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Science Talk

Remarkable Creatures (and Getting Them Fixed)

University of Wisconsin evolutionary biologist Sean Carroll talks about his new book, Remarkable Creatures, which chronicles the derring-do of some of natural history's brightest stars. And FoundAnimals.org's Katy Palfrey discusses the Michelson Prize, for the development of a nonsurgical pet-neutering technique. Plus, we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Web sites related to this episode include foundanimals.org; seanbcarroll.com

Podcast Transcription

Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the week of February 25th, 2009. I'm Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, Sean Carroll talks about his new book, Remarkable Creatures; and we'll also have a brief chat with Katy Palfrey. She is from FoundAnimals.org and she'll be talking about a program aimed at trying to develop a nonsurgical method for neutering the millions of dogs and cats that each year have operations or add to the overpopulation problem. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. The annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the AAAS, is like a one-stop shopping center for people like me, and for the next few weeks you will be hearing interviews that I did from this year's meeting in Chicago from February 12th to the 16th. Sean Carroll was at the meeting. He is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Wisconsin and a terrific writer. His new book, Remarkable Creatures, just came out. We spoke in a lobby at the convention hotel.

Steve: So let's talk about Remarkable Creatures. This is your newest book. First of all, for anybody who hasn't read Making of the Fittest or Endless Forms, you should go out and read those immediately, but Remarkable Creatures—what's this? What's this latest work of yours for the general audience?

Carroll: This chronicles some of the greatest adventures in 200 years of natural history. So over decades, I had read all sorts of stories about people who had gone out into the wilds and explored the unknown, and I thought that if we could just focus on the central experiences of their lives, I could condense all sorts of stories into just chapter length tales and put a bunch of them together, sort of show the whole arc of the discovery of the idea of evolution and really where we stand today, right up to very recent things like Neanderthal DNA and the discovery of some recent transitional fossils.

Steve: We think of Darwin as this guy sitting in his house, just thinking about things and writing, but as a young man he was climbing mountains and swimming rivers and digging up things, getting dirty and getting sick and doing all kinds of things today that we would find remarkable. And Alfred Russel Wallace spent decades out in the field.

Carroll: Twelve years, yes. So Darwin for example, if you think of him, he is a 22-year-old kid who goes on a voyage. He thinks it's going to be two years. Less than a year into the voyage, he realizes, "Oh! This is going to be a lot longer than two years," and he writes home, even to his mentor, John Henslow the botanist, and says "I know not how I will endure it," but somehow he endured it. And why did he endure it? He endured it because of the passion he had for collecting and for exploring the unknown. He didn't want to give up the voyage. He never knew what was around the next bend or up at, you know, into the next valley or on the next island; and all that just sustained him through loneliness, constant seasickness, you know, poor physical health, malnutrition, danger, a lot of discomfort—I mean, he slept in a hammock on the boat, underneath the skylight for, you know, all the time that he was on that voyage.

Steve: With another guy about six inches away.

Carroll: Yeah! Exactly. Oh! It's pretty cramp[ed] quarters on those boats.

Steve: Anybody who's been in the submarine corps will appreciate that.

Carroll: Yeah, exactly. Although his boat was not as seaworthy as any modern sub. And that Alfred Russel Wallace, he went on two expeditions. Well, the second one was caused by the tragedy from the first one. He spent four years in the Amazon and on the way home from the Amazon—where he had not only crates and crates of specimens he collected but three dozen live animals that he hoped to take all the way to the London Zoo—the ship caught fire and sank along with all of his specimens. So Wallace had to decide, "Well, if I give it up, I have had this near-death experience,"—he spent ten days in a lifeboat, before he was rescued. He said "No, I didn't achieve my goal. I want to understand something about the origin of species and I want to have a collection from these far parts of the world." And out he goes for eight more years, island hopping from Singapore to New Guinea, collecting. He independently comes up with the same idea Darwin did about the evolution of species from really similar evidence. He is seeing a lot of species that are restricted to particular islands, he understands that every species is quite variable in the individuals. So, the voyaging was very critical to opening their eyes to new ways of seeing the world, and they experienced many dramatic and exciting and thrilling moments.

Steve: So everybody has heard of Darwin and a lot of people have heard of Wallace. Who else do you talk about in the book that maybe people aren't as familiar with?

Carroll: Well, I think a lot of people. One of my heroes in the book is Charles Walcott. Walcott never finished formal schooling; he grew up during the civil war. But he loved trilobite collecting in upstate New York.

Steve: Explain what a trilobite is.

Carroll: So trilobites are these extinct arthropods—you've probably seen them in gift shops or things like that that might specialize in fossils and shelly creatures—with a very clear segmented structure. They went extinct in the Permian, but...

