Who Swims with the Scientist?

David Quammen, interviewed by Lucy Jakub

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.

Charlie Hamilton James

David Quammen shadowing biologists on an elephant radio-collaring mission, Mozambique, 2016

“Defining wildness is not an easy task,” writes David Quammen in an essay we published online last month, but at the least it “requires living creatures of many different forms entangled in a system of surging and ebbing interactions.” These are the insights of a writer who has spent a great deal of time camping with biologists and who is careful and direct with his words. For two decades Quammen reported for National Geographic on conservation projects in Africa and South America, features that are collected in his new book, The Heartbeat of the Wild (his essay on wildness is adapted from the foreword and afterword). Until the pandemic—when he interviewed ninety-five scientists for Breathless, his book on SARS-Cov-2, over Zoom—a principle of his journalism has always been to trek to the field (or the lab) and meet people and animals face-to-face.

Quammen is one of the great science writers of our time. I first met him in 2012, outside the restroom at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. He was on tour for his book Spillover, a suspenseful and prescient reported chronicle of the contagious pathogens that have leapt from other species into ours. I told him he was my favorite writer, a judgment made after devouring dozens of his magazine essays on natural history, which bring empathy and precision to questions of conservation as quotidian as canned fish (“Who Swims with the Tuna?”) and as darkly dizzying as mass extinction. Since 2018 he has revisited mosquitoes, weedy species, and Charles Darwin in our pages.

This week I asked him about the long sweep of his career, which has yielded three novels, one story collection, five essay collections, and nine books and counting on science and natural history.

Lucy Jakub: Your essay on wildness strikes me as a very didactic and corrective reminder of what we’re really talking about when we talk about wild nature and its conservation. You wrote The Song of the Dodo, your opus about “island biogeography,” back in 1996. What makes you think readers need this reminder now?

David Quammen: You’re correct that some people consider the mere mention of “nature” to cast an illusory distinction between human life and all other forms of living creature, and they deride the discussion of “wildness” or “the wild” (and especially “wilderness”) as contaminated with anthropocentrism and the assumption that wilderness, whatever it is, implies a place without humans, whereas the truth (they argue) is that humans have always inhabited such places.

But I don’t make those assumptions when I use the words; and furthermore, humans haven’t “always” lived in such wild places. We humans belong to a species that has existed only for about 200,000 years. We’re relative newcomers.

But these semantic confusions are why I choose my words carefully and try to define them. And when I define “the wild,” I don’t do it by excluding humanity. I do it by considering biological diversity and the ecological processes that interconnect living creatures: predation, competition, herbivory, cooperation (especially in the social creatures, such as lions, hyenas, chimpanzees, ants, and termites), parasitism, photosynthesis, scavenging, and decomposition, among others. Biological diversity is not an ineffable or subjective entity. You can measure it. You can even count it. This is why I take care to enumerate the four elements necessary to what I consider “wildness” in the biological sense: scale, connectivity, biological diversity itself, and the processes I’ve just mentioned.

Readers who know you from your essential reporting on the coronavirus and zoonotic diseases, in Spillover and Breathless and in your writing for the op-ed pages, may be surprised to learn that you published a novel when you were twenty-two and, for a period in the early 1980s, were reviewing fiction for The New York Times Book Review. Gradually you started reviewing books by scientists. Did criticism provide a path to science writing?

My reviewing for the Times Book Review began thanks to a friendship with a wonderful man, the late James Atlas, whom I knew when we were graduate students together at Oxford in the early 1970s. By the time we met again later, he had published his superb biography of Delmore Schwartz, and he was working as an editor at the NYTBR. He asked me to review a few novels for him, which I did. One of them, I believe, was The Past, an early book by Neil Jordan, who later directed films. Jim was satisfied with my reviewing, and the Times evidently was, too, because they continued occasionally asking me to work for them over the years, long after Jim went on to other things. (And when, still later, he had become imprint editor of a line of concise, essayistic biographies of great scientists, he asked me to do Darwin for that series. The result was my little book The Reluctant Mr. Darwin.)


Around that time, the late 1970s and very early 1980s, I became much more interested in nonfiction, especially nonfiction about science, and found myself reviewing such books for The Christian Science Monitor: the letters of Robert Oppenheimer, for instance, and a book of memoirs by Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, and a magnificent book (more magnificent than I was capable of appreciating then) on the foundational history of molecular biology, The Eighth Day of Creation, by Horace Freeland Judson. I still recommend the Judson book to anyone wanting to see how ambitious, artful, human, and valuable nonfiction writing about science can be. Judson’s daughter Olivia, who has written for National Geographic, the Times, Nature, and Science, well continues the family tradition.

