Intuition is a powerful – and accurate – thing. The moment The Serengeti Rules (by Sean B. Carroll) was teased from the mailing envelope, an accompanying shiver made it clear that this was an important book demanding particular care and attention. Thus began several late evenings of sitting by the lamp (and the space heater) while bitter winter winds blew frozen rain against the windows, and the dogs, gleeful for some long-term, stationary company, piled close onto the reviewer’s lap. In this way, a deep journey into the rules of life on Earth began.
Sean B. Carroll is an award-winning scientist, writer, educator, and Professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics at the University of Wisconsin. He’s also a nature lover. Or rather, he loves the inspired, living planet, in all it’s complexity and diversity; Our awesome Earth, which we are now, unfortunately, on the brink of transforming into an empty husk. The subtitle for the book, ‘The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why it Matters’, makes it particularly timely, seeing as we’ve just experienced the hottest year since humans gained such disproportionate (and disconcertingly ruinous) power over nature. Drawing us along on his journey, Carroll crafts a tapestry of connections, woven through a series of engaging narratives that sometimes read like a mystery novel, sometimes an adventure story. We follow great pioneers in the study of heart disease and cancer, and accompany field biologists to far-away lands, learning lessons from lemmings, starfish, mussels, algae, willows, wolves and the ongoing saga of Africa’s great Gorongosa Park restoration.
“I am a firm believer in the power of stories,” Carroll stated in an interview on The Serengeti Rules. “Science is far more enjoyable, understandable and memorable when we follow scientists all over the world and share in their struggles and triumphs.”
By introducing us to the great pioneers of molecular biology, like Jacques Monod (enzyme regulation), Akira Endo (lovastatin developer) and Janet Rowley (cancer and inheritance of genetic diseases), Carroll sets the reader up with a strong foundation in the natural processes that go on within our own bodies, and describes how breakthroughs happen, such as the discovery of ‘repressors’ and ‘suppressors’, (which act, not by ‘doing things’, but by preventing things), and double-negative regulatory logic. We also learn what happens when these mechanisms fail.
Analogous insights turned the world of wildlife science on its head, revealing that the outer world is similarly governed by complex natural laws, for instance in the form of trophic cascades and the top-down/bottom-up push/pull of dynamic, healthy and resilient natural ecosystems – and illustrating how wolves, sea otters, certain starfish and other ‘keystone’ species turn out to be crucial top-down suppressors of deer, sea urchins and other quickly-multiplying prey that would otherwise denude their habitats. Ecosystems are thus kept in a more or less balanced state, with some natural periods of over abundance and scarcity, swinging within an ever-responsive arc, remaining, overall, resilient and self-sustaining. Thus we’re clearly shown the folly of our ways, for instance our relentless war on certain keystone species such as wolves and otters. Of course, life is far more intricately interconnected and complex than these easy examples show, relying heavily on abundant biological diversity to function fully and safely. But we are losing (actively destroying) that biodiversity, and fast. The constant meddling and demands of humans acting hugely and relentlessly on the planet are something that nature, in her long-term time scale, seems poorly equipped to answer.
But maybe, if we fully take notice, if we’re prepared to make the changes we need to in how we think and live, the planet can regain her footing. Illustrating that homeostasis is the natural state of both our personal bodies and the greater body of the Earth, Carroll carefully connects (and scrutinizes) the dots between what we observe, what shapes it, how it all works, and how to keep from screwing it all up – At least, from screwing it up even more than we already have. Carroll shows us that, especially in this day of dizzying change and population growth, in order to live respectfully and sustainably within Earthly systems, we first need understanding – We need to learn to ask the right questions if we’re to get the right answers. We need deep understanding of often complex and interconnected self-balancing mechanisms, of precisely how they work, and exactly what’s broken when things go wrong. These are the crucial first steps before we make any sweeping changes to the environment. In fact, often the seemingly direct path, the linear cause-and-effect thinking that seems to be most obvious (like killing otters to increase fish populations), can in fact be horrifically wrong.
Carroll doesn’t so much give answers, he teaches us what it takes to find them, for ourselves and into the the future, offering the framework of natural rules within which we must work, and showing that there is an underlying logic to life – And that as we humans push our limits and bend the rules (dismantling the suppressors meant to mitigate our impact on the planet) we are truly acting (in this reviewer’s interpretation) as cancer cells, with all the deleterious and fatal consequences to the greater body of the Earth. What we need, urgently, clearly, besides finally heeding the warning calls being screamed from all corners, is a working strategy for protecting our planet from ourselves.
We’d better learn, fast, or it may all soon unravel around us. While we began with a ‘need’ to dominate nature so we could compete more successfully as a species, we now must realize that, in our ‘success’, we are also working outside these critical, life-sustaining rules, sabotaging our planet through not just our increasingly effective/ruinous actions, but our expanding population and longevity. Humans, by finding ways around so many natural control mechanisms, have, ourselves, become like wildly rampaging tumor cells – And we risk killing our one and only host in the process. To his credit, Carroll still obviously loves humanity in spite of the damage we’re doing, and has faith in not just our ability to learn, but our willingness to effect critical changes to save the diversity of life here.
This book couldn’t have come at a better time. Each of our American political candidates, vying right now for their chance to lead our country for these next, most important years in terms of our planet’s health, needs to read The Serengeti Rules.
You can read the introduction to The Serengeti Rules, here.
The Serengeti Rules, The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why it Matters, by Sean B. Carroll, published by Princeton University Press.