Steve: They look a little like, let's say, an ancient Greek shield.

Carroll: Yeah, exactly, perfect! Perfect description of a trilobite. So he was great at collecting those, and it gave him real passion for exploring rocks and fossils and that eventually led to where he was appointed to as a collector for the sort of fledgling U.S. Geological Survey, and they sent him out West. Well, this is in the period when the West was wide open. Within a decade, after John Wesley Powell stripped through the Grand Canyon, Charles Walcott was out there surveying the Grand Canyon pretty much with himself, a mule and a cook.

Steve: He did have two arms, though, which Powell didn't have.

Carroll: Yeah, twice the advantage, yeah. So he measured for example the mountains from, what is now the Grand Staircase in Utah all the way to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, an enormous vertical section of rock, collecting fossils all the way. And one of the major discoveries he made was near the bottom of the Grand Canyon, he found the earliest fossil evidence of life, Precambrian life, and this was a huge gap in Darwin's knowledge. Darwin was very much worried. We knew that there was a fossil record in the Cambrian, but what about all that before? Darwin's idea was that complex things came from simple things, but where were the simple things? Well, Walcott found the first simple things that predated the Cambrian, but he wasn't done. Now, he was an incredibly reliable, trustworthy soul, so much so that he was wanted in Washington as an advisor to Congress. Eventually, as director of the U.S. Geological Survey, he was a trusted advisor to presidents and wound up being advising seven different presidents, and he had a very close relationship with Teddy Roosevelt and then Walcott was appointed secretary of the Smithsonian, but it didn't matter what job he held in Washington, every summer he went out fossil collecting, took his family, especially to the American West or the Canadian Rockies; and at age 59, while director of the Smithsonian, he rode his horse up to Burgess Pass in the Canadian Rockies, way up above the tree line, waiting for the snow to melt and he found this mother lode of spectacular fossils, what we know as the Burgess Shale. All these animal forms, many of which had not been seen in the fossil record before, soft-bodied forms that tell us that all sorts of animal diversity existed as early as the Cambrian, more than 500 million years ago. And I think that this combination of his public service in Washington—he advised, for example, presidents on developing [the] U.S. Park System, protecting U.S. national monuments. He convinced Charles Freer to donate his art to what became the Freer Gallery of the Smithsonian. He was very instrumental in promoting aviation in the United States, in the fledgling days of aviation. So he knew all the key figures, Langley, Orville and Wilbur Wright, actually was a principal in getting this organization [started] called NACA which was the civil aviation authority that 50 years later morphed into being NASA. So he left his mark on many of the American scientific institutions while at the same time being this exceptional paleontologist and geologist, and most people would have never heard of him.

Steve: And just to review, you know, he's up there in the Burgess, and he is not staying at some four star hotel at night. He is in a little canvas tent, making what? Just soup and whatever he can catch to eat and coming up with some canned food and that's about it.

Carroll: Yeah, it's a family operation. He and his sons, for example, are excavating the rock and his wife is down in the campsite, splitting the rock, and I think, more than 65,000 specimens made its way back to the Smithsonian—this massive collection. But [this]he was something he clearly loved. And this is the characteristic that unites all the characters in the stories throughout the book is they just were driven by this passion to explore, the passion to understand the unknown; and you know, physical discomfort or, you know, great physical exertion was no obstacle. And these I think make for very admirable qualities in people. And he was also, as I said, he was a steadfast person—so reliable, so sober, so trusted to, you know, the highest offices in the land because he just carried himself with this, you know, with this great indetermination, this very business-like quality he had.

Steve: It's almost like Profiles in Courage in evolutionary theory and paleontology.

Carroll: Alright, and natural history. Exactly, people who are some[how] single-minded. I talk about Eugene Dubois, who decided the most important thing anyone could find in the decades right after Darwin was the missing link between apes and humans, and he decided he was going to be the one to do it. Well, he was a physician in Amsterdam, rising in the ranks, and he said, "To heck with it; I'm going to take my wife and my young baby across the world to find the missing link." And he decided he was going to find it in the Dutch East Indies. He enlisted for an eight-year stint as an army physician so he would have time to explore the caves and riverbeds of Sumatra and Java in the Dutch East Indies. Now he spends few years looking, you know, suffering malaria and all sorts of things but he eventually gathers a pretty reliable group of workmen and on Java about four years into this, they find a molar skullcap and a thigh bone of what we call today Homo erectus. It's not only a spectacular discovery, it was against all odds, illustrated by the fact that all sorts of people then followed Dubois to Asia and Java and no one found anything for 40 years. So he threw the magic dart at the map of the world and found an ancient hominid against every conceivable odds.

