Tag Archives: science

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, has already won awards and accolades as an exceptional piece of science writing/reporting as well as one of outstanding story-telling. As a biologist myself, I had put it on my “must-read” list because of its value as a reference into the history of life science. What I wasn’t expecting was what an intimate look into HISTORY it would be.

Some would call it a quirk of fate. Others would say it was merely an unusual set of circumstances that brought a woman named Henrietta Lacks, suffering from an advanced stage of cervical cancer, into Johns Hopkins Hospital at a time when researchers were scrambling madly to find a way to harvest a line of living human cells that would survive for more than a few days outside the body. And at a time when one of the most determined of those researchers was working in that very hospital. Dr. George Gey (pronounced “guy”) had been experimenting for years to find the best conditions for growing malignant cells outside the body, in order to study cancer. Most of his home-designed equipment was make-shift. His growth medium recipe was a work in progress. His wife, Margret, worked in the lab with him and designed protocols for handling tissue samples to reduce the possibility of contamination by outside sources. Still, they had not achieved success. If more time had gone by, Gey might have finally given up his decades long effort before having the chance to culture cells from Henrietta’s tumor.

That her cancer cells were even more distinctive than most was only discovered years later, when they were found to be contaminated with a type of virus that made them especially robust. Whether the virus was present when the cells were harvested may never be determined, but it means that the cells living today are far from identical to the first ones that reproduced themselves in George Gey’s lab. All of them bear the name “HELA,” though — the first two letters of her first and last names — the sample designation assigned to the first ones collected by Henrietta’s doctor and placed in the incubator by Gey’s research assistant, Mary Kubicek. .

But that’s all about the science. The human story is at least as compelling, and to some readers, may be even more so. Henrietta Lacks, her husband and children, were poor, under-educated people of mixed slave and slave-owner ancestry. Henrietta was remembered by her friends and family members as a cheerful, warm and loving woman who liked to go dancing when she had the chance. The difficulties of her life didn’t seem to weigh heavily on her until it became apparent that the cancer treatments she received were only adding to her illness and misery. Skloot’s depiction of these intimate details is heart-wrenching. She leaves nothing out.

Skloot also spares no detail in describing the culture in which all of this happened. It was the early 1950′s, a time when segregation was still the norm, and there were separate “colored-only” wards in the hospitals. That is not to say that the level of care was any less, although it may have been true in as many places as not, but the implication that sick, non-white people were viewed by some as human lab animals was there. Skloot describes the Tuskeegee syphilis study, in which thousands of African-American men infected with syphilis were enrolled in a research project to study how the disease killed, from infection to death. She doesn’t need to add that there was no excuse for such treatment at that time any more than now. The only redeeming virtue is that it was well in the past, and there are laws in place to prevent it from happening again.

I believe that most, if not all, of the researchers portrayed in Skloot’s book were motivated by a quest for knowledge and the desire to improve the lives of others, and that their insensitivity to the very human beings they acquired their research material from was an unfortunate by-product of the times they lived in. I’m not saying forgivable. They had no idea how little the Lacks family understood of what they were being told about the importance of Henrietta’s cells, what those cells were being used for, or even what the cells were, and the researchers didn’t seem to care about or to notice that fundamental lack of understanding.

One thing the Lacks family understood quite well was that a great deal of money had been made by others as a result of uses that had been found for those cells, and they had not seen a dime of it. And they were pissed off. I can’t imagine anyone not feeling a lot of righteous anger in their place. Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, became physically ill from the stress of dealing with the emotional backwash.

Skloot expands on the topic of how human tissues collected by hospitals during a course of treatment or diagnosis is later used. It is a topic destined to be joined at the hip with conflict for a long time to come. The conflict comes from the question of just who “owns” those tissues, who has a right to use them, and who has a right to profit from that use. Skloot uses a number of examples where researchers have used cells and tissues, with or without the donor’s knowledge or consent, and made handsome profits off those tissues, with or without the donor receiving a portion. Those examples all had different outcomes, and brought up the possibility for growth of a whole new legal industry. A lot of it won’t be pretty, I think.

I am very thankful for this book, for the incredibly thorough job Skloot did in researching it, and the graceful, respectful job she did in telling it.She has recently compounded its value by forming the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, a public charity set up to help Henrietta’s descendants afford health care, college tuition, and other services they might not otherwise have access to, as well as help other needy families “who have made important contributions to scientific research without personally benefiting from those contributions, particularly those used in research without their knowledge or consent.” I heartily applaud her efforts.

Written in Stone: the review

As I stated in my previous post, I recently had a chance to read a review copy of an upcoming science book. It is due for release this Friday, and you can order a copy now from several book sellers. I highly recommend getting a copy and reading it, if you have an interest in paleontology, evolution, or the history of science. Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature, by Brian Switek, has all those things and more.

The book begins with a recent news story – recent paleontology news, that is. A fossil was described that “could be” the elusive, and conclusive, missing link in the human family ancestral chain. In fact, the find, and the fossil, were rather shamelessly promoted, hyped, and hinted about, all the while being kept from the eyes of the scientific community – all but the team of scientists who had prepared and described the fossil, at any rate. “Ida,” as the fossil was informally named, was a beautifully preserved specimen of a small, female, primate some 47 million years old. As this story unfolds, it illustrates several themes that weave through the rest of the book. One is that scientists are all looking for answers to big questions. It’s why they are scientists. They are driven to search for the truth, even if and when it goes against their previous assumptions about how the world works. But scientists are also human. The tendency to interpret findings to fit those previous assumptions is sometimes too much of a temptation to overcome, whether they are conscious of doing it or not. And there have always been scientists who make no pretense about using the data to support any view of life other than one about which they have already made up their minds.

