTER] And that’s a pretty
rarefied category. But in this audience, you know. [LAUGHTER] But you will know his delightful
book, The Tangled Bank– An Introduction to Evolution
and then Evolution– The Triumph of an Idea. So your two speakers, and
myself, and many of us here are united through
a real appreciation of evolutionary theory. For myself, for
the role of Charles Darwin in that achievement. But I think we are all very
fortunate indeed to have two such gifted
writers with us tonight to talk about their work and
their love of natural history. So please would you join us. [APPLAUSE] It’s great to be here. And we don’t even know
who’s going to start and who’s going to ask the
other person the first question. But I’m going to
exercise rank of age and ask Carl to let me say
a couple of words to start. In addition to–
thank you, Janet, for that eloquent introduction– I’m going to amend
one small part of it. And that is you said– you outed us a
little bit and said that we were at a certain
university in Connecticut south of here, which is true. Carl and I were both
at that university– English majors, English majors. But we were not there
as contemporaries. I went to New Haven the
year Carl was born, I think. [LAUGHTER] Yes. So I just wanted to
straighten that part out, in case it wasn’t
obvious already. I was born in Yale
New Haven Hospital. You were? Yeah. OK. So we were both there. So we both arrived
in New Haven in 1966. Yeah. Yeah. We should’ve hung out, you know. Yeah. Yeah. So who first? Well, I would love to start. We both brought each other’s
books with notes in them. And I have a bunch of
questions I want to ask you. And you can ask me. I do. And partly about
your book, partly about other work, and partly
about some large ideas in terms of the
treatment of science and the treatment of evolution. So let me just jump in. The thing is that this book
was so interesting to me because for a long time
I will talk to biologists and they’ll say,
you know, there’s somebody who should
have won the Nobel Prize and they all say it’s
this guy named Carl Woese. And I have come to
agree with that. I’ve come to appreciate that. But I still don’t think that
people really know who he is. And it’s great that
through this you have brought this invisible
giant to attention. Carl Woese, yeah. The book is called
The Tangled Tree– A Radical New History of Life. Thank you. Highly recommend. Yes, please, get it. It’s wonderful. And it’s about the tree of life. But it’s about Carl Woese. And I just wanted to
read a couple of quotes. I’ve always admired your
ability to just pluck out things that people say and then
drop them into your pieces. So we’re not hearing
people going on for paragraphs and paragraphs,
but just a sentence is enough to get who they are. And there are these two
almost understated quotes that sort of capture his career. One is where in
the ’60s he said, a slight diversion in
my research program would be necessary, where
he was trying to figure out the genetic code and
he realized there was something else he had to do. And then there’s just
one other little quote– Trying to figure out
the evolutionary origin of the genetic code. Right, yeah, yeah. And then there this other quote
here almost like bookends it– then it dawned on me there
was something out there where he’s discovering Archaea. Maybe you could explain what
was it, what was his diversion– OK. –and what was out there
just so that people can appreciate what Woese did. This guy, he’s the central
character of the book, you’re right. Carl R Woese– W-O-E-S-E. I
try not when I meet somebody in an elevator to say that
I’ve just published a book that’s the history of
molecular phylogenetics. I find that’s not a very
good elevator pitch. So what I usually say is
I just published a book about the most important
biologist of the 20th century that you’ve never heard of. And they say, oh, who is that? And than I say Carl Woese. They say, never heard of him. [LAUGHTER] My point. Confirmed. Carl Woese was a microbiologist
at the University of Illinois in Champaign Urbana from the
mid-’60s into the 21st century who, as Carl said, conceived
a deep urge to understand the earliest evolutionary
history of planet Earth, the deepest branches
on the tree of life, how things were related
to one another right at the beginning– 3.5, 3.8, 4 billion years ago. And in order to do that, he
invented a new methodology, a new technique that we now
call molecular phylogenetics, taking long molecules– DNA molecules, RNA molecules,
potentially proteins; he actually picked
up a suggestion from Francis Crick,
who said at one point that perhaps the sequences in
long molecules such as proteins would tell us a lot about
the history of life. Woese picked up on
that and decided I’m going to try and
discern the deepest shape of the tree of
life by extracting a particular
molecule that exists in all cellular life on
planet Earth, one molecule, and that I’m going
to sequence it, and I’m going to compare
those sequences to see how things are related. And in the course of doing
that, he sequenced this molecule in some microbes that everybody
