Anthropology, Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, History and Philosophy of Science

Q & A with Henry Gee

Photo by John Gilbey

As promised, to close out University Press Week, here’s a Q & A with author Henry Gee, whose recent book The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution questions the value of concepts like the “missing link” and the Great Chain of Being, positioning them as metaphors that paint a inaccurate portrait of how human evolution really works, and pinning down human exceptionalism as a gross error that continues to infect scientific thought. He also talks about Carl Sagan, Darwin’s vocabulary, and the ubiquity of battered copies of Beowulf in UK bookstores, after the jump.


UCP: The Accidental Species is a serious work about a serious topic—the subject of how and where we locate our own   (flawed) notion of human exceptionalism—filled with pop-cultural references such as “Lady Marmalade,” sports cars, elephant jokes, The Hobbit, the works of Lewis Carroll, and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Could you describe your sensibility as a paleontologist trying to write a trade book accessible for the general reader?

HG: I’m quite sensitive to a possible criticism of didactic books like this—that is, they can get rather preachy. So, rather than gently introducing readers to unfamiliar arguments, some books tend to use such arguments as clubs with which readers can be beaten into submission. I am not sure such a confrontational approach is always terribly helpful.

I’ve also changed a lot as a writer since I wrote my last serious science book—Jacob’s Ladder, almost ten years ago. I’ve written all kinds of other things, including fiction. I have also become a prolific blogger (The End of the Pier Show) and thus have settled down into an easier and perhaps more conversational style, though I’m aware not everyone will like this. I’m happy with that—you can’t please all the people all the time.

When I was writing the book, I did warn my editor at Chicago, the wonderful Christie Henry, that there would be jokes in the book, but she knew that my writing had been honed by blogging, and she was fine with that. I recall a radio interview I heard with the author Saul Bellow. I’d read one or two of his books (I certainly remember reading The Dean’s December) and from his authorial voice I’d assumed him to be very serious. The Bellow I heard on radio was quite different from the man I expected. He practically boiled over with humor, wisecracking and joking at every opportunity. The interviewer—and I bless him for it—asked the question I’d have asked, which was, Why, if Bellow were so funny in real life, didn’t this come over so much in his books? “My editor takes out all the jokes,” said Bellow. Happily, Christie kept all of mine in.

UCP: You say early on that, “The tale of the Hobbit is the book in a microcosm.” Can you explain this?

HG: “The Hobbit” is the skeleton of a tiny and very bizarre fossil human, unearthed in a cave on the remote island of Flores in Indonesia in 2003. Its species lived until almost modern times (in geological terms, at least.) Technically called Homo floresiensis, it became known as “The Hobbit” because, like Tolkien’s fictional people, it was very small and lived in a hole in the ground. To the paleontologists who discovered it, the Hobbit came as an enormous surprise, as if they’d discovered a mermaid, or an alien. They were expecting to find, maybe, signs of modern humans caught while migrating to Australia. What they found instead was something so unexpected, so strange, so bizarre, that it derailed many things we thought we knew about human evolution—showing, instead, that there is still a lot to learn out there, in the world; perhaps much more than we can imagine—and that our cozy assumptions about evolutionary progress are easily challenged by the evidence. And this is really what the whole book is about.

UCP: I’m taken by your use of Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty in describing our relationship to words such as “evolution.” I’m certainly not an evolutionary scholar, but I was surprised to learn that Darwin did not use the word at all in The Origin of Species. What was at stake there?

HG: It’s easy to forget that the meanings of words change over time, and this is particularly true for the word ‘evolution.’ Darwin didn’t use the word in the sense that we would use it now, mainly because its meaning, to us, has been influenced so much by Darwin’s own work.  To Darwin, “evolution” referred to the development of a creature, from egg to embryo to adult. Such development could be seen to take a fairly predictable course, depending on which creature you were looking at. A hen’s egg would always come out as another hen. Such predictability was very much in tune with the original meaning of the word, which comes from the Latin evolutio, and means to unfurl or roll out, as you’d do with a scroll. The result is always predictable—when you unroll it, the scroll will say exactly the same as it did the last time.

When referring to the origin of species by natural selection, Darwin used the phrase “descent with modification”: in general, in Darwin’s time, the large-scale modification of species, one into another, was called “transformation.” In the first edition of The Origin of Species, Darwin used the word “evolved,” and then only once. It is the last word of the book, and he used it in the old-fashioned sense. The word “evolution” wasn’t introduced until the sixth edition of the book.