In the case of this book, the answers are truly some of the biggest in the natural sciences: Where did we come from? Who are our ancestors and what did they look like? What can fossils tell us about the ancestors of other creatures with whom we share the present-day earth? And the real nail-biter in my mind – are birds really dinosaurs? There is also the question of whether or not the progression of life-forms through the fossil record shows a progression in another sense, that of evolution from “lower” forms, like simple invertebrates, to “higher” forms, like us. And although evidence reveals that even “simple” invertebrates are quite highly evolved and adapted for their role in nature, there will always be those who want a way to justify placing the human race at the top of some pinnacle of evolutionary achievement.

Switek tells the human stories along with the scientific throughout the book. He digs into the history of the science and finds the personalities that go along with the names. Most students of evolutionary biology are familiar with Charles Darwin, and know something about his life. But Thomas Henry Huxley, Richard Owen, Othaniel C. Marsh, Georges Cuvier, and others are just names, or, at best, shadowy figures at the edge of the stage. Switek has given them substance. He details the conflicts some had with each other, as well as some of the outstanding collaborations.

Each chapter is a separate case study in the history of evolutionary paleontology, using the keystone examples that most of us are familiar with from some course or other in biology. The story of the Archaeopteryx fossils and the debates over the evolution of birds from dinosaurs and whether birds started to fly from the ground up or the trees down is a good example. The feathered fossils, one of which was on exhibit recently at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, are billed as “icons of evolution.” That presence of feathers has now been confirmed on a number of dinosaur fossils has added weight to the placement of birds in a much closer relationship to dinosaurs than would have been considered when the Archaeopteryx fossils were first discovered.

Another “icon of evolution” for many of us has always been the story of evolution of the horse, from the tiny Eohippus – or “Dawn Horse” (now classified under an older name – Hyracotherium), to our present-day horses, zebras, and their relatives. Presentation of the evolution of horses as a steady march from one form to another – from the small, many-toed forms, to the large, modern ones with their single toes – has consistently misrepresented the true story of the ancestry of modern horses. Some of the forms that are shown in a line leading from smaller to larger, actually co-existed at some point in the past and are not closely related. A more accurate portrait of the horse family is of a bush, with many of the branches containing the smaller forms dying out along the way.

Also included in the book is the chapter describing the search for the true evolutionary path of whales, which have been shown through recent molecular studies to be more closely related to hippos than to groups previously proposed as their ancestors. This points out another theme important to Switek, that the field of paleontology has something to contribute to other disciplines in evolutionary science, as well as being able to be enriched by knowledge from those other disciplines.

For anyone with a keen amateur interest in paleontology, this book has everything one could hope for in a single basic reference. There is history, drama, and all the major players – the fossils themselves – telling the stories that are much larger, and much more interesting, than merely a tale of “missing links.”

In which I interview a newly published science writer

 

Book cover art

A good book on paleontology

Recently I had a chance, for the first time, to read a book before it was published. I hope it is the first of many such opportunities, because I love to read, would love to find a way to make my living just reading all the time. I know one way to do that is to write book reviews, so I volunteered to help a new author launch his first book, in the hope that I might also launch myself into a new reading and writing career field.

The book is Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature, and the author is Brian Switek, a young man I’ve never met, but have come to know by reading his blog over the past year or more, and by following him on Twitter, where he is @Laelaps. His blog of the same name used to reside at Scienceblogs, the site maintained by the now defunct Seed magazine. That’s where I was browsing one day when I noticed an article title that mentioned Stephen Jay Gould – the late science writer and Harvard University professor whose essays in Natural History Magazine I had been a fan off for over fifteen years. I read the article, left a comment, and bookmarked the blog so I could come back and read other articles. Switek also published photos he took of animals at the Central Park Zoo and other zoos, and one of his photos, of a snow leopard, became a subject of several of my own blog posts, as I photographed my process of painting a watercolor of the cat.

Earlier this year, Switek moved from Scienceblogs, and now blogs at Wired Magazine, and for the Smithsonian at Dinosaur Tracking Blog. Still, he managed to work in the time to also write a book that neatly encapsulates our historical fascination with fossils and what they’ve come to mean in our ongoing search for our organic origins.

As part of the book launch, Switek asked some of his Twitter and blog followers to review the book on their own sites, and also interview him and publish the interviews on their websites. Several interviews have already been published. Today is my turn, and the questions I sent him and his responses are below.

Q.  What came first — the interest in paleontology and other sciences, or the desire to be a writer? Did you ever consider majoring in journalism with a minor in science or some combination like that in college?

The desire to be a paleontologist, definitely, but that’s probably because my affinity of fossils started when I was about five years old or so. I still remember arriving at Disney World with my parents when I was around that age and bugging the hell out of them to see the dinosaurs at EPCOT’s “Universe of Energy” exhibit before we even fully unpacked.

My interest in becoming a writer came much later. In high school I tried writing a novel about giant killer sharks – I wanted to be a marine biologist at the time and was fascinated by prehistoric sharks – but I only got about three chapters in before I tossed it out. It was awful. I realized that I wasn’t very good and forgot about being a writer. Even after I started blogging, I was somewhat doubtful about my ability to break into serious writing, and it has only been within the past year that becoming a professional writer has seemed even close to being a possibility.

I never considered a journalism or writing major in college. I wasn’t really interested in it and assumed there was no place for me. I wasn’t interested enough in politics, crime, regional events, or other regular newspaper fodder to consider it seriously. I just started doing what I loved doing through my blog and fell into science writing.