had taken for 300 years to be bacteria. And what he found by
sequencing this molecule and those microbes
was that not only were these things that
looked like bacteria, and acted like bacteria,
and walked like bacteria under a microscope– he found they we’re
not only not bacteria, but they’re more
closely related to us than they are to bacteria. They’re more closely
related to eukaryotes, all organisms composed
of complex cells, than they are to bacteria. And they ended up
being named Archaea. And he hit the front page
of the New York Times above the fold on November
3, 1977 for that discovery. And it gave him his 15 minutes
of Andy Warholian fame. But it’s not the most
important thing that he did, or the most interesting thing,
or the most influential thing. So the book is all about him. But that’s the starting
bite on Carl Woese. So you have this molecular
tree which, you know, it looks different than the old
trees of life in that you’ve got Archaea and things. You’re sort of moving
the branches around. But, as your title indicates,
the tree starts to get tangled and it starts to get
more interesting. Yes. And that was why Woese
was really important, is because other scientists
picked up on his methodology in finding this
particular molecule in different forms of life,
sequencing it, comparing it. That turned into
this discipline, molecular phylogenetics– using long molecules to discern
who is how closely related to who else. Excuse me. And what scientists– Woese and others–
started finding was that the tree of life was
really not tree-shaped or not at all perfectly tree-shaped. Was it a bush? No. Was it a web? No, not exactly. It was tangled–
hence my title– tangled by the fact that
one of the most basic things about a tree shape is that
it starts from one trunk, it rises through time, branches,
it diverges into limbs, limbs diverged into branches,
branches diverge into twigs. You have a canopy of
these little tiny twigs. And it’s all about divergence. What Woese and the people
who followed him discovered was that there was also
convergence of lineages, limbs and branches that flowed
into one another, which is supposed to be impossible. And it is impossible
in a natural tree. But it has been happening
for 3.8 billion years in the history of life. And one of the labels
for this phenomenon is horizontal gene transfer– horizontal gene transfer. And that was what
started me on this. I might have been reading
some of your pieces or Ed Yong’s pieces– journalistic pieces–
in early 2013. And I first heard about
horizontal gene transfer. And then I started reading
some more about it. And then I discovered a fellow
named Ford Doolittle who worked on it. And then I discovered
this fellow Carl Woese. And essentially I went down the
horizontal gene transfer rabbit hole for five years. For five years? So what keeps you down
there in the rabbit hole? For you, what is so
absorbing about it? I mean, you end up
with a great book. But I’m just wondering what– Well, it got more
and more complicated. It got curiouser and curiouser. And I started talking– Woese was already dead. I never met Carl Woese. I started talking to the
people who had worked with him, the people who knew him, other
people in the field like Ford Doolittle. I took on a new understanding
of Lynn Margulis’ work on an idea called endosymbiosis,
which is the idea– now known to be factual– that some of the
crucial internal organs in the cells of all of
us complex creatures are the descendants
of captured bacteria. The mitochondria that are the
energy-producing organelles in our cells are descended
from captured bacteria. The chloroplasts in plants
that photosynthesize are descended from
captured bacteria. That’s the idea
of endosymbiosis. People thought Lynn Margulis
was nuts when she proposed this. But then it was proven,
it was confirmed, by molecular phylogenetics,
by these molecular techniques. All of that and more is what
kept me in a rabbit hole for five years. I thought I knew three good
reasons why horizontal gene transfer was impossible
when I first read about it, and one of them being
the Weismann varia. August Weismann, one of your–
a minor character in there, a little bit more
important in here because you really went
into August Weismann. But it turns out that it
is possible, it is real, it is important
and consequential, and it’s very counter-intuitive. OK, now I get to
ask you something. Sure. I want to ask you eventually
about some technique things, particularly one thing
you do at the beginning– well, maybe, I’ll ask
about this right now. You begin with Luther Burbank,
or at least near the beginning. Carl brings in the
character Luther Burbank, the most famous plant
breeder in America in the early 20th century. I assume that Burbank,
California is named for him, but I don’t know that for sure. No. No? OK. Anyway, he was in
northern California. But the Burbank potato is. OK. So here is this character
that most of us have heard of but know nothing about, Luther
Burbank, an intuitive plant breeder who was admired around
the world for the variance of different important
commercial sustenance crops that he produced, including
