Sean B. Carroll
Photo Credit: Steve Paddock
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Meehan Crist: When
did you decide to write this book, and why?
I decided to write the book in 2006
for two main reasons. First, I believed that these are
inspiring stories that reflect some of the best human
qualities—and we need to know about and to tell
such stories. And second, I wanted to chronicle some
of the most important (but not so well known) discoveries
in two hundred years of natural history that changed
our perception of the living world and our place in
it. I was convinced that by walking in the footsteps
of these extraordinary explorers the scientific story
would come through in a memorable and appealing way.
MC: What questions
drove you as worked on Remarkable Creatures?
In other words, what was it that you hoped to better
understand by writing it?
Above all, this is a book about the passion to
explore the unknown. I wanted to better understand that
drive by examining the forces that compelled these explorers
to leave behind their loved ones, to endure years of
loneliness and deprivation, and to risk their health
and safety in order to follow their dreams by traveling
to faraway, dangerous places.
Researching these people from
various countries and economic situations revealed one
common ingredient—a deep attraction and attachment
to nature—that compelled them to become explorers,
naturalists, and scientists. I am convinced that most
people share that attraction and can therefore enjoy
and appreciate these stories.
MC: What was the most
unexpected thing you learned in the course of writing
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. The letters
I found from Wallace, Bates and others often contained
candid passages that revealed their thoughts and feelings
at crucial junctures. Some of the other great material
is in various rare books, such as the chronicle of Roy
Chapman Andrews' Central Asiatic expeditions, which
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.
MC: How did you decide
on the structure for this book, and how do you feel
this particular form serves the book’s content
in a way other structures could not?
The structure of the book was a particular challenge.
I had to knit together the stories into a whole that
was larger than the sum of the parts. At the same time,
I wanted it to be a page-turner where the reader could
barely wait to get to the next story. So the order of
the chapters really mattered as did the connections
I drew between preceding and succeeding chapters. I
used certain devices – a preface and three short
preambles to the three main sections of the book –
to help the reader know where I was going to take them
MC: Are there any books
you held in your peripheral vision as models while you
The Microbe Hunters
was an early model. I wanted to convey the excitement
of scientific exploration and discovery, and his book
was the first to capture that for a broad audience.
Paul de Kruif’s
MC: What part of Remarkable
Creatures was the most thrilling to write, and
The most exciting and fun parts to write were the most
dramatic incidents—shipwrecks and rescues, sandstorms,
and encounters with bandits, headhunters and wild animals.
The most thrilling parts, and most important to get
right, were the moments of discovery—those very
rare times when all of the sacrifice was repaid and
all of the doubts were erased by finding something that
no one had ever seen or thought of.
MC: What is the one
thing you wish people outside the rarified world of
scientific research better understood about evolution?
I would say I wish people better understood one thing
about science in general, not just evolution: progress
is driven by people who are every bit as passionate
as the most creative artists, writers, and musicians.
In terms of evolution, my wish is for people to understand
the enormous body of evidence underlying our knowledge
of the history of life and how life evolves.
MC: Why do you feel
it is important that readers better understand evolutionary
theory and the ways in which the theory itself has evolved?
The story of evolution is the story of the planet we
live on and the origin of our species. What could be
more compelling and important than to understand the
world around us and how it and we came to be? The deciphering
of these stories are some of the greatest achievements
in human history.
MC: Are there any questions
you asked while working on Remarkable Creatures
that remain unanswered? What effect does this lingering
uncertainty have on you, or perhaps on the book?
Yes, which is why I wrote the Epilogue on “The
Shape of Things to Come.” Initially, the book
ended with the chapter on the origin of modern humans.
But I worried that ending implied that all the big mysteries
were solved. Far from it. So I decided to highlight
a still-unsolved mystery as great as the one tackled
by the Darwinian Revolution, namely “Is there
life elsewhere in the universe?” the ramifications
of the answers to that question will be as earth-shaking
as the revolution sparked 150 years ago.
Meehan Crist is
reviews editor at The Believer. She holds an
Columbia University, and her work has recently appeared
in publications such
as The Believer and Lapham's Quarterly.
Her nonfiction book, Everything
After, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.