Steve: You know, I never thought of this before. I'm sure scholars have written about this. The connection, this is what I just though of, the connection between Mendeleyev and Darwin. Mendeleyev created the periodic table and understood that there were holes in it. He didn't have the complete knowledge, and so he thereby let natural scientists know what to look for, what other elements should exist, and they found them. And Darwin did the same thing with species. He outlined this whole progression—"progression" is a dodgy word, but—this tree and what they therefore should be looking for; like this, you know, "missing link", and so this fellow goes out and now knows what to look for and therefore finds it.

Carroll: It's a beautiful etiology, exactly. The Origin of Species set the agenda. Darwin—he was pretty angst ridden in writing The Origin at things he didn't have from the fossil record. You know, as a geologist and a good fossil hunter, you know, he ached to find these transitional forms. But in the next 150 years of paleontology, all sorts of transitional forms had been uncovered and we are still uncovering some spectacular ones. One of the chapters in the book is about this recent finding in the Arctic by Neil Shubin and Ted Daeschler and Farish Jenkins; this spectacular transition from fish to four-legged land animal, exactly right, filling part of sort of the periodic table, of the fossil record and knowing where to look, what age rock to look in, and of course, a pretty big element of luck.

Steve: Luck is always good to have on your side. Although the famous Louis Pasteur's line about chance being—what is it again?

Carroll: Chance favors the prepared mind.

Steve: Yeah, that's it.

Carroll: Be ready for it; and, of course, the level of preparation in these expeditions today is great. You have a lot more knowledge of the geology of the world. You have satellite phones and things like that, but still, for example, in this arctic expedition, it was several field seasons under very tough conditions, high winds, cold, polar bear territory, you know, brutal weather, difficult logistics and the expense, high expense these days; but they stuck with it and they hit pay dirt.

Steve: I know we are a little short on time. So tell me about what your current research is in the laboratory. And it's in the laboratory—you don't spend a lot of time out in the field.

Carroll: I don't have anywhere near the courage these people had. I'll go as an ecotourist to some of these places, but no, I don't have anywhere near the courage of a Wallace or a Walcott. We're trying to understand the evolution of the physical diversity of the animal kingdom. How does anatomy evolve, how do body patterns evolve? We are working on various groups, particularly insects that exhibit spectacular diversity and trying to understand at the most fundamental level in the DNA what kinds of changes enable the great diversity of patterns to evolve. And the answers we are getting are that that the sets of genes that organisms share, especially that animals share, are very similar; but you get [a] diversity of patterns by using these genes in different ways. And what we mean by using them in different ways is turning them on and off at different parts of the body—sort of [a] different choreography—and we are mapping how that choreography is encoded right down to the DNA level.

Steve: And what exactly are you doing right now?

Carroll: What exactly we are trying to do is, understanding the origin of very complex patterns. So we have solved, I think, simple things like how to draw a stripe and draw a spot on things and now we are dealing with more complicated patterns. If you think of, for example, butterfly wings and their great geometrical and diverse color patterns. We are trying to crack the code of how that is generated and then how that evolves.

Steve: And you are literally working with butterflies.

Carroll: We are just about to turn towards butterflies. We are working still with fruit flies, species of fruit flies that have some spectacular wing and body patterns.

Steve: Very cool. Let me ask you something that I always wondered about with you. Now you run this world-class research program at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. You are raising kids; you write book after book for general audience in addition to research paper after research paper for a lay audience; you love, you know, regular stuff like Bugs Bunny cartoons and Mel Brooks movies and baseball—he's a Boston Red Sox fan [but what are you gonna do?]. When do you sleep?

Carroll: I sleep pretty regularly. I have had a lot of great luck. I mean, I have a great family, I work with fabulous people, I have had incredibly talented and motivated people in my lab. You know I am a coach, I don't have to do all this by myself. I have great players in the lab, I have long-time staff with, you know, artistic and other creative abilities that support me. And I think I enjoy so much in my day, I don't spend a lot of my time doing things that are unpleasant, and so I think that keeps my energy up.

Steve: [Well] in the immortal words of Bugs Bunny...

Carroll: ...That's all folks.

(music)

Steve: The AAAS meeting features a huge exhibit hall with hundreds of booths hawking products and programs, and that's where I ran into Katy Palfrey, program manager for the Michelson Prize and Grants in Reproductive Biology. We spoke briefly about her program. Katy, tell me about this effort.

Palfrey: At the Michelson Prize and Grants we are offering $50 million in grant money towards a nonsurgical sterilization for cats and dogs, and we are also offering $25 million in prize money to whoever comes up with a product.

Steve: When was this project thought of?

Palfrey: In October of this year, we actually...

Steve: Of 2008?