Q.  How much of an influence was the writing of Stephen Jay Gould? What was the first book/article of his that you read and when? [I admit that when I first started reading Gould’s essays in Natural History Magazine, I had a hard time following the thread all the way through. One minute he would be talking about Antoine Lavoisier, and the next he’d be talking baseball box scores, or something equally unrelated (or so it seemed to me). But I finally figured out that he would tie them together at some point, and the “unrelated” bit was actually a good metaphor for the point he was trying to make. Reading his essays made me a better reader in a lot of ways, as well as increasing my interest in evolutionary science.] Do you try to emulate his technique of using specific examples — even if they don’t seem relative — to illustrate the larger principles that you’re trying to get across?

What I read fuels what I write, and Gould’s essays have been a regular part of my science literature diet for the past few years.

I can’t recall the first thing I ever read by Gould, but the most important was the first essay in the collection The Lying Stones of Marrakech about how the 18th century naturalist Johann Beringer was duped by a set of carved stones made to look like real fossils. I had never heard the story before, and the essay made me realize how many wonderful stories there are in the history of science if only you care to look. That’s one of the chief lessons I learned from Gould – the importance of going back to the primary sources as often as possible and not just accepting the standard stories summarized in review papers and textbooks. Futhermore, I enjoyed Gould’s ability to take something personal or seemingly ancillary to his main point and, as you said, tie that in to some larger pattern of evolution or the fossil record.

I don’t actively try to emulate Gould’s writing style, especially since I am not as culturally and artistically aware as he was. I think that was a large part of Gould’s appeal – his ability to pick examples from the humanities and tie them to science – but I am not nearly as well-rounded. Nevertheless, I like the technique of picking a small story or quirk of history and using that as an introduction to some larger point or lesson. I hate going from the general to the specific – I much prefer to give readers a foothold with a small story and then show them how that story fits into a wider framework where the context of the multiple bits
and pieces can be seen. That’s what I did with each chapter of Written in Stone. I tried to find a single event or person which might seem unrelated to the bigger story but transitions nicely into the main flow of the narrative.

Q.  Your selection of topics included in the book covers a wide range, both in different species and across time. All illustrate our fascination with — and longing to find — those elusive “missing links” and/or evidence of “progress” in evolution. How many more stories could you have told, and how hard was it to narrow the field? Of the ones you had to leave out, what story would be your first choice to include in a larger work? Are those going into another book, or on your blog?

That book could have been a multi-volume set, especially since I tried to incorporate historical background with new science. I probably could have re-written the same book at least twice more using entirely different examples, and I am sure that further discoveries will continue to add to the pool of transitional forms.

I didn’t have much trouble narrowing down the set of examples I wanted to use, though. I knew that I wanted to focus on vertebrate paleontology and to pick transitions which put living organisms in context – the kind of transitions which fascinated me as a child but which have changed so much with new information. The evolution of early tetrapods, birds, early mammals, whales, elephants, horses, and humans were classic examples which appeared in many books and museum displays, so I wanted to dig back into those stories to see how our understanding has changed.

Given that I focused primarily on vertebrates with close living relatives, there was a lot I left out. I might go back at some point and cobble together something from some of the examples and ideas I left out of this book, but I need a good story to tie all those examples together. There was at least one smaller story that I reluctantly removed from Written in Stone due to space issues, though. I really wanted to outline the big picture of primate evolution – from their origin through the radiation of apes just prior to the origin of the first humans – but I had to cut it because the hominin chapter was already too long as it was. I also wanted more space to talk about how perspectives of evolution changed during the early 20th century – the widespread appeal to mechanisms other than natural selection – but there was not a good place to talk about this at length.

I try to keep track of what winds up on the cutting room floor, so to speak, so that I can pick it up again if I see a use for it later. Where it ends up will depend on what I’m working on – my blog is a writing lab where I experiment with different ideas, but in books and articles I try to be more selective about the examples I use.

Q.  What other scientific fields do you write most often about, aside from paleontology? Do you have any plans to write full-length books about those subjects, or do you prefer to write shorter articles and blog entries about them?

I think of myself as more of a natural history writer than a strict paleontology writer, and I regularly write about animal behavior and ecology. After all, understanding the lives of extant animals will help us better interpret the life of the past. I am especially interested in the ecology of predation – how predators hunt, what happens when they are removed from an ecosystem, and how their interaction with prey species drives evolutionary change. Much of my college training was in the “ecology and evolution” major, as well, so I try to incorporate that perspective in my writing.

I don’t have any plans to write a book specifically about ecology, but I have at least two ideas which tie paleontology, ecology, and other perspectives together. One involves the controversial topic of “Pleistocene Rewilding” – using elephants, lions, and other exotic species to turn North America to the way it was 13,000 years ago – and the other would be an in-depth look into the natural history of hyenas. I honestly don’t know when I am going to write those books, but I hope to get to them eventually.

Q.  You have published a lot of nice photographs on your blogs. Have you thought about professional photography as a complement to your writing career?

I have, or at least I have thought about putting together a big photobook in which I pair essays with my own photography. Unfortunately my photography skills are nowhere near good enough to pull that sort of project off. I have been meaning to take a few classes and get better, but right now I don’t have the time and don’t have the money to get the kind of equipment I would need to tackle a project like that. That’s another idea which is resting on the shelf. Still, I have an article coming out this winter in Inside Jersey about searching for dinosaurs in the rock of Wyoming and I took all the photos for that piece. It will be my first official photo credit, and with any luck it won’t be the last.

Thank you, Brian, and all the best success with your continuing writing career.

I’ll be posting my review of the book here in a few days.

