Interview with Sean B. Carroll, author of The Serengeti Rules

CarrollIn the fields of biological and environmental studies, Sean B. Carroll has made a name for himself not only as a scientist, writer, and educator, but as a storyteller. In his newest book, The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters, Carroll argues that the most critical thing we have learned about human life at the molecular level is that everything is regulated.

Carrol uses medical analogies, comparing the current blight on nature to a disease that ravages the body. The book will leave readers considering life on several scales, both personal and global. Recently he took the time to answer some questions about the book:

One of the central themes of your book is that “everything is regulated” in life. What does that mean?

SC: What it means is that at all scales of life the numbers of things are controlled. For example, in our bodies, the concentration of every kind of chemical – hormones, salts, enzymes and fats, and the numbers of every kind of cell –red cells, white cells and so on, are maintained within certain ranges by regulation. Similarly, in nature, the numbers and kinds of animal and plants in a given place are regulated.

Why is all of this regulation important?

SC: Regulation is very important because diseases (heart disease, cancer and so on) are generally abnormalities of regulation, when too little or too much of something is made. Likewise, in nature, when key species are lost or removed, too many or too few individuals of other species persist, and that habitat becomes unhealthy and may collapse. So learning the “rules of regulation” is very important to both medicine and conservation.

What have we learned about those rules?

SC: A century-long quest of biology has been to discover how life works, and that entails the deciphering of the “rules of regulation” in the body and in nature at large. The stories that make up the book are about those pioneers who tackled the mysteries of regulation and discovered important rules that have had huge impacts in medicine, ecology and conservation.

The scientists portrayed in The Serengeti Rules are admirable, sometimes heroic figures. Why did you choose to organize the book around their stories?

SC: I am a firm believer in the power of stories. Science is far more enjoyable, understandable, and memorable when we follow scientists all over the world and share in their struggles and triumphs.

You use an analogy from sports to explain how scientists have figured out how to treat many diseases. How does that analogy apply to medicine?

SC: In the body, the key “players” are molecules that regulate a process. To intervene in a disease, we need to know what players are injured or missing or what rules of regulation have been broken. The task for biologists is to identify the important players in a process, figure out the rules that regulate their action, and then design medicines that target the key players. In the book, I tell the stories of just how that was done to make such dramatic progress against heart disease and cancer.

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CC Image courtesy of Celso Flores on flickr

Your book is called The Serengeti Rules. What are those rules?

SC: Just as there are rules that regulate the numbers of different kinds of molecules and cells in the body, there are ecological rules that regulate the numbers and kinds of animals and plants in a given place. I have called these the “Serengeti Rules” because that is one place where they have been worked out and they determine, for example, how many lions, or buffalo, or elephants live on an African savanna.

But these rules apply all over the globe, in oceans, rivers, and lakes, as well as on land.

Do these rules apply then to conserving and restoring species?

SC: Absolutely. But in contrast to the considerable care and expense we gladly undertake in applying molecular rules to human medicine, we have done a very poor job in considering and applying these Serengeti Rules to human affairs. For centuries we have hunted, fished, farmed, forested, and settled wherever we could, with no or very little grasp of altering other species. For a long time, we did not know any better, but now we do. So minding these Serengeti Rules may have as much or more to do with our future welfare than all of the molecular rules we may ever discover.

But as you describe in several chapters, there have been some encouraging successes in restoring species and habitats

SC: Yes, and I thought it was very important to tell those stories, to show that even war-torn and devastated places like Gorongosa National park in Mozambique could rebound given time, protection, and the efforts of just a small band of extraordinarily dedicated people.

You visited Gorongosa in the course of writing this book. What was that experience like?

SC: Life-changing. The people behind the Gorongosa Restoration Project are so inspiring, and the magnitude of the recovery in just ten years is astounding and so encouraging. If Gorongosa can be rescued from utter disaster, we should all take heart that we can restore other places and species.

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CC image courtesy of F Mira on Flickr

When readers close The Serengeti Rules after finishing it, what do you hope they will be feeling?

First of all, I hope that they feel inspired by the stories of some exceptional people who tackled and solved great mysteries. Second, that they feel enriched with fresh insights into the wonders of life at different scales. Third, that they feel more hope for the future — that there is time to change the road we’re on. And finally, that they can’t wait to tell their friends to read the book!

You have had a very distinguished career as a molecular biologist. What inspired you to delve into ecology and conservation and write this book?

First, a desire to explore the bigger picture of life. When I gazed upon the Serengeti for the first time, I was as enchanted as any tourist, but I did not understand what I was looking at. For someone who has spent decades figuring out how complex, invisible things worked, that was a bit unsettling and embarrassing. So I dove into what was known and realized that the rules of ecology and even how they were discovered had some parallels to what we understood about life at the molecular level. These parallels had never been drawn; this book is an attempt to do that in the context of explaining why understand all of the rules matters.

