David Quammen and other shaved monkeys
Chronicler of modern-day Darwins explores the origin of The Origin of Species
“While Darwinian man, though well behaved,
At best is only a monkey shaved!”
—W.S. Gilbert, English librettist, 1836-1911
If, by chance, you should find yourself deep in the remote jungles of the Congo basin anytime soon, you’d be wise to get rid of long pants in favor of shorts, shed your hiking boots, and switch to those sandals known as Tevas.
That’s what David Quammen recommends, anyway, and he should know, since he’s spent a slice of time following Michael Fay and other renowned field biologists through some of the world’s most untrammeled jungles. Despite anxiety about going bare-legged and nearly naked-footed in places where thorny creeper vines, snakes and biting bugs are likely to be found in profusion, Quammen assures that, when moving through the jungles, less is more.
“I know the idea of bare skin sounds a little counterintuitive in the context of the jungle,” he said, “but I was raising blisters every day in my boots. Once I ditched them, along with my long pants, I was far more comfortable.
“People don’t understand tropical forests, and there’s all that mythology left over from the Tarzan comic books we read when we were kids. But Tarzan had it pretty much right. Skin is easier to keep clean and dry than cotton or leather.
“I made it through my jungle treks thanks to iodine and duct tape. Cuts are dangerous, and so is the risk of infection.”
On a recent weekday, I spent a little over an hour talking on the phone with Quammen during one of his periodic stops back at his home in Montana. In the event you haven’t heard of David Quammen, you have an upcoming opportunity to fill yourself in on who the man is and why he’s worth knowing.
After having found his way to some of the most remote places on the globe, he’s now finding his way to Chico for the first time, appearing Tuesday night at Laxson Auditorium as part of the university’s On the Creek lecture series. It’s free, and it’s bound to be interesting. The talk we shared by phone ranged over subjects as varied as the similarities and differences between fiction and non-fiction, zoonotics (of which more later), drug-resistant bacteria, George W. Bush, and other threats to global health and human well-being.
Quammen will be in Chico to talk about Charles Darwin, a subject he knows authoritatively, having spent a big chunk of time researching the man for his book The Reluctant Mr. Darwin.
Charles Darwin was born 199 years ago, but when David Quammen gets to talking about him, he often slips into the present tense. ("He’s just such a sweet guy,” Quammen said at one point during our interview.) He does so because, for him, the 19th century Victorian who unlocked the most dynamic truth about life on this planet is still very much alive. Of Darwin, Quammen wrote: “[He] isn’t just perennially significant. He is also urgently relevant to education and government.”
Of late, however, it seems far too many of our politicians have stood in the path of science, failing to heed that urgent relevance in dozens of ways, from inaction on global warming to intransigence on stem-cell research to the insistence on making the teaching of “Intelligent Design” equivalent to the teaching of science.
Meanwhile, antibiotics that were recently touted as miracle drugs are now being outfoxed by rapidly evolving germs capable of the very kind of adaptation Darwin outlined over a century ago. One aspect of those evolutionary adaptations being made by viral agents is their ability to jump from species to species, a phenomenon that goes by the aforementioned name of zoonotics.
“The matter of zoonotic diseases is very serious,” Quammen said, his tone conveying that seriousness. “People tend to think of these emerging diseases as things that are happening to us, but they are things we are doing. We are destroying habitat, we are moving people into tropical forests, and more and more of us are traveling more and more quickly.
“All of these things are causing the diseases like AIDS and SARS to emerge, or to emerge in new places. We now have West Nile virus through Montana, Wyoming, and down where you are in California.”
He paused, then continued with the cataloguing of recently emerging scourges: “We have Avian flu, Hendra, Ebola, and the Nipah virus, and they all are reflections of human disruption that has shaken loose the pathogenic microbes that live in places that once saw little human presence.”
He sighed. “Then, add to that the fact of connectivity, the ease with which people can pick up these once obscure viruses, incubate them, and carry them around the globe in a matter of hours or days, and you’ve got a big problem.”
He laid stress on the word “problem” before he continued. “The smaller the organism, the faster the adaptation. Darwin’s ideas are plainly at work at the microscopic level.”
But, despite that clear threat, and despite more than a hundred years of scientific corroboration of Darwin’s ideas, those insights remain widely misunderstood and just about as controversial as they were back in the 1920s during the time of the Scopes trial.
For those who may have cut class on the day the Scopes trial was discussed, the defendant was a high school teacher charged with teaching evolution from a chapter in a textbook covering ideas Darwin had written of in The Origin of Species. That was a no-no. Tennessee law stated “… that it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.”
The resulting trial produced a historic moment, pitting Clarence Darrow against a Bible-thumping William Jennings Bryan, offering up a legal battle of the titans in which science dueled with faith and reason disputed with superstition. Darrow argued masterfully against the kind of ignorance capable of denying such minor bits of evidence as the entire fossil record of life on this planet. Nonetheless, Scopes was convicted and the case was appealed.[page]
One way or another, the Scopes case is still being appealed in the court of public opinion—and with the ascendancy of the Intelligent Design movement, the anti-science and anti-rationality beat goes on, louder than ever. Opinion polling from decade to decade consistently reveals that nearly half the U.S. population believes human beings have always been as we are now, and that the beginning of things wasn’t really very long ago at all.
Even in the context of such persistent denials, however, it’s easy to forget just how threatening and revolutionary Darwin’s ideas were and are, both in 1859 and now, nearly a century and a half later.