 

 

Recently I had a chance, for the first time, to read a book before it was published. I hope it is the first of many such opportunities, because I love to read, would love to find a way to make my living just reading all the time. I know one way to do that is to write book reviews, so I volunteered to help a new author launch his first book, in the hope that I might also launch myself into a new reading and writing career field.

The book is Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature, and the author is Brian Switek, a young man I’ve never met, but have come to know by reading his blog over the past year or more, and by following him on Twitter, where he is @Laelaps. His blog of the same name used to reside at Scienceblogs, the site maintained by the now defunct Seed magazine. That’s where I was browsing one day when I noticed an article title that mentioned Stephen Jay Gould – the late science writer and Harvard University professor whose essays in Natural History Magazine I had been a fan off for over fifteen years. I read the article, left a comment, and bookmarked the blog so I could come back and read other articles. Switek also published photos he took of animals at the Centra
l Park Zoo and other zoos, and one of his photos, of a snow leopard, became a subject of several of my own blog posts, as I photographed my process of painting a watercolor of the cat.

Earlier this year, Switek moved from Scienceblogs, and now blogs Wired Magazine, and for the Smithsonian at DinosaurTracking.com(?). Still, he managed to work in the time to also write a book that neatly encapsulates our historical fascination with fossils and what they’ve come to mean in our ongoing search for our organic origins.

As part of the book launch, Switek asked some of his Twitter and blog followers to review the book on their own sites, and also interview him and publish the interviews on their websites. Several interviews have already been published. Today is my turn, and the questions I sent him and his responses are below.

Q.  What came first — the interest in paleontology and other sciences, or the desire to be a writer? Did you ever consider majoring in journalism with a minor in science or some combination like that in college?

The desire to be a paleontologist, definitely, but that’s probably because my affinity of fossils started when I was about five years old or so. I still remember arriving at Disney World with my parents when I was around that age and bugging the hell out of them to see the dinosaurs at EPCOT’s “Universe of Energy” exhibit before we even fully unpacked.

My interest in becoming a writer came much later. In high school I tried writing a novel about giant killer sharks – I wanted to be a marine biologist at the time and was fascinated by prehistoric sharks – but I only got about three chapters in before I tossed it out. It was awful. I realized that I wasn’t very good and forgot about being a writer. Even after I started blogging, I was somewhat doubtful about my ability to break into serious writing, and it has only been within the past year that becoming a professional writer has seemed even close to being a possibility.

I never considered a journalism or writing major in college. I wasn’t really interested in it and assumed there was no place for me. I wasn’t interested enough in politics, crime, regional events, or other regular newspaper fodder to consider it seriously. I just started doing what I loved doing through my blog and fell into science writing.

Q.  How much of an influence was the writing of Stephen Jay Gould? What was the first book/article of his that you read and when? [I admit that when I first started reading Gould’s essays in Natural History Magazine, I had a hard time following the thread all the way through. One minute he would be talking about Antoine Lavoisier, and the next he’d be talking baseball box scores, or something equally unrelated (or so it seemed to me). But I finally figured out that he would tie them together at some point, and the “unrelated” bit was actually a good metaphor for the point he was trying to make. Reading his essays made me a better reader in a lot of ways, as well as increasing my interest in evolutionary science.] Do you try to emulate his technique of using specific examples — even if they don’t seem relative — to illustrate the larger principles that you’re trying to get across?

What I read fuels what I write, and Gould’s essays have been a regular part of my science literature diet for the past few years.

I can’t recall the first thing I ever read by Gould, but the most important was the first essay in the collection The Lying Stones of Marrakech about how the 18th century naturalist Johann Beringer was duped by a set of carved stones made to look like real fossils. I had never heard the story before, and the essay made me realize how many wonderful stories there are in the history of science if only you care to look. That’s one of the chief lessons I learned from Gould – the importance of going back to the primary sources as often as possible and not just accepting the standard stories summarized in review papers and textbooks. Futhermore, I enjoyed Gould’s ability to take something personal or seemingly ancillary to his main point and, as you said, tie that in to some larger pattern of evolution or the fossil record.

I don’t actively try to emulate Gould’s writing style, especially since I am not as culturally and artistically aware as he was. I think that was a large part of Gould’s appeal – his ability to pick examples from the humanities and tie them to science – but I am not nearly as well-rounded. Nevertheless, I like the technique of picking a small story or quirk of history and using that as an introduction to some larger point or lesson. I hate going from the general to the specific – I much prefer to give readers a foothold with a small story and then show them how that story fits into a wider framework where the context of the multiple bits and pieces can be seen. That’s what I did with each chapter of Written in Stone. I tried to find a single event or person which might seem unrelated to the bigger story but transitions nicely into the main flow of the narrative.

Q.  Your selection of topics included in the book covers a wide range, both in different species and across time. All illustrate our fascination with — and longing to find — those elusive “missing links” and/or evidence of “progress” in evolution. How many more stories could you have told, and how hard was it to narrow the field? Of the ones you had to leave out, what story would be your first choice to include in a larger work? Are those going into another book, or on your blog?

That book could have been a multi-volume set, especially since I tried to incorporate historical background with new science. I probably could have re-written the same book at least twice more using entirely different examples, and I am sure that further discoveries will continue to add to the pool of transitional forms.

I didn’t have much trouble narrowing down the set of examples I wanted to use, though. I knew that I wanted to focus on vertebrate paleontology and to pick transitions which put living organisms in context – the kind of transitions which fascinated me as a child but which have changed so much with new information. The evolution of early tetrapods, birds, early mammals, whales, elephants, horses, and humans were classic examples which appeared in many books and museum displays, so I wanted to dig back into those stories to see how our understanding has changed.

