Evolutionary War Hero: An Interview with Carl Zimmer

On February 14, 2012, millions of Americans retrieved the latest copy of Time Magazine from their mailboxes and found, on the cover, a picture of two dogs snuggling against a pastel pink backdrop.

Above the winsome pups ­– a brown bloodhound and a snowy Chihuahua – stood the cover story’s title: “The Surprising Science of Animal Friendships.” Below the title, in smaller black letters, was the name of the article’s author: Carl Zimmer.

“Animal Friendships,” a wide-ranging examination of relationship-forming in other species, represented the latest installment in Zimmer’s life’s work: translating evolutionary science for the general public. Zimmer is one of the best, and most prolific, science writers in the country. His work appears almost weekly in the New York Times, he’s averaged a book per year over the last decade, he’s won a slew of literary awards, and, as his website notes, he is perhaps “the only writer after whom a tapeworm has been named.”

So why, on that February evening, did Jon Stewart call Zimmer’s article everything that’s wrong with American journalism?

That same week, Time’s international subscribers had received a significantly less adorable cover: the jagged features of Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, his face a mask of cold gravitas, alongside the headline “Can This Man Save Europe?” This wasn’t the first time Time had given its American edition a different cover than its international versions: on August 8, 2011, the rest of the world received “Travels Through Islam” while America was treated to “Chore Wars”; on October 3, 2011, it was “Why Germany Can’t Save the World” versus “Why Mom Liked You Best.”

Stewart, for one, was fed up with what he viewed as Time’s pandering to American ignorance. “Who’s a terrible cover story?” he cooed in infantile poochspeak that night on The Daily Show. “You’re a terrible cover story!” The line was part of a three-minute tirade, dripping with Stewart’s patented brand of incredulous dismay, about how “Animal Friendships” epitomized Americans’ inability to handle hard news. Somewhere along the way, the piece was even conflated with the start of the Iraq War.

At home, Zimmer, a self-professed Daily Show fanatic, watched in helpless horror. The next morning, he took to his blog, The Loom, to defend his story, and science writing in general. “It doesn’t make sense to claim that a science story is a cause of a great nation’s downfall,” Zimmer wrote. “Surely a well-informed electorate can handle reading about both the evolution of behavior and the latest unrest in the Middle East.” For Zimmer, the episode was a frustrating reminder of people’s failure to connect the lessons of evolutionary biology with their own lives. “Learning about how animals make friendships may reveal some important insights about how social interactions improve human health,” Zimmer wrote in The Loom. “I’m guessing that Jon Stewart didn’t know that that last item was one of the conclusions of my article.”

Sage Magazine recently joined Zimmer for a cup of coffee and a conversation about the state of science education in America, the fine line that separates journalism and advocacy, and how to talk to creationists and climate deniers.

Sage Magazine: What was your reaction when you first heard Jon Stewart’s response to your cover article?

Carl Zimmer: I was actually on the phone doing a radio interview about the article. I’m a Daily Show junkie, and I had been watching it to kill a little time before the call, and then I had paused the show [when the interview began]. So I was trying to explain to the interviewer all of this long-term fieldwork that the articles describes, and suddenly the show unpaused itself and started playing… and I looked over, and there was that cover again, and Jon was spending five minutes talking about the cover. It was very hard to continue speaking articulately with the interviewer.

It’s obvious that he [Jon Stewart] didn’t read the article. And it’s frustrating, because in a broad way he makes a fair point, which is that journalism hasn’t done a very good job of dealing with some big issues. But there’s a lot of collateral damage when he makes some of his jokes, and I think those were unwarranted.

At the same time, I think Time misrepresented your article by putting two dogs on the cover – the article mentions dogs only to say that they’re not very good friend-formers.

Honestly, if there were two dolphins on the cover, I don’t think it would have changed anything. There would have been the same misunderstandings.

Photo by Ben Stechschulte, carlzimmer.com

Why do magazines misrepresent the content of their own articles?