potatoes, tomatoes I’m sure, a number of other things. And I don’t have it
marked to quote from it or ask you to read it, but
very early in the book Carl describes a day in
which Luther Burbank at his little place in northern
California gets a visitor– Hugo de Vries, one of the
rediscovers in 1900 or 1901 of Mendelian genetics. Arguably the leading geneticist
in the world in 1900, 1901 goes to visit Luther Burbank. And that seems to me not just
a really nifty scene that leads to some surprises
but a brilliant synecdoche of something that is
real and yet stands for more than itself. Because Luther Burbank
doesn’t go visit de Vries. De Vries comes to
Luther Burbank. Tell us a little
bit about how you chose to arrange
that, how you chose to focus on that little episode
and what de Vries discovered. So I decided to write
a book about heredity. And I was determined to
tell stories about heredity that people would enjoy reading
because they hadn’t read them a million times
since eighth grade. So Mendel gets put way down. So I give Mendel the credit,
but I don’t say like, oh, by the way, maybe you haven’t
heard of this guy named Mendel. Of course everyone’s
heard of Mendel. But Mendel is not
the only person. It’s a long history. Mendel built on what
other people were doing. Mendel’s stuff
kind of disappeared because people weren’t really
prepared to make sense of it. And it was in 1900 when Hugo
de Vries and other people start to rediscover Mendel. But they’ve been doing all
their own research on cells, on chromosomes, their
own breeding experiments. And they’re like, wait,
I think his magic 3 to 1 ratio tells us
something important. But the thing is that
heredity was not just a series of scientists
just working in isolation and having these
abstract thoughts. Heredity has just been
profoundly important to humans forever, as long as
there have been humans. And one of the ways in
which it’s important is through breeding. We inadvertently bred
domesticated crops. And then in the
1700s people start to say maybe we
could control this. We have all these breeds. How did this happen? Maybe there are rules to it. And Mendel is one
of many people who’s trying to figure that out. And Luther Burbank was this
American folk version of that. There were a lot of people
like Luther Burbank in America, but he was the most successful
in that he had this– newspapers would call him the
“plant wizard” because somehow he would see the
potential in the heredity of these plants for
something fundamentally new. And so you would suddenly
have the Burbank potato, which is way better than the
potatoes that came before, or the Shasta daisy,
or a spineless cactus. It was just like one thing after
another that he would concoct. And it was one thing for Hugo
de Vries and other people to say, OK, we understand the
rudiments of what Mendel was trying to get at, and we
think it has something to do with chromosomes. But still, even with
the dawn of genetics, they knew so little
about heredity. And they thought Burbank– Burbank must know. And so all these
scientists would want to be pals
with Luther Burbank, like maybe we could get
on the inside with him and see what he does. And so Hugo de Vries went all
the way from the Netherlands to California. He was supposed to officially
give a lecture at Stanford, but he wanted to go see Burbank. And hung out with Burbank, and
he ate these stoneless plums, and he’s like, this is amazing
and how does he do this. He never figured it out. He came away, like,
I don’t know– I don’t know. And the Carnegie
Institution actually gave Luther Burbank
like $10,000 a year so that they could
send someone– a geneticist– to go
and get the magic. And just tried following
Burbank around. Burbank would be like,
get away from me, kid, you’re bothering me for
like a year and a half. And this scientist,
George Shull, just wrote back and said,
there’s no science here. And they just gave up. Ironically, Shull then went
off and invented hybrid corn. But don’t you actually say– I can’t remember
exactly, but don’t you actually say that de Vries
discovered that Luther Burbank had no theory of heredity. Yes. Well, yes, Shull was
the one who really– I mean, de Vries
was like, hmm, I guess I haven’t
figured this one out. And he kind of went away. And he said nice
things about him because he admired him
as a plant breeder. Everyone admired him. But when Shull really
was on a mission to write science about it,
he said, this is ridiculous, this is bogus. And yeah, Burbank,
it kind of was sad towards the end of his life. He got accused of fraud. And he was selling plants
that maybe weren’t living up to his promises. But still he had this
iconic– even after death he had this iconic place. Frida Kahlo did a painting
of him after he died. He’s an amazing person. I want to follow up, OK? But first, I forgot to
do what you did for me– Oh, thank you. –which is hold up the book. They tell you if you’re on a
talk show hold up the book. She Has Her Mother’s Laugh,
Carl’s massive and majestic book, is what we’re
talking about. 2/3 of the way through I hit
