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Mathematics & Science

The best books on Biology

recommended by Sean B Carroll

What do molecules in a cell have in common with lions in the Serengeti? They all follow rules, says scientist and author Sean B Carroll. He chooses the best books on biology, from the death of the dodo to the discovery of DNA.

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Sean B Carroll

Sean B. Carroll is a scientist, author and educator. He heads the department of science education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and is a professor of molecular biology and genetics at the University of Wisconsin. Carroll's lab research focuses on the genes that control animal body patterns and play major roles in the evolution of animal diversity. In recognition of his scientific contributions, Carroll has received the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life Sciences, been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, as well as named a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is the author of Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species, which was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award for non-fiction, The Making of the Fittest, and Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo). His most recent book is The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover how Life Works and Why it Matters.

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Sean B Carroll

Sean B. Carroll is a scientist, author and educator. He heads the department of science education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and is a professor of molecular biology and genetics at the University of Wisconsin. Carroll's lab research focuses on the genes that control animal body patterns and play major roles in the evolution of animal diversity. In recognition of his scientific contributions, Carroll has received the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life Sciences, been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, as well as named a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is the author of Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species, which was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award for non-fiction, The Making of the Fittest, and Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo). His most recent book is The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover how Life Works and Why it Matters.

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Your recent book, The Serengeti Rules, has been described as “a visionary book about how life works.” What is its basic premise?

The basic premise of the book is to appreciate that at all scales of life there are forces at work to determine the numbers of everything. So that’s the number of molecules of something in our bloodstream, the number of cells in our body, or, on a much larger scale, the numbers and kinds of creatures that live in any particular place. The quest of biology for the past century has been trying to figure out the rules that operate at these different scales.

What do you mean by rules? Can you give some examples?

Unlike physics, where matter behaves in a very regular way under so many different conditions, biology doesn’t necessarily have laws. It more has tendencies, and we’re trying to figure out what those tendencies are. For example, one rule at a larger level is that, much to ecologists’ surprise, there are species that have disproportionately large effects on the stability and diversity of the community they live in. You might think, looking at a forest or a tide pool, that all the creatures in it are equal. But it turns out that some individual creatures have a much bigger influence than others. There’s a name given to those creatures, keystone species. They work much like the keystone in a Roman arch: if they are removed, the whole thing collapses. So that’s what I mean by finding the rules, realising that whether it’s molecules or species, some things are more important than others. Biologists have been trying to figure out what those more important things are.

Understanding what happens inside our cells is of course important for medical progress. Can you explain why we need to understand these interactions on a larger scale too?

Because it’s the planet that supplies all our needs. So to understand how to manage fisheries, croplands, forests, we need to understand the rules that are operating in any given place. What are the more important creatures, and how do they work? What happens if we accidentally or intentionally remove them? We need to study these questions in order to manage the places that are important to meet humanity’s needs.

In medical research, scientists investigate the rules governing how cells work, they test the effects of new drugs, and so on. You argue that we should apply a similar approach to the health of the planet.

I think we need that kind of mindset. For a long time, we’ve prioritised things that have immediate impact on our health. As I explain in the book, everything in our bodies is regulated. When something is just a little bit off, we detect that. We feel sick, and we want to feel better. We go to our physician to try to get back to normal. But we’re not in that mindset with regard to the ecological systems that we depend upon. We don’t think about them that much and when they look ok, at least at first glance, we’re not necessarily asking deeper questions like, ‘Is everything functioning well? Is everything functioning to last for decades or centuries?’ Human health is very important to us. An important shift is to see ecological health as equally important and directly connected to us.

In the past, biologists in disciplines such as ecology and genetics wouldn’t necessarily have thought they had much in common. Why do you think it’s taken so long to grasp these similarities?

I think it’s a case of not expecting things at different scales to resemble each other. But there is a similar logic. In the body, for example, there are very logical feedback loops where, if we need a certain substance—say cholesterol—we can make it. Then if we have too much, we turn down the production of that substance. These feedback mechanisms allow us to make what we need – not too much, not too little. Medicine, for example, is targeted at modifying these processes when we need to. So biologists working at that scale have become very accustomed to thinking about the logic that operates in these situations. Biologists operating at a much larger scale have not necessarily thought about things in the same way.

