Award-winning Author David Quammen on Swine Flu, Evolution and Ecology


Photo by Steve Hunts
David Quammen is the kind of author that changes your mind about what you think you know. His resume reads more like an instruction guide to being the smartest person in the room than merely work experience. He's a Rhode Scholar, Guggenheim Fellow, a three time National Magazine Award winner and Lannan Foundation Fellow as well as a winner of the New York Public Library's Helen Bernstein Award for Excellence in Journalism and the Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Plus he holds an honorary doctorate from Montana State University. You may know Quammen from his Outside Magazine column called Natural Acts which he wrote for fifteen years or his most famous book The Song of the Dodo. If you don't know him, you may not even know that you don't know what you think you know. Good thing June's just around the corner, because you should (read MUST) put his 11 books and hundreds of articles on your summer reading list to get up to speed that is if you want to, at least, sound like the smartest person in the room.

Quammen tackles some of the most important topics within the environmental movement. From evolution to biogeography, the landscape of Quammen's mind displays a rich mixture of historical context and in-depth science. His work doesn't have a texture of stuffiness, it feels more like breaking news — as if he is giving you an exclusive look into the subject. I had a chance to talk with Quammen about Charles Darwin (it's the sesquicentennial anniversary of On the Origin of Species and Mr. Darwin's bicentennial birthday) and the research his doing for his new book on zoonotic diseases, that dirty category of sicknesses that include Swine Flu, Anthrax, Ebola, Rabies and West Nile Virus.

Treehugger: You wrote a book about Darwin (which I thought was amazing), what were some things that surprised you to discover about him?

David Quammen: Nothing really surprised me when I did the book because I already knew his story well. But in reading more deeply into his private notebooks and his letters, I was very struck by what a decent, good man he was, so gentle and considerate and yet blazingly, adamantly honest (the episode with Alfred Wallace is, arguable, the one notable exception to his record of rectitude). I came to like him and admire him more the more I looked at his private life.

TH: How would you rank society's integration of evolution over the last 150 yrs?
DQ: This question should really have two parts: 1. How did society absorb the idea of evolution and 2. How did society absorb the particular Darwinian theory, namely, natural selection as the mechanism for evolution. The first happened much sooner (in the late 19th century) than the second. People nowadays generally don't realize that even scientists who accepted evolution had mostly turned away from Darwin's particular theory as the mechanism during the late 19th century, until Mendel's genetics work was rediscovered around 1900, and eventually that work was combined with Darwinian theory (and several other factors) to constitute what came to be called "The Modern Synthesis" by about 1942.
Then again, large parts of society — especially fundamentalist religious segments of American society — still continue to reject, deny and flee from the insights that Darwin brought forward and that have been abundantly reconfirmed in the 150 years since.

TH: How do you rank Darwin with other major scientists such as Newton & Einstein?

DQ: Darwin ranks in the top group of the most consequential scientists of all time, no matter how you might assemble that group. Some wise and experts heads have argued (I think it was James Watson in particular who said this) that Darwin's theory of evolution — that is, the concept of evolution by natural selection — constitutes the single most important idea that any human has ever had. I don't think it's necessary to claim that Darwin was a genius as brilliant as Einstein or Newton (I'd say he wasn't) to recognize his greatness and his impact. His greatness arose from hard work, keen observation, careful thinking and fierce intellectual honesty as much as it arose from brilliance. His impact lay in the fact that, unlike Newton or Einstein, he changed not just the way scientists understand the world but also the way ordinary human beings view themselves and their place in the universe.

TH: What's your opinion about the large percent of people that still don't agree with Darwin about evolution?

DQ: People are entitled to believe or decline to believe whatever they want. If they choose to ignore all the rational, empirical evidence that evolution has occurred and is occurring, or that Earth is round not flat, or that Earth orbits our sun rather than vice versa, that is their prerogative. Let them celebrate their alternative beliefs in their churches and mosques and klaverns, and around campfires on moonlit nights. But they should keep those evidence-rejecting and reason-denying beliefs the hell away from science curricula in American public schools. As I've said elsewhere (on a Starbucks cup), I have no objection to the idea that "Intelligent Design" (to cite one instance of evolution-denying belief) might be taught in public schools. But it shouldn't be taught as science, because it's not science. It should be taught in courses on comparative religion, along with Islam, Mormonism, Zoroastrianism and the Hindu belief that Earth rests in space held up by four huge elephants standing on the back of Chukwa, the giant turtle.

TH: Can you tell me what your working on now?

DQ: My present book project is on the subject of zoonotic diseases — that is, those caused by pathogens transmitted between other species and humans. My interest is the ecology and evolutionary biology of these bugs — such as Ebola virus, HIV, avian influenza, Lyme, the Sars virus and quite a few others some scarcely heard of by the general public. At the moment, I'm headed for Bangladesh to observe fieldwork on a virus called Nipah, which emerges from bats and causes disease and death in humans. The other main focus of my activity this year is lecturing at a number of venues on Charles Darwin in honor of his 200th birthday (February 12, 2009). Darwin is the man who doesn't go away, bless him, and he seems to maintain a lasting hold on my professional life (and my affections), as he does on others.

Tags: Biodiversity | Biology | Conservation | Deforestation | Ecology | Endangered Species | Ethical | Evolution | Natural Disasters | Summer | TH Interview