a point where my jaw dropped. And I was very interested. And I was learning a lot. But there was a point where
I started saying, what? No way? And by the way, if you happen
to ever see the New York Review of Books, there’s a
review in the current issue by Tim Flannery, an
important, interesting Australian scientist, review
of this book, Carl’s book. And Tim Flannery reacted
much the same way. He got to these two
subjects, and he said, what? And he talks about
them in the review. Mosaicism and chimerism. That’s really the jaw dropping– where it starts for me. Tell us a little bit about
creatures as mosaics and then a bit more about
creatures as chimera. Well, I think these are
in the same category as horizontal gene
transfer where if you hear about it at
first, you’re like, well, that couldn’t happen. And then you say, well,
OK, if that does happen, that can almost never happen. And then you discover that
it’s actually pretty common. Yeah. And it breaks these rules
that we have in our heads. I guess for me like these
two things, mosaicism and chimerism, they
challenge your idea that we have that you
are your DNA in the sense that you started as a fertilized
egg with a set of DNA, totally unique, that’s what sets you
apart from everyone else. And that is in every
cell of your body. That’s how we define you. You steal something, and
we get some skin samples, and we sequence your DNA. That’s you and we can arrest
you because that’s you. But the fact is
that for all of us, as soon as the fertilized
egg starts dividing, there’s a chance that the DNA
will mutate again in a cell, and again, and again, and again
so that a cell in your eye and a cell on your
big toe probably have different mutations because
they have a different history through your development. And so we can draw a tree– another one of these trees– a tree of your cells. And August Weismann actually
would draw cell trees. And they’re different. And it’s not just that
they’re different organs, but they actually have
a different sequence of DNA in them. And this could be incredibly
important in all sorts of ways. But one way is that
diseases, a lot of diseases, may be the result of mosaicism. So in effect, as
a fertilized egg you might not have a
hereditary disease. But then along the way
a mutation shows up. And know let’s say that
it affects your muscles and you have this
muscle disease. But if I took a blood sample
and looked for that mutation, I wouldn’t find it because
it’s not in your blood. So you are a mosaic
of different genomes. So we’re all mosaics. That that much is clear. But there’s another
way that we can become mixtures, which is
that some of us are chimeras. And a chimera is
any organism that’s made up of cells from
more than one individual. And this started
to come to light with some really strange cases. For example, a woman
in the 1950s gave blood and they found she
had two blood types. And they said, no, that would
mean– no, there’s a mistake. Someone mixed blood from
two people together. Actually what happened was that
this woman had a twin brother. He died when he was young. In utero, their embryos
had traded cells. Those cells, being
fetal cells, had taken hold in each
other’s bodies and had diversified into
blood, into bone, and so on. So they were mixtures
of each other. There are mothers
who have almost lost custody of
their own children that they gave birth to
because genetic tests indicated they couldn’t possibly
be their children. Because, again,
testing from the blood and the eggs that gave
rise to the children came from different people. This is so counter-intuitive. Back up a little bit and
tell them about freemartins. Right. So freemartins
actually are cows who are sort of the cow version
of what I just told you. In other words, they’re twins. But the females which
would turn out to not be great for giving milk. And when anatomists
looked at them, they discovered they actually
had some male traits in them. So they’re a chimera of a female
calf and a male brother calf. And so people didn’t know. They just were like,
well, this is strange. They identified
them in the 1700s as being anatomically
odd, didn’t know what to make of them. Turns out, they’re chimeras. People can actually
be chimeras where you have different male
and female combined. Fraternal twins. Yep, yep. And same twins and so on. Women have an
additional opportunity to become chimeras if
they become mothers because the fetus
is shedding cells. A woman’s immune system
will destroy most of them, but sometimes they don’t. And a woman gives birth, the
fetal cells are hanging around, and they just wander
through the body, and they become
whatever is around them. Some of them are stem cells. Well, they all have this sort
of stem cell quality to them, which means that they
become muscle cells, they can become skin cells. It’s a weird and
mysterious thing. It seems that if a woman who has
these fetal cells in her body– it’s called microchimerism,
she gets a cut and she starts to heal,
it’s the fetal cells that seem to really get
attracted to the wound and they help to heal it. So you find a lot of fetal
cells around the wound. There was a study