Your major books on science—which are all in some sense about evolution, and the people who study it—chart a gradual but definite course out of the jungle and into the cell, culminating in The Tangled Tree, on horizontal gene transfer, and Breathless. Before Covid hit, you were exploring infectious cancers. How do you explain that trajectory in your interest?

Yes, you’re right, it’s been a trajectory I couldn’t have foreseen: Beginning with my obsession with Faulkner and my own efforts in fiction; then my early essays on natural history for Outside, which became more scientific over the fifteen years I wrote my column; leading me into doing books and more ambitious journalism on ecology, evolutionary biology, and conservation biology, mostly involving large creatures and highly diverse ecosystems.

And then in 1999, during a long hike through Central African forests on my first assignment for National Geographic, I got very interested in the Ebola virus and the question of Ebola’s reservoir host (the animal in which it abides when not spilling over into humans). That question is still unanswered—but as I considered it, I realized that Ebola’s relationship with a reservoir host and its capacity to switch hosts and adjust to infecting humans were also matters of ecology and evolutionary biology. So I started to write about viruses, in Spillover.

Somehow I heard about the bizarre and counterintuitive process of horizontal gene transfer, and the way it has vastly complicated the Tree of Life by moving genes sideways across species boundaries, from one lineage into another. Having committed to do a book about it, I asked myself: How in the world can I write a book for general readers about something so weird, technically intricate, counterintuitive, and molecular? Then I hit on an answer: write about Carl Woese, the most important biologist of the twentieth century that you’ve never heard of. The Moses of molecular phylogenetics. So I made him the featured character of The Tangled Tree.

Meanwhile, I had become one of National Geographic’s go-to writers, I suppose, for slogging through jungles with intrepid biologists and wonderfully hardy, dedicated photographers. I learned how to duct-tape my feet and walk through blackwater swamps in sandals and shorts, a vastly helpful form of literary qualification. The Heartbeat of the Wild is the artifact from that phase of my work.

You said in a recent interview that there are three big problems facing humanity: biodiversity loss, climate change, and the threat of pandemics. It seems to me that most other prominent practitioners of environmental writing have gravitated toward climate change as the encapsulating crisis. Why haven’t you?

That’s exactly why I keep saying what you’ve accurately described me as saying. We have three vast and coequal human-caused problems on this planet, not one (climate change) that encompasses all else. We have climate change, loss of biological diversity, and the threat of pandemic diseases. These flow parallel like three big, ugly, brown rivers, all draining off the same melting snowfield on a mountain. What’s melting the snowfield and causing all three problems is human impact on the rest of the natural world—impact that can be calibrated as population size multiplied by consumption. Some people, and some cultures collectively, consume relatively little. Some others, like the American middle class and wealthy elite, consume an egregious amount. (And waste an egregious amount; waste goes into the calculation as part of consumption.) Population size times consumption equals our collective impact.

People sometimes ask me to explain how climate change is causing pandemic diseases—their starting assumption. Mostly that’s not the cause, I say. Climate change is catastrophic, but it is not the cause of everything that’s wrong. I feel as though those people were born yesterday, when it comes to the problems of humans on Earth, and that they’re viewing the world through the cardboard tube from the middle of a roll of paper towels.


I first came to your writing through your essays collected in Natural Acts, The Boilerplate Rhino, Wild Thoughts from Wild Places, and The Flight of the Iguana. I had a vague idea that I wanted to be a writer, and those essays made me snap to attention: each one seemed designed at certain junctures to turn and surprise the reader, to take a conceit about the natural world or biology to a profound place and then pull up with humor or humility. I tried to learn everything I could from them—but who did you learn from?

The only editorial requirement of my column for Outside (as I’ve sometimes joked) was that each essay somewhere had to mention an animal, a scientist, or a tree. I wrote some weird essays about some wonderfully weird facts and phenomena and people. I tried to bring to them a breadth of interests and a sense of humor.

Who influenced me as an essayist? I guess it was J.B.S. Haldane, Loren Eiseley, Lewis Thomas, Joan Didion, and the great CBS News correspondent (and writer) Hughes Rudd, who befriended me when I was a senior at Yale and hired me to help him make a CBS special about Faulkner. While we were in Oxford, Mississippi, Hughes gave me a copy of his one book, a collection of magazine pieces and short fiction, titled My Escape from the CIA, and Other Improbable Events. Lovely, wacky, elegant stuff. Who else influenced me as a writer? Robert Penn Warren, who was my teacher and mentor, and then also my dear and generous friend. From Warren I learned, among other things, that a writer does not need to be just one kind of writer.

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