And second, a sense of urgency. The disappearance of nature is an existential crisis for biology and humanity. As much as I love the world of DNA and cells, it felt a contradiction – to care so much about life at one level and to ignore what was happening to life at large. It is time to look up from the microscope.

Sean B. Carroll is an award-winning scientist, writer, educator, and executive producer. He is vice president for science education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Allan Wilson Professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His books include Endless Forms Most Beautiful, Brave Genius, and Remarkable Creatures, which was a finalist for the National Book Award for nonfiction. His most recent book is The Serengeti Rules. He lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Bird Fact Friday – Birds protected by religious tradition in India

From page 20 of Birds of India:

The enlightened and benevolent attitudes of Hinduism and Buddhism towards wildlife have helped to conserve the rich natural heritage of the Indian subcontinent. India has a tradition of protection of all forms of animals dating back at least 3,000 years when the Rig Veda mentioned the right of animals to live. Sacred groves, village tanks, and temples where the hunting and killing of all forms of life is prohibited can be found throughout India.

Birds of India: Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives
Second edition
Richard Grimmett, Carol Inskipp & Tim Inskipp

IndiaThe best field guide to the birds of the Indian subcontinent is now even better. Thoroughly revised, with 73 new plates and many others updated or repainted, the second edition of Birds of India now features all maps and text opposite the plates for quicker and easier reference. Newly identified species have been added, the text has been extensively revised, and all the maps are new. Comprehensive and definitive, this is the indispensable guide for anyone birding in this part of the world.

Bird Fact Friday – Sneaky Little Birds

From page 7 of Birds of the West Indies:

In some cases, bird species that we once concluded were extinct have in fact only eluded human detection. For example, the Puerto Rican Nightjar was collected in 1888, but then not seen again for 73 years before it was rediscovered in 1961. Stories like this remind us of how fragile animal species can be, spurring us to greater awareness and conservation efforts.

Birds of the West Indies
Herbert Raffaele, James Wiley, Orlando Garrido, Allan Keith, & Janis Raffaele

Interview with Herb Raffaele
BirdsFully illustrated, easy to use, and completely up-to-date, Birds of the West Indies is the only field guide that covers all of the bird species known to occur in the region–including migrants and infrequently occurring forms. Each species is represented by a full description that includes identification field marks, status and range, habitat, and voice. A map showing the bird’s distribution accompanies many species accounts, and plumages of all species are depicted in ninety-three beautifully rendered color plates.

Bird lovers, vacationing tourists, local residents, and “armchair travelers” will all want to own this definitive field guide to the birds of the West Indies.

• Includes all species recorded in the region
• Features ninety-three color plates with concise text on facing pages for quick reference and easy identification
• Species accounts cover identification, voice, status and habitat, and range
• Color distribution maps

An interview with Justin Farrell, author of THE BATTLE FOR YELLOWSTONE

Farrell jacketYellowstone, the world’s first national park and a spectacular geothermal hot spot, has long been a popular summer vacation destination, with its unparalleled scenery, hiking and wildlife. But it also sits at the center of endless political struggles and environmental conflicts. What can Yellowstone teach us about the worsening environmental conflicts worldwide? And what can the persistent clashes about Yellowstone itself teach us about cultural upheaval in the US? Justin Farrell recently sat down to answer these questions and give us some background on the writing of his new book, The Battle for Yellowstone, which was recently called “The most original political book of early 2015” by The Economist.

Why Yellowstone?

JF: Yellowstone National Park is the first national park in the world, and is a natural and cultural treasure of the United States. The history about how this happened is somewhat complicated, difficult, and imperialistic (as I describe in Chapter 1), but it remains a modern treasure nonetheless.

In recent years it has become a site for some of the most intractable environmental struggles in the world. As a prototype for conservation, these struggles have great impact beyond the bounds of the United States. This is why the issues I write about in the book draw so much attention from U.S. Presidents, Congress, environmental groups, local ranchers and farmers, national media, and millions of members of the public from outside of the Yellowstone region. Each year more and more money is poured into finding solutions, yet the toxic polarization rolls on.

What does morality have to do with anything?

JF: In and around Yellowstone there is a massive amount of energy put into solving these conflicts, and just about all of this energy is put into ascertaining more facts and technical knowledge about biology, ecology, economics, or law. While this is good, and we always need more of this, it has clouded what the conflict is really about, and hindered progress in a number of ways. Underneath this sort of reasoning is the notion that once people “have the facts,” they will make rational decisions based on those facts. Of course, we know this is not true.

Through several years of research on Yellowstone conflict, I ask more fundamental questions that reveal the sources of pre-scientific cultural, moral, and spiritual commitments that in many ways drive Yellowstone conflict. In the book I unpack this argument in much more detail, and describe empirically how environmental conflict in this area has intense cultural and moral dimensions that are often ignored, muted, or misunderstood by the participants in the conflict.

You’ve blended computational social science with traditional qualitative fieldwork. Can you explain why this methodological approach is important?