where scientists said, OK, let’s find a lot
of cadavers of women who gave their bodies to science who
happened to be mothers of sons. And they cut open their brains. And they looked inside. And they found neurons with
Y chromosomes in there. These are most likely
their sons’ neurons. I mean, the fetal cells
went into their brains, said, hi there, we’re
here to help out, and they became neurons– [LAUGHTER] –functional neurons. And this was– I forget the exact number. It was something like
20% of the women. Yeah. And these are very crude
ways of getting at. Those are probably a
gross underestimate. I’m going to guess maybe a
third of mothers are chimeras, but the numbers are super rough. If it turns out to be more,
it won’t surprise me one bit. So this, among other things,
raises the same question that people ask me when they
hear about horizontal gene transfer, endosymbiosis,
and some other things– what does this do to the
concept of a human individual as individual? Right. I think when we talk
about human individuals I think it’s like this
psychological shorthand we use to make our way
through the world and to deal with these bags
of cells that kind of look like us. That’s it. There’s nothing
deep and fundamental about our individuality. There just isn’t. The mothers among you, a
number of you are chimeras. And then a few percent
probably of the rest of you are also chimeras
with a twin you never knew you had who probably
died in the womb. You’re a composite. And all of us are mosaics. There’s no one magic code
that defines who we are. So yeah, individuality
is way overrated. And– [LAUGHTER] –even what a species
is is overrated. So you’ve got horizontal
gene transfer kind of mushing together genes
from bacteria that have been separated by billions of years. We’ve got DNA from Neanderthals,
and Denisovans, and viruses, and all sorts of stuff. It’s a hodgepodge in there. So– Yeah, yeah. –whenever I’m writing
about Neanderthals, someone will say like, well, are
they a separate species or not? And then I’ll say, well,
look, I’m a journalist, I’ll call the scientist. It’s like, people want
to know are Neanderthals a separate species or not. And then all the
scientists are like, please don’t ask me that question. [LAUGHTER] They’re just– How long is a piece of string? Yeah, right, right, right. Where is the divide
between two mountains? It’s arbitrary in these cases. So yeah. And it’s fun just in writing
about science that you end up having to deal with philosophy. Well, we should– I’d like to jump back maybe. We talked about you
as an English major at a certain place. And how do you go from being
an English major to someone who is getting into the finer
details of mitochondria? I’m still trying
to figure that out. I did my undergraduate
and my graduate work mostly in literature, obsessed
with William Faulkner. And then I went off
to Montana in 1973. I had already published one– and I wanted to be
a fiction writer. And published one novel. I was very lucky and very
young, right out of college I published my first novel. 49 years ago? Yeah. Well, I don’t know. More than that– it’s
more than that, actually. Anyway, I’m not
good at mental math. And then I paid my
dues as a writer. You’ve got to pay
your dues sometime. I paid my dues not
before the first book but between the first
book and the second book. So I spent 13 years
or so in Montana doing those menial jobs that a
struggling young writer does– tending bar, waiting tables,
working as a fishing guide, et cetera. Besides discovering
that I couldn’t make a living as a novelist,
I discovered that I really loved nonfiction about science,
especially nonfiction that was imaginative and artful. And when I say imaginative,
I don’t mean making stuff up. I mean excellent writers who
used fact to create mosaics– artful mosaics– storytelling. I started reading
Haldane, I started reading early John McPhee,
reading early Stephen Jay Gould, number of others. And I discovered that
nonfiction could be an artistic branch of writing. And so I started
trying to do it. Figured out by trial and error
how to be a magazine writer and then finally
said, well, I want to do a big, ambitious book. I read it a little bit of Ed
Wilson and Robert MacArthur about The Theory of
Island Biogeography. I read very early on– and
I started writing this book about island biogeography. I read very early on a book
called The Secular Ark, which I recommend to you all. It’s a book about the history
of biogeography by Janet Browne. I think it might have
been your PhD thesis, yes? OK. Wonderful book. One of the first things I read. And I thought, what a wonderful
field, the study of why different creatures live where. And then I spent eight
years on that book. And when I was finished coming
out of that rabbit hole, I guess I was a
nonfiction author. You go places and
see living things. That’s that is such an
important part of what you do. And I wonder– when
I’m reading your stuff, I’m like, how do you take notes
while you’re trying to not get run over by an elephant. Or, you know, it’s day 30 of
this hike across central Africa and you’ve got your feet
