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2009 National Book AwardFinalist Nonfiction
Interview with Sean B. Carroll

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Photo Credit: Steve Paddock
Sean B. Carroll
Remarkable Creatures
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Interview Conducted by Meehan Crist

Meehan Crist: When did you decide to write this book, and why?

Sean Carroll: 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?

SC: 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 Remarkable Creatures?

SC: 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?

SC: 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 and why.

MC: Are there any books you held in your peripheral vision as models while you worked?

SC: Paul de Kruif’s 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.

MC: What part of Remarkable Creatures was the most thrilling to write, and why?

SC: 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?

SC: 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?

SC: 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?

SC: 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 MFA from
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.


 

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