Given that I focused primarily on vertebrates with close living relatives, there was a lot I left out. I might go back at some point and cobble together something from some of the examples and ideas I left out of this book, but I need a good story to tie al
l those examples together. There was at least one smaller story that I reluctantly removed from Written in Stone due to space issues, though. I really wanted to outline the big picture of primate evolution – from their origin through the radiation of apes just prior to the origin of the first humans – but I had to cut it because the hominin chapter was already too long as it was. I also wanted more space to talk about how perspectives of evolution changed during the early 20th century – the widespread appeal to mechanisms other than natural selection – but there was not a good place to talk about this at length.

I try to keep track of what winds up on the cutting room floor, so to speak, so that I can pick it up again if I see a use for it later. Where it ends up will depend on what I’m working on – my blog is a writing lab where I experiment with different ideas, but in books and articles I try to be more selective about the examples I use.

Q.  What other scientific fields do you write most often about, aside from paleontology? Do you have any plans to write full-length books about those subjects, or do you prefer to write shorter articles and blog entries about them?

I think of myself as more of a natural history writer than a strict paleontology writer, and I regularly write about animal behavior and ecology. After all, understanding the lives of extant animals will help us better interpret the life of the past. I am especially interested in the ecology of predation – how predators hunt, what happens when they are removed from an ecosystem, and how their interaction with prey species drives evolutionary change. Much of my college training was in the “ecology and evolution” major, as well, so I try to incorporate that perspective in my writing.

I don’t have any plans to write a book specifically about ecology, but I have at least two ideas which tie paleontology, ecology, and other perspectives together. One involves the controversial topic of “Pleistocene Rewilding” – using elephants, lions, and other exotic species to turn North America to the way it was 13,000 years ago – and the other would be an in-depth look into the natural history of hyenas. I honestly don’t know when I am going to write those books, but I hope to get to them eventually.

Q.  You have published a lot of nice photographs on your blogs. Have you thought about professional photography as a complement to your writing career?

I have, or at least I have thought about putting together a big photobook in which I pair essays with my own photography. Unfortunately my photography skills are nowhere near good enough to pull that sort of project off. I have been meaning to take a few classes and get better, but right now I don’t have the time and don’t have the money to get the kind of equipment I would need to tackle a project like that. That’s another idea which is resting on the shelf. Still, I have an article coming out this winter in Inside Jersey about searching for dinosaurs in the rock of Wyoming and I took all the photos for that piece. It will be my first official photo credit, and with any luck it won’t be the last.

 

in; } –>

Recently I had a chance, for the first time, to read a book before it was published. I hope it is the first of many such opportunities, because I love to read, would love to find a way to make my living just reading all the time. I know one way to do that is to write book reviews, so I volunteered to help a new author launch his first book, in the hope that I might also launch myself into a new reading and writing career field.

The book is Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature, and the author is Brian Switek, a young man I’ve never met, but have come to know by reading his blog over the past year or more, and by following him on Twitter, where he is @Laelaps. His blog of the same name used to reside at Scienceblogs, the site maintained by the now defunct Seed magazine. That’s where I was browsing one day when I noticed an article title that mentioned Stephen Jay Gould – the late science writer and Harvard University professor whose essays in Natural History Magazine I had been a fan off for over fifteen years. I read the article, left a comment, and bookmarked the blog so I could come back and read other articles. Switek also published photos he took of animals at the Central Park Zoo and other zoos, and one of his photos, of a snow leopard, became a subject of several of my own blog posts, as I photographed my process of painting a watercolor of the cat.

Earlier this year, Switek moved from Scienceblogs, and now blogs Wired Magazine, and for the Smithsonian at DinosaurTracking.com(?). Still, he managed to work in the time to also write a book that neatly encapsulates our historical fascination with fossils and what they’ve come to mean in our ongoing search for our organic origins.

As part of the book launch, Switek asked some of his Twitter and blog followers to review the book on their own sites, and also interview him and publish the interviews on their websites. Several interviews have already been published. Today is my turn, and the questions I sent him and his responses are below.

Q.  What came first — the interest in paleontology and other sciences, or the desire to be a writer? Did you ever consider majoring in journalism with a minor in science or some combination like that in college?

The desire to be a paleontologist, definitely, but that’s probably because my affinity of fossils started when I was about five years old or so. I still remember arriving at Disney World with my parents when I was around that age and bugging the hell out of them to see the dinosaurs at EPCOT’s “Universe of Energy” exhibit before we even fully unpacked.

My interest in becoming a writer came much later. In high school I tried writing a novel about giant killer sharks – I wanted to be a marine biologist at the time and was fascinated by prehistoric sharks – but I only got about three chapters in before I tossed it out. It was awful. I realized that I wasn’t very good and forgot about being a writer. Even after I started blogging, I was somewhat doubtful about my ability to break into serious writing, and it has only been within the past year that becoming a professional writer has seemed even close to being a possibility.

I never considered a journalism or writing major in college. I wasn’t really interested in it and assumed there was no place for me. I wasn’t interested enough in politics, crime, regional events, or other regular newspaper fodder to consider it seriously. I just started doing what I loved doing through my blog and
fell into science writing.

Q.  How much of an influence was the writing of Stephen Jay Gould? What was the first book/article of his that you read and when? [I admit that when I first started reading Gould’s essays in Natural History Magazine, I had a hard time following the thread all the way through. One minute he would be talking about Antoine Lavossier, and the next he’d be talking baseball box scores, or something equally unrelated (or so it seemed to me). But I finally figured out that he would tie them together at some point, and the “unrelated” bit was actually a good metaphor for the point he was trying to make. Reading his essays made me a better reader in a lot of ways, as well as increasing my interest in evolutionary science.] Do you try to emulate his technique of using specific examples — even if they don’t seem relative — to illustrate the larger principles that you’re trying to get across?