wrapped in packing tape or whatever it was– Duct tape. Duct tape, yeah. I would think it’d
be hard to think of the craft of
writing when you’re in the elements like that. The answer to that question
is a ballpoint pen, a small notebook,
and a Ziploc bag. All right. Very low tech. And the things that
Carl was alluding to, I’ve done a lot of them for
National Geographic magazine, and therefore in partnership
with some of the world’s best and toughest photographers. And I always feel sort
of smug and pitying toward the photographers
I work with. Sometimes we’re in the field
together, sometimes not. And we’re at the airport in
Brazzaville, Congo or somewhere and they’re trying to
get their 13 Pelican cases of expensive
equipment through customs and be sure they can
get it back out again. And one of the cases
is missing in Paris and it’s got the lens in it. And I’ve got this
notebook, and Ziploc bag, and a ballpoint pen. [LAUGHTER] So that’s the answer to that. It’s good to travel light. When I learn something
new in science, a breaking event in science– it would be nice if we were
arguing with each other, but we’re not going to argue
with each other tonight. We’re pals and we have
high mutual regard. And we probably
disagree on some things that we could argue about, but. I open the New York Times online
and I see Carl’s got an article about this or that about
eight-lettered DNA– eight-lettered artificial DNA–
that was last week or earlier this week– or about the latest
discovery from the– you say “Denise-ovans” or “Denis-ovans”? I think it’s “Denis-ovans.” Denisovans, OK. The latest discovery
from Denisova Cave in South Central Siberia. And that’s how I find
out about these things. He does a number of
different kinds of writing. But one of the
things that he does that I have high respect
for, I depend on, and I don’t ever want to do is
he gets journal articles that haven’t been published yet
and he breaks that news to the world
through the New York Times– this is
what is going to be published in Nature tomorrow. And you do that with a computer
and a telephone, right? Yeah. I get wind of papers coming
out or the journals sometimes set things up with embargoes. But again, what you
do is you just– I will read the paper,
which is usually kind of a jumble and hard to
understand because it’s not well put together. And then– [LAUGHTER] To put it politely. All right, all the
scientists groaning, take a writing class, OK? [LAUGHTER] You probably didn’t teach
yourself statistics, OK. You don’t have to
teach yourself writing. It’s OK. And then I’ll read papers
by other people, which again are a bit of a struggle. And then the key is
that for me, if I’m doing these articles on
[INAUDIBLE],, is the phone call. And I’ll just say, all right,
let’s just start the beginning. And I’m going to stop you. And I’m going to say, wait,
you just skipped a step, what are you talking about? And they’ll be like,
oh yeah, right, I should have told you this. Oh, right, right, right. And eventually you get people– I just find when people are
talking they tell stories about their lives– in this case, their
scientific research– in a much more compelling,
clear, concise way, often with quite beautiful metaphors. They’ll just like, boom, all
of a sudden they say something. And you’re like,
ooh, got to make sure I’m recording that
because that is going in. That’s a quote that just
sums up exactly what they’re getting at. Are you recording
these phone calls? Always, yes. Yeah, always. Yes, yes. The Skype record
plug-in is my savior. You didn’t take
shorthand at Yale? Did they teach
shorthand at Yale? No. I missed that one. No, I’m not great at that. No, I have to admit that I
need the proper recording I’m so glad to hear that. And now we’re reaching that
age where computers can start to transcribe these things. And so I’m like in
the promised land. Did you ever– I know Ed
Yong had this experience– did you ever have occasion
to call up Carl Woese and ask for a reaction? Yeah. How did that go? Not well. I was a discoverer–
gosh, it’s so long ago. I can’t really remember what
I was even calling him about. Maybe it was reporting a
short piece, or something, or checking something. And I knew– I had a vague idea
of his importance. But he was just like– he just suddenly just
started insulting everyone. And it was totally
tangential, but he wanted to just start
cutting people down and wanted me to hear it. And I’m like, you know,
I’m just a young reporter and I don’t know what
to do with all this– He was crotchety. He was, man– –notoriously crotchety and
I think insecure as well as brilliant and accomplished. We’ve got a few minutes left. Maybe we should– before we
open up things for questions, why don’t we talk about
our different perspectives on what’s happening these
days aside from the things we’ve talked about
that’s really exciting us in the world of science. Is Lamarck back? Is Lamarck back? Why can’t Lamarck rest in peace? I mean, come on. I read it in your book. I– I’m not saying you answered
it, but the question is in there, right? You’re asking yourself
is Lamarckism– and we should stipulate