I’ve worked on magazines, and I can tell you that every publication does lots of market research into which covers sell at newsstands. When I was at Discover Magazine, we knew that if we put Einstein on the cover, it would sell like crazy. That’s why every single article about physics tries to connect to Einstein. Science magazines have probably had Einstein on the cover hundreds of times in the past decade, because Einstein is the only physicist that people recognize.

Maybe Stephen Hawking?

Stephen Hawking does not sell copies. And I think it’s disingenuous to tell a magazine that they should not figure out a way to sell as many copies as possible. Does that say something about Americans in general? Maybe it does.

You had that great slide during your recent workshop at Yale, stating that in 1970, 40% of Americans didn’t believe in evolution… and today, 40% of Americans still don’t believe in evolution. Why has acknowledgment of evolution stagnated?

Well, we started with low scientific literacy. It’s getting better, but it’s still not great. On top of that, there are certain subjects where people simply decide that they’re not going to accept certain scientific premises, because they’ve decided that the scientists are a threat to their own view of the world.

Do you think people with deeply entrenched beliefs can be convinced to change their minds? Is there anything that science communicators could do better to reach these people?

There’s certainly a huge amount of room for improvement. First, subjects like evolution or global warming are actually based on many different kinds of science. With evolution, there’s genetics involved, you have to rely on mathematics, you have to understand what you can and cannot get out of the fossil record. Similarly, with global warming, you’re dealing with physics, earth sciences, and a lot of statistics as well.

When people come out of high school, have they been taught all of the elements for understanding those different subjects? No, they haven’t. If you’re going to write about evolution or climate change, you have to bear in mind that most people are approaching these issues with a really inferior high school education.

You recently wrote a textbook on evolution for non-biology majors. In writing that textbook, how did you seek to communicate these complex subjects to your audience?

I developed that book with a lot of scientists who felt that evolution should not be limited to biology majors, but all they had were these textbooks that were just impenetrable. They weren’t trying to teach people evolution so that they could precisely calculate the strength of selection at Time Zero or something like that – they wanted people to be able to read the newspaper and understand the background, because evolution shows up in all kinds of news stories. I tried to find ways to present the evidence, the arguments, the research. A lot of that was trying to find the right words, and a lot of it was trying to find the right illustrations. You can get across a lot of things very intuitively in diagrams that would leave you spinning in circles trying to write them.

There are billions of evolutionary stories that you could choose from in illustrating these concepts – so how did you choose your anecdotes? For example, there’s a great story in the textbook about how snake venom molecules evolved from lizard venom over the course of 100 million years. Where did that come from?

Well, I had already written about that research in the New York Times. Also, that story is vivid, it involves organisms that people are familiar with, and you can illustrate it in a really striking way. Particularly important is that there’s an actual story to tell, with a beginning, a middle, and an end: the scientist wanted to figure out how snake venom evolved; he conducted a few studies and found a few big surprises; and by the end he was looking at the relatives of snakes, komodo dragons, and discovering that they had something like venom in them as well.

Bacteria, or something like that.

This scientist, Brian Fry, that I focused on, thinks the whole bacteria story is bunk, and that there’s real venom involved. The bacteria are just opportunistic. Either way, you definitely don’t want to get bitten.

When you write about evolution, is there a particular style that you adhere to, or a tone that you try to strike?

I think I focus more on story-telling. I’m not presenting myself as a scientist who has expertise from years of research to share with his readers, like E.O. Wilson might. And I’m not a polemicist like Richard Dawkins often is. I look at evolution as a series of stories with surprising twists, because I find that those twists are what’s so interesting about how science progresses.

I think one thing people appreciate about your work is your sense of wonder at those surprises. Why does evolution interest you so much more than, say, astrophysics?

Evolution is biology on a grand scale, and it’s also the thing that people have the most trouble with. I’ve had plenty of people say to me that, say, a flower is so beautiful and complicated that they just can’t see how it could’ve evolved. And I totally understand that feeling – it’s wrong, but at least I can try to explain to that person why and how that flower evolved.