What I read fuels what I write, and Gould’s essays have been a regular part of my science literature diet for the past few years.

I can’t recall the first thing I ever read by Gould, but the most important was the first essay in the collection The Lying Stones of Marrakech about how the 18th century naturalist Johann Beringer was duped by a set of carved stones made to look like real fossils. I had never heard the story before, and the essay made me realize how many wonderful stories there are in the history of science if only you care to look. That’s one of the chief lessons I learned from Gould – the importance of going back to the primary sources as often as possible and not just accepting the standard stories summarized in review papers and textbooks. Futhermore, I enjoyed Gould’s ability to take something personal or seemingly ancillary to his main point and, as you said, tie that in to some larger pattern of evolution or the fossil record.

I don’t actively try to emulate Gould’s writing style, especially since I am not as culturally and artistically aware as he was. I think that was a large part of Gould’s appeal – his ability to pick examples from the humanities and tie them to science – but I am not nearly as well-rounded. Nevertheless, I like the technique of picking a small story or quirk of history and using that as an introduction to some larger point or lesson. I hate going from the general to the specific – I much prefer to give readers a foothold with a small story and then show them how that story fits into a wider framework where the context of the multiple bits and pieces can be seen. That’s what I did with each chapter of Written in Stone. I tried to find a single event or person which might seem unrelated to the bigger story but transitions nicely into the main flow of the narrative.

Q.  Your selection of topics included in the book covers a wide range, both in different species and across time. All illustrate our fascination with — and longing to find — those elusive “missing links” and/or evidence of “progress” in evolution. How many more stories could you have told, and how hard was it to narrow the field? Of the ones you had to leave out, what story would be your first choice to include in a larger work? Are those going into another book, or on your blog?

That book could have been a multi-volume set, especially since I tried to incorporate historical background with new science. I probably could have re-written the same book at least twice more using entirely different examples, and I am sure that further discoveries will continue to add to the pool of transitional forms.

I didn’t have much trouble narrowing down the set of examples I wanted to use, though. I knew that I wanted to focus on vertebrate paleontology and to pick transitions which put living organisms in context – the kind of transitions which fascinated me as a child but which have changed so much with new information. The evolution of early tetrapods, birds, early mammals, whales, elephants, horses, and humans were classic examples which appeared in many books and museum displays, so I wanted to dig back into those stories to see how our understanding has changed.

Given that I focused primarily on vertebrates with close living relatives, there was a lot I left out. I might go back at some point and cobble together something from some of the examples and ideas I left out of this book, but I need a good story to tie all those examples together. There was at least one smaller story that I reluctantly removed from Written in Stone due to space issues, though. I really wanted to outline the big picture of primate evolution – from their origin through the radiation of apes just prior to the origin of the first humans – but I had to cut it because the hominin chapter was already too long as it was. I also wanted more space to talk about how perspectives of evolution changed during the early 20th century – the widespread appeal to mechanisms other than natural selection – but there was not a good place to talk about this at length.

I try to keep track of what winds up on the cutting room floor, so to speak, so that I can pick it up again if I see a use for it later. Where it ends up will depend on what I’m working on – my blog is a writing lab where I experiment with different ideas, but in books and articles I try to be more selective about the examples I use.

Q.  What other scientific fields do you write most often about, aside from paleontology? Do you have any plans to write full-length books about those subjects, or do you prefer to write shorter articles and blog entries about them?

I think of myself as more of a natural history writer than a strict paleontology writer, and I regularly write about animal behavior and ecology. After all, understanding the lives of extant animals will help us better interpret the life of the past. I am especially interested in the ecology of predation – how predators hunt, what happens when they are removed from an ecosystem, and how their interaction with prey species drives evolutionary change. Much of my college training was in the “ecology and evolution” major, as well, so I try to incorporate that perspective in my writing.

I don’t have any plans to write a book specifically about ecology, but I have at least two ideas which tie paleontology, ecology, and other perspectives together. One involves the controversial topic of “Pleistocene Rewilding” – using elephants, lions, and other exotic species to turn North America to the way it was 13,000 years ago – and the other would be an in-depth look into the natural history of hyenas. I honestly don’t know when I am going to write those books, but I hope to get to them eventually.

Q.  You have published a lot of nice photographs on your blogs. Have you thought about professional photography as a complement to your writing career?

I have, or at least I have thought about putting together a big photobook in which I pair essays with my own photography. Unfortunately my photography skills are nowhere near good enough to pull that sort of project off. I have been meaning to take a few classes and get better, but right now I don’t have the time and don’t have the money to get the kind of equipment I would need to tackle a project like that. That’s another idea which is resting on the shelf. Still, I have an article coming out this winter in Inside Jersey about searching for dinosaurs in the rock of Wyoming and I took all the photos for that piece. It will be my first official ph
oto credit, and with any luck it won’t be the last.

 

Of chocolate, ScienceBlogs, and Pepsi

I recently came to the sad conclusion that I must give up eating chocolate. In all its forms. Entirely. That’s a whole food group kicked out of my diet. Because I tended to overindulge, and it started making me sick. I won’t go into detail. Let me just say that the consequences of eating chocolate became increasingly unpleasant over the past several months, to the point of some acute pain. Poor, pitiful me.

It is often the case with addictive behavior, that what you crave will kick your butt sooner or later. It’s why there are twelve step programs for so many things that so many of us do in non-addictive ways. I mean, we all eat (stop and you die, in fact), but food addictions are not healthy, hence, Over-eaters Anonymous. Then there are the alcohol addicts, drug addicts, sex addicts, solar eclipse addicts (I don’t think the last group has a 12-step program yet, though). People recognize and get help for their addictions or they don’t get help and they get in trouble with the law, or with health issues, or in car versus tree arguments, or they develop some kind of physiological symptoms of substance rejection like mine. My stomach started saying “no more chocolate, or I will make you pay, and pay, and pay!