JF: Mixed-methods can open windows of insight that are often missed by a single methodological approach. I really enjoy computational methods, such as machine learning, text analysis, and network science. I wanted to blend them with the qualitative fieldwork in a way that worked together in a complementary way, rather than side by side. So my interview guides and choices for participant observation were many times informed by the computational social science. And vice-versa, the difficult interpretive work required by qualitative data was informed by what I found in the computational analyses. On a much broader note, I really believe that there are so many benefits to blending these types of research, and that qualitative researchers in particular should try to make use of computational social science because—as I try to show in the book (and in a class I teach here at Yale)—that there are a lot of similarities, and a lot of tools at our disposal that can help us better understand human culture.

What are the main theoretical contributions of the book?

JF: While the main contribution concerns morality and environmental conflict, there are four general contributions that fit more neatly into subfield boxes. I won’t go into too much detail here, but they are (1) a contribution to the (re)emerging field of sociology of morality; (2) bringing questions central to sociology of culture into the field of environmental sociology; (3) examining religion and spirituality in ostensibly non-religious or “secular” settings; (4) a methodological model and call for scholars to blend computational social science with qualitative fieldwork.

Environmental issues have become especially important in the 21st century, and will continue to do so. How might this book help solve the growing number of environmental conflicts around the world?

JF: The model and argument I develop in the book has broad application to any environmental issue where cultural factors weigh strong. My bias is that there are cultural factors weighing strong in almost any environmental issue, and are driven by larger conceptions and cultural commitments about what the “good” life looks like, and how we should go about living it in relationship to each other and to the natural world.

Justin Farrell is assistant professor of sociology in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University.

Read the introduction here.

11-Year-Old Birder Raises Money for Conservation with #PhotoBigDay

Dessi1Dessi Sieburth, an 11-year-old birder from Pasadena, California, has just set the PhotoBigDay record for Antelope Valley, and for a great cause.

Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle, co-authors of The Warbler Guide, started PhotoBigDay earlier this spring. Big Days are a tradition in the world of birding, a challenge to see how many different species of birds you can spot in a single day. Today, Big Days have become increasingly competitive, with seasoned birders and ornithologists using advanced equipment to catalogue species midnight to midnight. Stephenson and Whittle created PhotoBigDay with ordinary birders in mind, and with an added twist: participants must document every bird they see on film.

big photo day white faced ibisSieburth recorded 85 species on his PhotoBigDay, including:

  • White-Faced Ibis
  • Snowy Egret
  • Burrowing Owl
  • Caspian Tern
  • American White Pelican
  • Loggerhead Shrike
  • Wilson’s Warbler
  • Western Tanager
  • Nuttal’s Woodpecker
  • Osprey

Sieburth used his PhotoBigDay as a fundraiser for conservation, and raised $200 so far for the preservation of a local migration area and seed for bird feeders.

 

Photos here are courtesy of Beatrix Schwarz, Dessi’s proud mother!

Two for Tuesday – Britain’s Freshwater Fishes & England’s Rare Mosses

From our WildGuides selection, we are introducing two new beautifully illustrated books for your personal library.

j9973Britain’s Freshwater Fishes
by Mark Everard

Britain hosts a diversity of freshwater environments, from torrential hill streams and lowland rivers to lakes, reservoirs, ponds, canals, ditches, and upper reaches of estuaries. Britain’s Freshwater Fishes covers the 53 species of freshwater and brackish water fishes that are native or have been introduced and become naturalized. This beautifully illustrated guide features high-quality in-the-water or on-the-bank photographs throughout. Detailed species accounts describe the key identification features and provide information on status, size and weight, habitat, ecology, and conservation. Written in an accessible style, the book also contains introductory sections on fish biology, fish habitats, how to identify fishes, and conservation and legislation.

 

 

 

j9975England’s Rare Mosses and Liverworts:
Their History, Ecology, and Conservation
by Ron D. Porley

This is the first book to cover England’s rare and threatened mosses and liverworts, collectively known as bryophytes. As a group, they are the most ancient land plants and occupy a unique position in the colonization of the Earth by plant life. However, many are at risk from habitat loss, pollution, climate change, and other factors. Britain is one of the world’s best bryologically recorded areas, yet its mosses and liverworts are not well known outside a small band of experts. This has meant that conservation action has tended to lag behind that of more charismatic groups such as birds and mammals. Of the 918 different types of bryophyte in England, 87 are on the British Red List and are regarded as threatened under the strict criteria of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

This book aims to raise awareness by providing stunning photographs–many never before published–of each threatened species, as well as up-to-date profiles of 84 of them, including status, distribution, history, and conservation measures. The book looks at what bryophytes are, why they are important and useful, and what makes them rare; it also examines threats, extinctions, ex situ conservation techniques, legislation, and the impact of the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity.

For more selections from WildGuides, please visit:
http://press.princeton.edu/wildguides/