by Lamarckism shorthand we the one particular
idea, the inheritance of acquired adaptations. Well, right. Or characteristics. That’s what Lamarck said. Yeah, and I think
that’s the problem is that people don’t
really appreciate what Lamarck was trying to say. Lamarck Mark was really talking
about a theory of evolution. And he deserves incredible
credit for that. He was interested
in adaptations. He wasn’t interested
in if you raise a mouse in horrible
stressful conditions are the mouse pups
going to be messed up. Lamarck would be like, really? Or if you cut off their tails. Yeah, well, exactly–
the classic experiment to show that Lamarckism
wasn’t working. Lamarck is being
resurrected all the time. And I think we journalists
are to blame a lot for that, although scientist
sometimes will put Lamarck on their journal covers. I think we need to
cool down a bit. And there if you’re a
plant, which I’m not– [LAUGHTER] –I would say that certainly the
inheritance of acquired traits is a thing. Epigenetics really does seem
to be important to plants. And it’s a way for them
to survive and to thrive in a changing environment. So if there’s a drought,
descendants of a plant will be better prepared
in a way for a drought for several generations. But people have wanted
to jump to explain all things about human
life as well with that. And I think it’s way too hasty. There’s a lot in here
about epigenetics, which is fascinating. And that’s what brings you– I think that’s the
main thing anyway that brings you to the
question of is Lamarckism back, is it real, is it viable
under some circumstances. But the reason I get asked
it is because people wonder, well, horizontal gene
transfer, endogenous retroviruses, retroviral
infections that infect the germline of humans. One of the things I talk about
at the end of my book is that 8% of the human genome is viral
DNA that has been acquired over the evolution of mammals
and particularly of primates because of retroviruses
inserting themselves into human germline cells–
into eggs, sperms, or the stem cells
that make them– and therefore becoming
heritable– viral DNA, including a stretch
of viral DNA that is crucial to the formation
of a layer in humans between the placenta
and the fetus. So the human pregnancy is not
possible without this stretch of DNA that was originally
in a viral envelope gene and is now creating this layer. There’s a long fancy name. Is that the inheritance of
acquired characteristics? Well, what Lamarck
was talking about was an experience interacting
in the environment that changes an organism and then
that change gets passed down. But certainly it’s a kind of
infectious heredity, certainly. Actually, ironically maybe the
best example I think of this could be CRISPR. So people think
about CRISPR as a way to edit genes, which it is. But we stole it. We stole it from bacteria. They invented it
through evolution. It’s a way that they can defend
themselves against viruses. They can recognize
bits of viral DNA and cut it, disabling
the viruses. And they recognize it
because they’ve been infected by the virus before, right? Right. So if they can
survive an infection, that gives them a chance
to size up this viral DNA so that the next
time that they get infected they can use
CRISPR to shred it. Then what bacteria do to
reproduce is they just divide. And actually each of those
new daughter microbes is going to inherit that
memory, that experience of being exposed to that virus. Their genes have
been altered so that now that they are ready to
fight against that virus should they be infected by it. And so a scientist
named Eugene Koonin has argued that CRISPR is Lamarck. And a lot of people
don’t agree with him, but he’s sticking to his guns. And it’s an interesting point. Getting to visit people
like Eugene Koonin– are we wrapping it up– is one of the reasons why
he and I have great jobs. Yes. Both spend time with
this wonderfully crazed Russian-American man
named Eugene Koonin at the National Library of
Science in Bethesda, right? National Library
of Medicine, yeah. National Library of Medicine. He’s got a million ideas in
his head, and half of them at least are fantastic. [LAUGHTER] So yeah. So we can take some questions. But first a round of applause. [APPLAUSE] Thank you. Thank you.

2 comments on “Evolution Matters: David Quammen and Carl Zimmer

  1. Two outstanding Science communicators. Carl Zimmer's Book " She has her Mother's laugh" covers the history of Genetics like no other Book I have come across ( yet ) and Quammens " Entangled Tree" is definitely THE Book about Genetics breaching Darwin's Natural selection. I highly recommend both. For those active in the field, I actually study Astrophysics at IU ( but definitely stay informed in other Scientific fields ) and our Biology Department is world wide excepted as one of the best ( a lot of pharmaceutical companies in Indiana funding Genetics and Evolutionary Biology plus experts on Fossils & Geography ) – I asked around and Carl Zimmer's Book is being praised left and right by many students and teachers/professors…

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