I’m fairly encouraged that things like The Serengeti Rules are helping biologists of different stripes to communicate, and helping the next generation of biologists to see that the different branches of biology, which study life at different scales, are not so disparate.

Let’s get into your book choices. Your first recommendation is the 1979 book The Eighth Day of Creation by Horace Judson. It’s essentially a history book describing the birth of molecular biology. What is so good about it?

What guides all my choices is a combination of scholarship and storytelling. Really digging into the subject area, unearthing new insights—great biography or whatever it might be—but then telling a hell of a good story.

You can just admire Judson as a great work of history because he interviewed so many people. It’s really the definitive history of the birth of molecular biology. He stitched together this narrative of all these folks who were trying to understand the secrets of life at the molecular level. What makes the difference between life and non-life? Those first questions that people were asking. Discovering the double helix, and cracking the genetic code, things like that. It was a fascinating era. This was science done by a small number of people, not the large enterprises we have today. Funding was scarce, collaboration was common. Most of these folks were derailed by World War II, they had to be doing other things before they got back to their research. You get a sense of the epic sweep of where we went from blind ignorance about life at the molecular level to being on the verge of manipulating it ourselves through genetic engineering, in just a couple of decades.

“What’s different about the birth of molecular biology is the discoveries being so crystal clear. One day we were in the dark about heredity, something as fundamental as how life makes life, and the next day it was phenomenally clear.”

Judson tells the story through the eyes of his interviewees. That was a pioneering approach for its time.

He gave those people long paragraphs to say what they said. I’ve seen some of the original transcripts of the interviews. He did not have a heavy hand in the editing of what people had to say. That could be dangerous, but on the other hand, it does make the book a definitive contribution in terms of all these people going on the record about what they did, what they were thinking, who did what, how we know what we know. As the years pass, this book is going to have a long, long utility because it stands out as a great record of this incredible era in biology.

Will we ever see another period in biology as revolutionary and transformative as this?

You could go back to Darwin’s time for ideas that were revolutionary, that triggered a big transformation in worldview. What’s different about the birth of molecular biology is the discoveries being so crystal clear. One day we were in the dark about heredity, something as fundamental as how life makes life, and the next day it was phenomenally clear. Those are pretty hard revolutions to match. There have been great bursts in various parts of biology since then but whatever unit of measurement you have for revolutions, this was a big one.

You just mentioned Darwin. Your second choice is Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist (1999) by historians Adrian Desmond and James Moore. Why did you choose this book?

I’d read a lot about Darwin, but these two authors just brought him alive. The time period in which he lives, the people around him, his family members, his mentors, his journeys, his struggles. It is an almost four-dimensional treatment of Darwin and his life and times. It was perhaps the first time I encountered such great nonfiction writing. Great storytelling, and such a thorough arc of his life. It was a model for me. I think this is also true of Judson. You almost don’t know what books are capable of until you see certain examples. In this case, Darwin was vividly brought to life.

What kind of man do the authors portray?

They start with the boy. He’s a bit rambunctious, and very much interested in nature. He becomes a young man who is very uncertain of himself, and washes out of medical school. He has quite a dominant father, whom he wishes to please but is going to have trouble pleasing. You see somebody who, much like anybody 18, 20, 22 years old today, is trying to find their footing in the world. Then you see him grow up and find his footing in the world. And you see a person who is very well liked. This is something that people wouldn’t necessarily know or expect. He got along with people in all walks of life. The sailors on the Beagle, who were a pretty rough lot, were very fond of him. He was a good shot so he often was able to get fresh food for his sailing mates, which they definitely appreciated. He was a sweet guy, very kind to other people. I think people felt a lot of warmth and compassion towards him as he struggled to bring his ideas to light. He was a doting father – he had 10 children, 7 of whom survived to adulthood – and a valued friend. You see a good human being emerge in the telling of that tale, a real person and not just an icon.

Darwin is described in the book’s subtitle as “a tormented evolutionist.” What was the source of his torment?