The idea that somebody could look at a flower and say, ‘I don’t believe that this thing was not created by somebody’ is sort of preposterous to advocates of evolution. But for people who don’t believe in evolution, there is very much a debate – in fact, the debate is exactly the thing that they want to see taught in schools. As a proponent of evolution, maybe it’s hard to legitimize that debate, to say, ‘I’m going to address your position as though it’s a rational one.’

No, no, no. Given how widespread creationist views are, you have to address them. If someone says, “The Grand Canyon formed 3,000 years ago,” it’s not as though that’s beyond the ability of scientists to address. And you can address creationism in very elegant ways.

Ken Miller at Brown University is the best person at this. When he’s in a debate with a creationist, he doesn’t say, “What you’ve just said is beneath contempt and I won’t even address it,” because when you do that you’ve lost your audience. What he’ll say is, “Okay: so you’re telling me that the earth formed 6,000 years ago, and our species started with two people. If that were true, what would we predict?” And he just has a grand old time with it: he’ll say things like, “So you’re telling me that the Egyptian pyramids were built by eight people.” If you do it in a straightforward way that doesn’t condescend to the people you’re talking to, some of them are going to say, “Oh wait… that doesn’t make sense, does it?”

And I think it’s the same with climate change. I do find it trickier with climate, because there people who get paid every day to go around and find little seeming inconsistencies and then blow them up and say, “Ah, it’s all a fraud.” But I find a lot of striking similarities between climate change and the fight over evolution. There are the same rhetorical strategies on both sides, and the response of scientists has been similar in both cases: preferring to pretend that the opposition didn’t exist and ignoring it, with terrible consequences.

Zimmer's The Tangled Bank aims to make evolution accessible to non-biology majors

With climate change, why have we gone backwards? Why do fewer people believe in it now than they did five years ago?

I think part of it was just the climate pattern itself, because we had a couple years there where temperatures didn’t continue to rise. The long-term trend still exists, but people don’t think about long-term trends. You put a reporter out in a blizzard, who says, “Ha – what global warming?” and people think it’s over.

Part of it may be that there was a lot of coverage of climate change in the mid-2000s, and then the scientific community said, “Here’s our consensus: that the majority of climate change is due to human activity, and it’s going to continue to be so, and these are our projections.” And journalists wrote about it, and then they were like, all right, what do we do now? There’s been a lot less coverage because there’s less news. And it sounds horrible, but it’s the truth.

And part of it was Climategate, which promulgated this view that climate scientists are bad people, and you shouldn’t trust anything they say.

Why have climate scientists and climate journalists not been able to put Climategate back in the bag?

First, it’s not the job of journalists to save scientists from anything; we’re just supposed to be reporting. From my observations, it’s clear that scientists thought that it was just going to go away. So when those first Climategate emails came to light, scientists didn’t respond, and meanwhile this network of denialist organizations was spreading the emails, and getting their talking points in order, and hammering their message again and again and again.

That is a problem inherent in the social structures we’re talking about: on the one hand, professional think-tanks and lobbying organizations have a very clear political mission, while scientists tend to be individualistic. When they work together, they tend to move very slowly. I remember in 1999, the state of Kansas started considering making biology classes creationism-friendly, and this took scientists completely by surprise. So they called a meeting in Berkeley, and a whole bunch of representatives from various scientific societies came together to figure out how they were going to respond to this, and I went to the meeting to observe it.

And the clearest action that came from that meeting was that each of the representatives was going to go back to their societies and recommend that they put a statement endorsing evolution on their society’s website. That was it. That’s not any kind of a response. If scientists can’t figure out why their message isn’t getting across, they’re not looking seriously at the kinds of things they’re doing.

But is it even their job to get their message across? Are scientists supposed to be communicators?

It’s not my job. I’m telling you, I’m not an advocate. Quote-unqoute advocacy is the last thing a journalist should be doing. We need to be reporting accurately. Now, reporting accurately doesn’t mean you need to get both sides of, say, the Plate Tectonics debate – you don’t need to call the president of the Flat Earth Society.

But that happens in climate journalism all the time. It seems like reporters are constantly saying, well, I have a quote from a climate scientist; now I need to go get a quote from a denier.