It’s unfortunate that the words “evolution” and “transformation” have become interchangeable, because the older sense of the term ‘evolution’ tends to imply an orderly and stately progression of one form into another, which is perhaps overwelcoming of misleading ideas such as  the “missing link.” As we know, evolution (in the sense of transformation) is much messier than that, and does not run along predestined tracks.

UCP: Who are your favorite science writers? Has your experience as an editor at Nature changed the way you read science writing?

HG: I grew up reading popular science by the likes of Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan, and, later, Stephen Jay Gould. I never met Asimov or Sagan, but was lucky enough to have met Gould. I hope I won’t embarrass my friend John Gribbin by saying he’s one of my favorite science writers. His book In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat is a classic. The best popular science book I’ve ever read, though, is A Short History of Absolutely Everything by Bill Bryson. It is full of mistakes, but in a sense it doesn’t matter—it’s a terrific guide to science by a fan, someone who came to science later in life, but who is also a supremely gifted writer.

I think it helps if science writers have wider interests outside science, which they can use to illuminate their science writing. Asimov, for example, started out as a science fiction writer, although most of his three hundred or so books are educational and didactic. He wrote about Shakespeare, about the Bible, about practically everything—he was a one-man library. Sagan wrote just one novel, but it’s practically perfect: Contact (very much better than the movie). Gould never, to my knowledge, wrote fiction, but his scholarship in history and the humanities was profound. John Gribbin has written a few novels and—perhaps surprisingly—a terrific biography of Buddy Holly.

As for being at Nature—well, I guess I am now an insider, and have been so for a long time. I get to read a vast amount of science writing, so I have become more critical. I have become more wary when propositions are advanced as bald facts, because I know that things are rarely that simple. The popular media are the worst offenders. Science in most newspapers and broadcast media is, to be charitable, of variable quality.

UCP: Could you talk a bit more about a term you use—the “Beowulf effect.” You take the example of Beowulf as a fragile fragment of history that demonstrates how our historical worldview is “sensitively conditioned” by what survives the “ravages of time.” How does this relate to our use of the fossil record?

HG: Beowulf is a staple of English literature and heritage, so much so that you can find editions in any decent bookstore. The existence of Beowulf is something we tend to take for granted. But Beowulf is known from just one manuscript which almost perished in a fire in 1731. I wondered how our knowledge of ancient English literature might have been different had the Beowulf manuscript gone up in smoke. From that, I wondered how many papyrus scrolls or hand-written manuscripts—at any rate, hand-copied books from before widespread printing—really had gone up in smoke, leaving us with no knowledge of their existence. It’s probably an enormous number.

Ancient manuscripts are like fossils. Many fossil species are known from very few specimens, sometimes only single ones. What if that single one becomes a zero? Many animals alive today in uncounted profusion, and whose ancestors must have existed for millions of years, have left little or no fossil record. So, given that fossilization is an extremely unlikely fate for an animal, it’s easy to imagine a world in which those fossils weren’t discovered, and perhaps different ones were found instead. It’s possible, even likely, that most species evolved and became extinct without leaving a single fossil. I even advance the possibility that there were species that might have left fossils, but the rocks they were left in have since eroded away. The fossil record is every bit as imperfect as Charles Darwin suspected.

UCP: This is a weird one, but I’m curious. It’s easy to imagine certain aspects of paleontological hypotheses translated into mainstream media culture—Jurassic Park, for instance. Can you imagine a TV show or a film that would point to how human exceptionalism has failed us and use this as a central tenet of plot? Or do shows that characterize the sentience of companion species do that for us, in a strange way?

HG: You might be surprised to learn that there are loads of films, TV shows, and books in which human exceptionalism is either questioned, or simply ruled out from the start. Many fairy tales take place in a world in which people have perfectly reasonable conversation with animals, or in which animals have conversations with one another which humans can’t hear or understand. Many fantasy and science fiction stories feature humans sharing an imagined world or universe with other sentient beings. However, the self-appointed arbiters of what counts as serious literature dismiss such things as either kids’ stuff (if fairy tales) or trash (if SF or fantasy.) I wonder why?

UCP: Does The Accidental Species feel polemical to you?

HG: Yes. No. Maybe. Perhaps I’m too close to it to tell.


 Read more about The Accidental Species here.