The torment was that he had this idea that he knew was dangerous, that it would be a lightning rod for intense criticism, that he would be reviled in many circles. His wife, whom he adored, and she adored him, was a devout Christian. She worried aloud about their future in eternity. He knew it was going to be difficult for his mentors who made it possible for him to take the voyage. Publishing his ideas was going to be like spitting in their faces. They were all ordained members of the Anglican Church, teaching at Cambridge. He was risking a lot, which was why he held back.

He also had all these health problems, whether they were psychosomatic or whether they were illnesses he picked up on the voyage, there’s still a whole investigative history to be done there. He was tormented for a good part of his adult life.

Your next book is The Man Who Found the Missing Link (2001) by Pat Shipman, about biologist Eugène Dubois, who was born a year before Darwin published his theory of evolution. Who was Dubois?

Dubois was a Dutchman who grew up hearing about Darwin. He grew up going into the fossil-rich hillsides in the southern Netherlands and was really interested in natural history. He was brilliant, he became a physician, but he concluded that the most important thing anybody could ever discover was the supposed missing link between humans and apes. He decided he was going to find it. In what must be one of the most rash and perhaps luckiest expeditions in the history of palaeontology, he decided that the cradle of humanity must be in Asia, and he thought, ‘Let’s go to the Dutch East Indies!’ How convenient, if you are a Dutchman! He searched in Indonesia, and darned if he didn’t find what we know today as Java Man, or the species Homo erectus. He threw the luckiest dart in the history of palaeontology. He had to work hard and spent years in difficult conditions not finding anything. But the fact that he found anything is remarkable; many people who followed him to the same region didn’t find anything in thirty years. So Dubois is a character who could have easily made no mark and been quickly forgotten, but with persistence and a bit of luck he did strike gold.

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Pat Shipman tells a remarkable story. Again, I singled that book out because it was, to me, an example of something different about what a book could be. Pat didn’t always have the dots connected in documentary sources. I think she took more license in telling the Dubois story than a conventional academic biography would allow.

The book has been described as a “missing link” between the two genres of autobiography and fiction.

That’s right. She’s good in that missing link area. It’s a hell of a tale. And by telling a great story, she brought that character back to life, back to people’s attention. It’s a book I treasure.

How was Dubois’s find received when he brought the news back home?

Like a lot of discoveries, admired by some and reviled by many. He had fierce critics and a few supporters. Some of the critics were anti-Darwinian, they just wanted to deny the evidence. They were essentially saying all he found were the bones of an ape or the bones of a modern man, whichever critic it was. He expected that when he came back with these remarkable fossils he’d be praised from every quarter of the scientific community, but that was a naïve expectation. He got hammered, and he didn’t take it well. There are some tragic notes in Dubois’s tale, and Pat goes into those dark places very well. Dubois was, in many ways, his own worst enemy in the way he behaved. He had a difficult personality and he made his own world more difficult. It’s a tale that we find in other places in literature, of people who are visionaries and great dreamers, and committed to that vision, but at the same time they are shooting themselves in the foot and dragging down the people around them.

Your fourth choice is a scientist telling his own story, The Statue Within (1988) by French biologist François Jacob. Why did you choose this?

I think it stands out in terms of scientists telling their own stories. There’s a level of candour in the book that is often surprising: regarding his feelings about various things, whether that’s his hatred of Hitler, or falling in love, or even his first adventures in science. He’s candid about what he knew and what he didn’t, which was mostly what he didn’t know. It’s written in an unusual style. It’s not strictly chronological. It has a literary quality to it because it’s not structured in a predictable way. He has some amazing experiences both in life and in science. Not many of us live a life as rich as François Jacob. So it’s a great journey and it’s told in a very interesting way. It’s a book I’ve returned to several times because I think you can appreciate it at different stages of life. You can read it when you’re 25, and then, if you’ve got a little more mileage on you, you appreciate it even more. There are other famous science autobiographies like The Double Helix by Jim Watson, but Jacob’s was different. Jacob was more revealing of himself. I find that really special.

What are some of the personal experiences that Jacob went through?