For a while after I discovered Science Blogs, a site maintained by Seed Magazine that hosted a lot of great blogs about all kinds of science written by scientists, I was an addict. I could burn up an entire day reading the different blogs, the comments — and some of the comments were like blog entries themselves. And then I’d kick myself for not spending that time doing something worthwhile in the world.

I tried subscribing to the combined RSS feed for ScienceBlogs so that I’d get a chance to read samples from all of them. I was overwhelmed. I skimmed some, skipped a lot. Then I learned how to “mark all as read” so when I found 400 articles waiting for me (which would sometimes happen if I didn’t check in for a few days), I could just deal with them with a mouse click instead of the endless scrolling and scanning. I felt bad about not actually consuming more of the content, but there was just too much.

As with chocolate, I finally had to just stop cold. I started following a couple of my favorites on Twitter and Facebook, so that I could follow links they posted to articles that looked interesting. Because at the time I was trying to figure out how to make blogging profitable for ME, at least a little; I was trying to find a “day job” so I could keep it while I learned how to make a living doing something I love, because “they” always say, “keep your day job” when someone expresses an interest in trying to make a living in a way other than the accepted norm. It always helps if you actually have a day job that you can keep. Duh.

What I eventually found was in fact an evening job — or at least a late afternoon job — and is only part time, but could actually work out better in the long run because it leaves me with enough energy to work on my other projects. But I digress.

Last week, I read a tweet by Laelaps, one of the Sblings I follow, to the effect that “David Dobbs is leaving SB, and I’m thinking I will, too.” What? So I went to David Dobbs’ Twitter page and read a few tweets, and then I followed a link to a Science Blogs article about how there was going to be a new nutrition blog on SB, authored by employees of Pepsico. And many bloggers were up in arms over it. They questioned the logic of their blog administrators in allowing what they called “advertorial content” on the site, which would lower the credibility of all the other writers. I followed the arguments back and forth for days. It didn’t take long, after ten or more writers left as a direct result of the decision, for the SB overlords to cancel the Pepsico blog (or Pepsico pulled out to avoid more negative press).

I spent more time on the SB site in three days than I had for the past year. I was on a binge. Sad thing is that the surge in readership for the site as a result of the controversy still brought in a lot more readers. And some people will say there’s no such thing as bad advertising when the results are more sales — or more interest. It certainly worked with me. Now I have to be smart and start doing my own work again, hoping I can make something that will matter not just to me, but will affect others the way chocolate and Science Blogs have affected me. LOL

More Planets!

Since creating a star — even a little bitty one — was somewhat draining, I went back to creating planets in our solar system. Here they are (some of them, anyway).

I decided to give Mercury some color

I decided to give Mercury some color

 

Not the goddess of love, but the toxic gas version

Not the goddess of love, but the toxic gas version

 

Because it's OUR moon

Because it's OUR moon

 

 

Yeah, I said Pluto, dammit

Yeah, I said Pluto, dammit

Ant Feminist

I have a friend who studied history and languages and women’s studies while I was studying zoology and mammalogy and ornithology and a whole bunch of other ologies relative to wildlife. We often trade books back and forth. Although we both like some of the same science fiction titles, our tastes in non-fiction don’t line up so much. So we try and broaden each other’s horizons.

And I wander into traps.

Once when she asked me if I liked a book she’d loaned me (which I really did like), and I started waxing enthusiastic, she stopped me.

“But what did you think about how the author …something something …slighted women …something something?”

“Huh?” I frantically tried to reconstruct the book in my mind, but all I could see were cave paintings (the subject of the book). “What part was that in?” I asked, lamely.

“Oh, in the first chapter.”

First? Chapter? So I had completely blown the race before I even crossed the start line. And this happens all the time. I tell myself, well, the author is a product of his time, his generation, and I’ve read so many of the same lame patronizing passages that my mind’s ear just tunes them out. I mean, the words leave their images on my retinas; the messages go up the optic nerve to my brain; the sentences make sense grammatically. But no whistles blow to awaken Fluffy, the three-headed militant feminist watch dog. It might as well all be harp music.

On the other hand…

As I mentioned before, I recently picked up The Lives of a Cell, by Lewis Thomas, and re-read it. For some reason, after I bought it at the used book store, I read the first few essays, then put it down for several months. When I picked it up again, I read practically straight through, then went back and re-re-read the first essays. And I think I know what happened.

Several of Lewis’s essays mention, or even feature, ants, bees, or termites as representive organisms for whatever biological point he’s making. Lewis refers to individual ants, bees, termites as “he.” The first time I came across one of these, I had a knee-jerk response. I wanted to jump up, fling the book against the wall and scream “YOU STYUPID, MISOGYNISTIC, MALE CHAUVANIST PIECE. OF. SHIT!!! ALL. WORKER. ANTS, BEES, TERMITES. ARE. FEMALE!!!” But I hate to mistreat books, so I didn’t. Plus, the guy’s dead.

Point is, I told my friend about it and she said, “That would’ve gone right by me. I would not have noticed.” So now I don’t feel so bad. It’s a point of reference thing, and she and I have way different points of reference. From a purely rational point of view (I do try to be rational, sometimes) the same platitudes apply. He was a product of his time, his generation, and he was writing to/for a predominantly male audience. Those old habits were just not that easy to change.

The question now becomes, are we making any real progress in changing them today?

