Yale professor Richard Prum, who received the MacArthur Genius Grant in 2009 for his work in evolutionary ornithology, and Carl Zimmer ’87, English professor and science journalist for The New York Times and other publications, first met when Prum came to Yale in 2004. The two friends got together one Tuesday afternoon for a quick chat by the taxidermic bird collections of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.
On the evolutionary psychologist in the Jane Austen seminar
P: The question I’m interested in is: how is the aesthetic change that happens in human acts like the aesthetic change that happens in nature? And really what it’s about is studying subjective experience, which most scientists are afraid of. That the fact that you like something — that’s a force in nature. What I’m trying to do is make that the subject of our study, and I think we can study it comparatively. So — two species had some ancestor that had the same song. And those two species no longer prefer the same song that the ancestor did — they sing different songs. So we can’t know what it’s like to like a certain song, but we can examine how changes occur … Subjective experience won’t be reducible to standard analysis, but we can create new ways to approach it and understand aspects of it that people are afraid of.
This whole work has led to a broader interest in aesthetics in human arts and in that case, I start with the body of work that is science and gradually move into a body of work that isn’t science, but somehow it is compatible with science. And that’s what I’m interested in now. How is it that the different bodies of knowledge are interconnected? But in a respectful way. I’m not a scientist walking into the humanities to say, “OK, let me explain. Once you understand this, you’ll understand your field.” That’s not what it is at all. What I’m trying to do is create a scientific perspective that supports work in the humanities and social sciences.
Z: I’m an old English major here, so I always find it kind of funny that evolutionary psychologists are barging into English departments and explaining Jane Austen to them in terms of fitness, and so on. It’s not necessarily that it’s wrong, but it brushes away important issues about culture and history and even just the kind of thing that literature is great at — exploring language and [how] language works in our lives and how it can betray us, all its complexities. Sometimes scientists seem to want to bring it down to some basic principles.
And that is an effort to explain away culture, not explain culture. And unfortunately a lot of people associate this with the mission of science. That reductionist relation is the value. And there are all sorts of examples in science where that failed and we gave up on it and moved on with better science.
P: Right. And scientists tend to have a history of their field that is nice and clean. It can be difficult to draw people out and say, “You guys were battling it out and disagreed” — getting them to acknowledge that science is a process.
On feathered dinosaurs, Hollywood, and thieving kids
P: I did some work on the evolutionary origin of feathers that transformed the way we look at our favorite dinosaurs —
Z: Except in Jurassic Park. They’re not switching over.
P: No, they’re not.
Z: You have to have a word with them.
P: Yeah, I’ve emailed them! They think a T. rex with feathers would be a laughingstock. How would they sell tickets?
Z: To me, the research that you and others have done to show that all these dinos have crazy feathers with patterns on them is one of these surprises and is so fun to think about. I cannot imagine that Hollywood wouldn’t be all over this. But I guess you’re blocking their light.
P: Well, they’re investing a lot of money in the next Jurassic Park.
Z: They would need to go back and CGI [the old movies].
P: It’s like a button, a replay button, and it replays the feathered T. rex chasing the Jeep.
Z: I think that movies can be a great way to draw kids into science. When you start asking scientific questions, I’m all for that, when it works. Most of the time movies make you want to tear your hair out.
P: But you’ve written for children.
Z: Some of my articles end up read in high school classes. I actually really like going and talking. [High schoolers] are the toughest. If it’s not interesting, they fall asleep. They’re unconscious. So what are you going to do to keep them engaged? So usually what I do if I’m talking about parasites or viruses I use the most disgusting slides I have.
And they love it. And at the end they start asking me these good evolutionary questions. How did the tapeworm get to be like that?
P: Carl’s toxic book [Parasiterex] was the book most frequently stolen from high school libraries.
Z: There was one librarian in NYC who told me to say she had to replace it six or seven times. But that’s how you know it’s working. I keep reminding people in teaching, I’m not teaching you about how to write things people have to read, but what they want to read.
On useless, beautiful, tangled knots
P: To me, the beauty of theories is not an aesthetic issue. The reason is that theories are evaluated based on how well they explain the data. If they explain the data elegantly, that might be beneficial, but that doesn’t make the science any better. Physicists like to call things “feasible” as a compliment. And that’s actually a scientific force. Certain views of string theory are preferred as scientific leads or the future in science because they have mathematical properties that people find attractive or elegant.
Z: I think biology is so inherently messy that that doesn’t get as much traction … The structure of DNA is beautiful in an elegant, simple way, but that’s cherry-picking in a sense. If you ever look at a ribosome, oh, god — what a mess! I mean it’s amazing, but it’s just horrendous. Even DNA — if you back away from the double strand and see how it’s all tangled up, it’s just a useless knot. It’s not beautiful at all.
P: There are a lot of styles of mind out there. People are attracted to all kinds of different things. Intellectual motivations … But I think science often does misrepresent itself to people by pointing to beautiful results. The genome is an infinitely packed, bizarre tangle. It’s a mess. We would be disserving science if we only recruited people who [found] some beauty in it.
Z: I suppose when I’m writing about science I’m drawn not necessarily to things that are beautiful but things that are surprising. I had no idea that kiwi eggs were so big.
He regards the taxidermic kiwi bird.
Almost making the reader blink. That’s the kind of reaction I go for.