Palfrey: Of 2008. We actually announced the prize. Our founder, Dr. Gary Michelson has offered to give this money...

Steve: This is his personal funds?

Palfrey: Yes. This is his personal funds. He founded the Found Animals Foundation and this is our big international outreach project, and we're hoping that we'll have a substantial impact on cat overpopulation and euthanasia in shelters.

Steve: Where did he get all that money?

Palfrey: Well, he is actually a spinal surgeon, and he had a lot of success coming up with alternative methods and he got some really great patents and managed to make quite a bit of money, so...

Steve: So, he was an MD, not a veterinarian.

Palfrey: Exactly, exactly.

Steve: But he is an animal lover and he decided to invest in this.

Palfrey: Yes, he is absolutely an animal lover, and he has offered all [that] money towards what we think is a really great plan for lowering the euthanasia rates in shelters.

Steve: What's the scope of the problem?

Palfrey: Unfortunately, millions of animals every year are euthanized in just American shelters, and then it can be even worse across the globe. So what we are hoping is that this makes a big impact on that. It can be up to eight million animals, cats and dogs, going to shelters every year, and about half of those animals are euthanized.

Steve: And what has been the response in the few months since the announcement? I mean, 25 million bucks is enough to get people to be interested in working on the problem.

Palfrey: Absolutely, we have had a fantastic response. We have received many, many letters of intent, and it is an ongoing process. So we are reviewing on a rolling basis, so if anyone has any ideas for a product that could work for this please go to FoundAnimals.org and find out more about the prize and grants; and you can also submit your letter of intent through the Web site.

Steve: Are you considering people who might have [un]orthodox backgrounds?

Palfrey: We absolutely are, we think that the answer to this problem could come from any number of areas. So we absolutely look for anyone who has a great idea.

Steve: A lot of human therapies are tested on animals. Will you be testing this on humans prior to delivering it to dogs and cats?

Palfrey: That is a fantastic question. We actually have some very strict animal-welfare guidelines that we are including with the grant guidelines as people are accepted to submit their grant applications. And so, you know, any animal that goes on will be under those very strict animal-welfare guidelines.

Steve: Well for anybody who has seen the problem with feral animals in the country, this is a really important project, and I wish you the best of luck.

Palfrey: Oh, thank you so much.

Steve: For more information just go to FoundAnimals.org or call (310) 566-PETS.

Now it's time to play TOTALL....... Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories, but only three are true, see if you know which story is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: Intelligent design advocate Ben Stein will give the commencement address at the University of Vermont.

Story number 2: Researchers have figured out why our hair turns gray as we age.

Story number 3: Whether you tend to concentrate on bad stuff or on the bright side of life seems to be under genetic control.

And story number 4: The spacecraft Dawn got a gravity assist from the planet Mars that will change Mars' orbit.

Time's up.

Story number 4 is true. The spacecraft Dawn got a big gravity assist for Mars that will send it on its way to the dwarf planet series. Meanwhile, Mars did make a tiny sacrifice according to our friends at SPACE.com—180 million years from now, the Red Planet will be out of position by about an inch because of Dawn's effect on its orbit.

Story number 3 is true. People who carry too long alleles on the serotonin transporter gene, tend to avoid negative influences and look on the bright side; those with the short version were more negative. The research appears in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Story number 2 is true. We now know why we gray as we age. You've heard of the peroxide blond, well it turns out that hydrogen peroxide also builds up in hair follicles, thanks to normal wear and tear. Enough H2O2 and the melanin responsible for color gets blocked. The research appears in The FASEB Journal. FASEB is the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

All of which means that story number 1, about intelligent design advocate Ben Stein giving the commencement address at the University of Vermont, is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS. Stein was in fact invited to give the address, after which the university's president received numerous messages from scientists and parents noting their displeasure in having the antievolutionist speak and receive an honorary degree. So the expelled star was expelled. Some will view this as the very censorship that Stein alleges in his crockumentary; the disinvite is, in fact, simply keeping up the university's academic standards.

(music)

Well that's it for this edition for Scientific American's Science Talk. Check out SciAm.com for the latest science news, including our blog, which this week features my commentary about an interpretation of Darwinian evolution from Howard Stern. For Science Talk, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

Science Talk is a weekly podcast, subscribe here: RSS | iTunes

University of Wisconsin evolutionary biologist Sean Carroll talks about his new book, Remarkable Creatures, which chronicles the derring-do of some of natural history's brightest stars. And FoundAnimals.org's Katy Palfrey discusses the Michelson Prize, for the development of a nonsurgical pet-neutering technique. Plus, we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Web sites related to this episode include www.foundanimals.org; www.seanbcarroll.com   

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