That’s bad journalism. This happened with evolution reporting too. When evolution gets to the courtroom, all of a sudden you get all of these big political reporters covering it, and they think it’s like covering a primary or something. They get quotes from both sides, and they don’t think it’s their job to look into the truthfulness of what people are saying to them.

Do you ever feel personally constrained by being a journalist? Do you ever watch these proceedings with frustration that you can’t be involved in a different way?

The fact is that there are values built into the very premise of journalism. You do journalism because you think there’s value in people getting information about what’s going on. For example, George Will made a string of extreme factual errors about global warming a couple of years ago, and I thought it was important to point out exactly what was wrong with his article, to fact-check him again and again – to which he responded by saying that he was right, and then proceeded to make a whole new series of errors, which we also pointed out. But I don’t see that as advocacy, I see that as good journalism.

You’ve written a lot about neuroscience in the past, and I wondered if that work might suggest any neurological explanations for denialism.

There are people writing about this concept, the psychology of denialism, and I take it all with a pretty hefty grain of salt. It seems to be very popular to use this kind of research to pathologize other people. I find it smug. It’s always, “You know what’s wrong with those people who don’t accept global warming? It’s because their brains are wired that way.” I’m not saying that it might not be a useful line of scientific research, but right now I don’t see it as a useful part of public discourse.

What, then, do you think will reverse the current trend of disbelief in climate change? Will it eventually become so manifestly clear that climate change is happening?

No. You make it sound like there’s some inevitable point where it turns around. I don’t think it’s inevitable at all.

Well, maybe it’s not inevitable… but how would people who care about turning it around turn it around?

I think the problem runs very deep, and it’s not something that journalists can do much about, honestly. Our high school education system seems like a much more important problem. Kids come out of high school and they don’t know anything about statistics, for starters. What I write one week in Time Magazine or the New York Times might help a little bit, but it’s not going to help nearly as much as getting high school science in order, and that’s a big problem and getting worse.

Is that discouraging at all, that you can’t reach people because of deep structural problems that you’re in no position to fix?

Sure, but that doesn’t mean you give up.

When you think about how we can go about actually reducing emissions, do you believe it requires dramatic changes in lifestyle; or, as someone who deals with science all the time, do you have faith in science’s ability to dig us out of this mess?

You’re asking me if I have faith in science. That’s kind of an oxymoron.

Not faith, then. Confidence.

Let me put it this way. Right now, I see a number of trends running in the same direction at the same time. There’s no question that energy efficiency in the United States has made huge strides. There’s no question that population growth has decelerated. There’s no question that alternative sources of energy have gotten so much better. These are all trends that are going in the right direction. That’s all good.

But on the other hand, economic growth is going in the other direction. And the improvements in alternative energy may be tremendous, but when you look at how much energy the world uses, alternative sources make up a tiny share.

Also, it seems like, psychologically, people are already shifting to sort of… dealing with it. I was just reading a big policy statement from the Council on Foreign Relations about how the United States is losing an opportunity to make a stake in the Arctic. There’s a rush from all the countries around the Arctic Ocean to gain military control, to take advantages of the resources, and so on. Nobody had ever bothered to make any rules about the Arctic [because it was previously covered in ice].

Everyone looks at the fact that the Arctic has opened up as an opportunity, and the question is, how are we going to exploit the Arctic, rather than saying, “Wait a minute – why is the Arctic suddenly open? What have we done?!” Unfortunately people are just shifting to the new normal.


Featured photograph:  Pomona College students in the mountains for a biology field trip in 1902. (photo courtesy of the Claremont Colleges Photo Archive via Flicker Creative Commons)

Benjamin Goldfarb

Ben Goldfarb is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, OnEarth Magazine, Earth Island Journal, and elsewhere. He is a former Editor-in-Chief of SAGE Magazine. Check out his writing at www.bengoldfarb.com and hit him up at @bengoldfarb13.

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One Comment

  1. Estella B. LEopold says:

    I find this a well written story, and useful because we all should be anxious to improve the level of thinking in the USA, so that people will be more concerned about the future of our planetary environment. Zimmer is indeed an evolutionary war hero!

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