“Darwin was a cautious man,” Quammen said, “but he was anything but a conservative man. He knew how radical his idea was, knew how much controversy it was likely to stir up, not to mention the fact that he was married to a deeply religious woman. He was also temperamentally reluctant to upset people. So he waited, hesitant to make such an incendiary idea public.”
Because of that “long wait,” Quammen chose the adjective “reluctant” to describe Darwin in the title of his book about the man. “My presentation in Chico will focus on that portion of Darwin’s life that is unfamiliar to most people,” Quammen said, “a two-year period from 1837 to 1839, as he worked through all he’d gathered to arrive at his conclusion.”
It took from 1839 to 1859 before Darwin would publish that conclusion, and when he did, all hell broke loose. Preachers fulminated from pulpits across the world, condemning Darwin’s idea as a frontal assault on religion and the very idea of God.
Such hysterical reactions to Darwin remain. To cite just one near-at-hand example, a recent CN&R editorial marking the anniversary of Darwin’s birth drew the following response from a local reader:
“The Chico News & Review recently editorialized that those of us who believe in God … are stupid because ‘The idea that God created human beings some 8,000 or 9,000 years ago simply makes no sense.’ There are lots of these non-believers among us, Godless, bitter, know-it-alls, who … chastise [Republican presidential candidates] Huckabee, Tancredo, and Brownback for saying that they do not believe in evolution. This seems to be the opposite belief of the hard-core lefty teachings on campus now, so the ASSociated-press media and minor-league journalists team up with these campus losers to espouse the anti-creation Godless fallacy. All these lefty bashes favoring Darwin over God cannot be in their best interest, in an eternal sense, don’t you think? God Bless America!”
The “campus losers” and other community members who gather to hear Quammen on Tuesday probably won’t count themselves among those who believe our planet has sustained life for only some 6,000 years, or that dinosaurs and men once co-existed. But, as the letter-writer mentions, three of the original nine Republican candidates for president counted themselves among those who do.
One of those three, Mike Huckabee, denied evolution and his status as a primate in one fell swoop, answering a reporter’s question on the subject by saying: “If anybody wants to believe that they are the descendants of a primate, they are certainly welcome to do it.” Thus it was that the former governor of one of the 50 sovereign states sought to enter the Oval Office as our very first non-primate commander-in-chief.
As a primate himself, such beliefs tend to drive Quammen up a tree, though he speaks in the measured tones of a man who spends much of his time around field biologists, a group of people he fiercely admires.
“I started out writing fiction,” Quammen said, “and it still surprises me that I wound up spending most of my time hanging out with field biologists and writing about their work.” In his book on Darwin, Quammen writes: “Some people admire soldiers, or surgeons, or firemen or astrophysicists, or medical missionaries, or cowboys. I admire field biologists.”
What he likes about them is their intelligence, their passion, and their patience, the meticulousness and doggedness of the work they do as they collect and analyze what they find in the far-flung places they go.
Quammen has trailed after such people in some of the world’s most remote regions, from high places to low places, through jungles and wide savannahs, observing their work and writing about it for such publications as Outside and National Geographic, and for the increasing number of his books that began to pile up as his passion for what he was learning overtook him.[page]
He has come to see field biologists as a breed apart, and the admiration he has for them is much like the admiration he has for Darwin himself, their 19th-century forerunner.
“You have to be pretty fit to keep up with these people,” Quammen said, “both physically and intellectually.”
Darwin was in his robust 20s when he was doing his own global fieldwork and specimen gathering, sailing aboard the Beagle to meet the destiny that awaited him. Quammen, who recently celebrated his 60th birthday, is rigorous in maintaining a regimen that will keep him in shape: “It’s vital to my work that I be fit.”
Most recently, he’s been shuttling back and forth to Africa on assignment for National Geographic, pursuing a still-unfolding story about zoonotics. The flash point for this study is found on the continent where Quammen spent time trekking behind field biologist Michael Fay, an indomitable man who walked through a couple thousand miles of the disappearing virgin country in the Congo basin.
Quammen rushes to say he didn’t go the whole distance with Fay, but he did go far enough to get the material for several long essays about the trek. Those essays have been collected and are included in a revised and expanded new hardcover edition of Quammen’s 1985 book Natural Acts: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature, due to hit bookstores coincidental to his appearance here in Chico.
Quammen’s oeuvre has grown to more than a dozen books and articles by the score, mostly on subjects ranging across the natural sciences, but his earlier work as a storyteller serves him—and his lay readers—very well, allowing him to make the sometimes arcane and fusty scientific data accessible, immediate, and vital.
“What I really love about Quammen,” said Joe Willis, a Plumas County naturalist and writer, “is that he clearly sees himself as an integral part of the biosphere, not an outside observer. This is especially clear and noteworthy when he is writing about animals he fears and/or are unpopular with most people, such as piranhas or spiders. He elaborates on his own arachnophobia, yet manages to write with amazement about the characteristics of spiders as if from a spider’s point of view.
“And Quammen really does his homework. He is not a scientist, but one can learn as much or more science from him than from a textbook or typical science lecture simply because of his enthusiasm and thoroughness. He’s a world traveler, and he writes about places most people will never visit. Yet, his approach can teach us a lot about what is right under our noses.
“There is a great deal of excitement in the living world in every teaspoonful of dirt, in every back yard, or, if you don’t have a back yard, in the pores of your skin. Quammen’s enthusiasm and sense of wonder are contagious.”
His fellow Yale alum, the nation’s current commander-in-chief, concluded a recent interview with a BBC reporter by affirming that Americans “believe in the human condition.” If you count yourself among those shaved monkeys who believe in the human condition, or would like to check in on how we arrived at the condition we’re in, then you might wish to find your way to a seat in Laxson.