A word (or two) about hybrids

They were the very first hybrid sport utility transportation. Mules. That’s what I’m talking about. To a lot of people, mules represent the best possible example of that beast we call hybrid. And although it’s true they can’t reproduce like us — and the birds and the bees — they can be cloned.

It seems poetic justice. Mules are, after all, products of humans meddling with nature. The first mules may have been happy accidents, results of horses and donkeys being kept in (domesticated) closer proximity than they would maintain in their wild state. Whatever the history, the future holds the possibility of making exact duplicates of the best mules, or allowing bloodlines to carry on well past the prime breeding lives of the original sire and dam.

I think it’s way cool. I love mules. Maybe it’s the big ears. Zebras also have big ears. That must be it.

But mules are no more than a small tip of a giant hybrid iceburg. We make hybrids all the time. Agriculture is full of them. Seedless grapes (yum). My Mr. Lincoln roses. Disease and pest resistant grains. The list goes on.

Now we have cars with hybrid engines that run on gasoline or electric batteries, or that can use gasoline made from petroleum products or alcohol distilled from corn cobs. A lot of us make our own hybrids. I have an old lamp in the living room — a torchierre — that used to take a three-way light bulb. I turned the knob once for low light, again for brighter light, and a third time for strong reading light. That was the option before dimmer switches came along. Now there’s a chain in place of the knob. I pull the chain, and a compact flourescent bulb lights up — and uses a small fraction of the power needed by the old bulb on it’s lowest setting. And I still have my antique torchierre. Cool, huh?

I’ve been reading a book that I first read about twenty years ago, and will probably talk about again. The Lives of a Cell, By Lewis Thomas is a collection of essays he wrote for the New England Journal of Medicine (1971 – 1973) generally titled “Notes of a Biology Watcher.” One of his essays is titled “Some Biomythology” in which he talks about various mythical hybrid beasties (think of the hippogryf that Harry Potter rode). He makes the point that, given what we now know about genetics and the mechanisms of evolution, these creatures could never exist, except in our imaginations. The intriguing question, though, is “why do we create them?” Are we manifesting artistic expresssions of a basic part of our own nature — that we are all patchwork quilts made up of scraps and leftovers of other organisms? Because throughout the book, Thomas returns to the notion that each human being is really a community. And in this essay he makes a particular point that there are organisms , recently discovered (at that time), that rival anything we’ve dreamed up historically to place in these bestiaries of impossible hybrids.

Keeping in mind that he was writing these essays in the first years following the publication of The Origin of Eukaryotic Cells (1970), a book by Lynn Margulis that brought together all the data and made the definitive case for seeing the cells that make up Homo sapiens as co-ops of previously separately living organisms, it’s easy to see his fascination with the idea, and why he keeps returning to it. For most of us, these days, it’s no more outlandish an idea than that the universe is expanding, or that the earth orbits the sun.

In the essay, “Organelles as Organisms,” Thomas opens with the observation that this revolution in biology has caused little upheaval — that, in fact, “Questions about the merits of genetic engineering, the cloning of desirable human beings from single cells, and even, I suppose, the possibility that two heads might actually be better than one, are already being debated at seminars.”

Lewis Thomas died in 1993, so he missed the first successful cloning of a large mammal — Dolly the sheep — in 1996. Judging by the amount of humor he showed throughout the book, I think he would have been highly amused in 2003 when the most successful cloning effort to date produced Idaho Gem, Idaho Star, and Utah Pioneer — three identical MULES!

Why do we collect things?

I’m no psychologist.  But I wonder, what if collecting things is a holdover from much earlier, less settled times in human history, when it might have made sense to gather and hang on to portable, edible items?  Hmm.

This is completely unscientific, of course, but if you do a web search, you’ll find that websites with the word “collection” or “collections” in them generally have something to do with debts.   Type in “collectibles,” on the other hand, and that’s a whole new world.  But it still boils down to having a collection of something.

Some collections are whimsical, of value only to their owners.  Others vary in value; some are beyond price.

I suppose it all depends on your point of view.  I have a few collections of my own.  And there is a class of collections that is of special concern to me — natural science and natural history collections.  Of most concern are taxonomic collections that are being neglected because they are just not “sexy” any more.  Taxonomy and systematics these days are being done at the molecular level — DNA, ribosomal RNA, mitochondrial DNA.  You get the picture.

And really, who would want to sit at a microscope and study all the different cusp patterns of rodent molars when you can just slap a blood sample into a gene sequencer and print out a histogram with easily readable and colorful squiggles?  Plus you get to bat around terms like “polymerase chain reaction,” or the more mysterious sounding “PCR.”  You can talk about Southern blots, DNA clones in plasmid vectors, shotgun sequences, and other obscure and perhaps ominous-sounding things.  And I’ve done those things.

I would rather pull out a drawer of natural history specimens — say study skins of pocket gophers — and by just looking at them, be able to guess “these probably live in dark soil; these live in light-colored sand; these look like stronger diggers, so maybe they live in heavy soil.”   Things like that.

Study skins from 1941

Field mice collected in 1941

It’s true you can get more specific information about how organisms are related, how long ago they may have diverged on the tree of life, what types of disease mechanisms they have that may be similar to ours — and perhaps why — and how all this can answer hugely important, life-saving questions.  And, yes, that’s all very sexy indeed.

But I’m not.  And I think that you can still get more information about an animal and the world it lives in when you have the whole animal.  In the case of some specimens in natural history collections, a study skin is a relic of something that no longer exists — field mice collected from a site that is now a shopping mall. And why might that be important?  Because we are a species of record keepers, and natural history collections are, more than anything else, a record of where we’ve been.