He was a medical student at the outbreak of World War II when France was invaded and he raced for the coast. France was collapsing around him, but he wanted to continue to fight. So he was one of the relatively small number that were able to get on a boat and get to England, and he joined up with Charles de Gaulle, who had announced his intention to fight over the airwaves. Jacob wanted to be an artillery gunner, he really wanted to kill Germans. But because he had some medical training they made him a medic. He served for 4 years in the North Africa campaign. He was exposed to the cultures of those countries, and, at the same time, he was exposed to combat and treating the wounded and the dying. Then he returned to England in preparation for the invasion of Normandy. He came over a bit after the first landings, in August of ‘44. While trying to protect a patient, he was almost killed in a bombing attack and suffered severe shrapnel wounds. He went through many surgeries and a long convalescence, but it ended his medical career. He wanted to be a surgeon but his hand was too damaged. So he really struggled to find his place after the war. This was the era of antibiotics. He decided that he was going to make his way in scientific research even though he had very little training. He had to be very persistent, knock on a lot of doors, go through a lot of rejection, before he got a chance.

What was Jacob’s scientific contribution?

In the 1950s he teamed up with another important person to me, Jacques Monod, to crack one of the most fundamental mysteries of regulation in life, which is how do genes turn on and off? It’s linked to the physiological observation that cells make what they need when they need it, and only when they need it. Again it’s that logic. In fact, Jacob used the phrase ‘the logic of life’, and wrote a book about it. It’s remarkably logical that cells make what they need when they need it and not when they don’t need it. You think, how does a cell know what to make? The first penetrating insights into that came from work by Jacob and Monod.

Your last choice is The Song of the Dodo (1996) by the nature writer David Quammen. Can you tell me about it?

It’s a great treatment of someone who, at the time it was written, was a long overlooked figure in biology, and that’s Alfred Russell Wallace. It was probably reading The Song of the Dodo that helped me to rediscover Wallace myself. Wallace’s work on islands in the Malay archipelago in the 19th century was fundamental to him coming up with similar ideas to Darwin about evolution. He went island hopping across that archipelago – visiting islands like Borneo, Sumatra, Lombok, Bali. He put in thousands of miles and dozens of crossings trying to understand the distribution of plants and animals there.

More broadly, the book covers the role that islands have played in our thinking about how nature works, all the way up to the current issues and debates of the time. Quammen describes how pioneering biologists and ecologists are using islands as laboratories to try to figure out fundamental questions such as how many species can live in a particular place. It’s a great hybrid of rich history and contemporary science.

The book has another aspect to it, though, which is how the fate of those islands has been a harbinger of things to come. Many of these islands have been damaged, or spoiled, essentially, by humans in one way or another – that’s why the book is called The Song of the Dodo. Without ramming it down your throat, there’s a profound message there about the future of nature as well.

Quammen’s book was published in 1996. Two decades later, you’re making a similar warning about our planet’s ecosystems. Are you hopeful for the future?

I’m hopeful for two reasons. First I don’t think there’s an alternative. Pessimism is a self-fulfilling attitude, so I don’t think that’s the way to go. But I’m also optimistic because, although nothing happens as fast as we’d like it to, we know lots more now than 30 or 40 years ago. We also have a lot of success stories that just aren’t talked about much. When we protect species or places they can really rebound. There are lots of examples of this from sea otters, elephant seals and whales to bald eagles, wolves and bears. In The Serengeti Rules, I describe my own experience of the Gorongosa reserve in Mozambique. That place was given up for dead, but in a decade it has undergone a tremendous transformation in terms of wildlife.

You hear a lot of gloom and doom in the media, echoing ‘Isn’t humanity stupid, doing all these stupid things?’ But there are a lot of people working hard to change that narrative. It’s not that the alarm and grim forecasting is unfounded, but there is another side to the picture, which is that nature is incredibly resilient and, given a chance, she can rebound on a timescale that is surprising. We see that in the oceans when we protect fisheries, we see that on the land. We need a change of mindset to take ecological health seriously, and a change of mindset to say, we can do this. We’re not powerless, and it’s not too late.

Interview by Jo Marchant

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