Carl Zimmer, science writer, on the power of evolution

Carl Zimmer: Just about every week, there will be some study about some aspect of evolution that just blows me away, that I could not see coming.

Science writer Carl Zimmer is the author of the 2009 book, The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution. Zimmer said that the theory of evolution fascinates him, because it explains how all forms of life emerge and develop, from 3.5 billion years ago to today.

Carl Zimmer: Whether it’s the evolution of new kinds of influenza viruses, or the evolution of our own species.

Zimmer said scientists are still figuring out the mysterious ways that evolution works. As an example, he described an unusual cancer that is spreading among endangered marsupials called Tasmanian devils. This cancer starts out as a tumor on their faces.

Carl Zimmer: Tasmanian devils don’t like each other much, so they will bite each others’ faces. And they actually bite off the tumors sometimes, and those cancer cells get into their own face and develop into new tumors.

Zimmer marveled that scientists were able to trace this infectious cancer – which they originally thought was a virus – to a single nerve cell in one Tasmanian devil that had turned cancerous.

Carl Zimmer: Through understanding evolution, you get to understand more about life itself.

Zimmer added that the discovery of how this particular cancer originated might one day be used in a vaccine, to help save the Tasmanian devil from extinction.

Carl Zimmer: I write mostly about evolution, about the history of life, starting 3.5 billion years ago to what’s going on right now. Whether it’s the evolution of new kinds of influenza viruses, or the evolution of our own species. I’m always fascinated by the diversity of life. Iif you want to understand why it is the way it is, you have to understand how it got to be that way.

Zimmer said that it’s a misconception that the story of evolution starts and ends with Charles Darwin.

Carl Zimmer: It’s important to understand that as incredible as Darwin’s insights were, there were a lot of things that he didn’t understand about evolution. That shouldn’t come as a surprise -that’s how science works. For example, Darwin envisioned life as being like a tree, so that new species branch off from each other. Because parents would pass down their genes to their offspring, and so on, and life would diverge. The tricky thing now is that it turns out to be that microbes, and other forms of life, will basically trade genes. Genes will go from one organism to another. That’s why we have problems with antibiotic resistance, because different species will actually trade genes. So that upsets the tree metaphor. You actually have to think of life more like a web. And so that is just part of this evolving view of evolution.

Zimmer said that in his experience, the key to communicating evolution is using metaphors – such as the web of life – and finding fascinating stories to illustrate how evolution works – such as the Tazmanian devils.

April 12, 2010

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