Sean B. Carroll at the Oxford Literary Festival

Posted on April 21, 2016 in News & Reviews, Oxford

This April saw the Oxford Literary Festival descend upon the city of dreaming spires and a range of interesting and inspiring speakers sharing their ideas.

One of the talks that I attended this year was the Princeton University Press lecture by biologist Sean B. Carroll.

Working at Princeton University Press with Sean Carroll’s publicist, I was aware that this Oxford Literary Festival event was one in a week-long author tour, which included an interview with the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4, a lecture at the Royal Institution and an interview for the Guardian Science podcast. Despite this Oxford Literary Festival event coming towards the end of a packed week, Sean Carroll gave a lively and thoroughly entertaining talk (in conversation with Charles Godfray, an Oxford biologist) on the subject of his latest book, The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters.

The Serengeti Rules, so called because Carroll was inspired to write the book after a trip to the Serengeti, are the rules that govern how all life on earth works. Sean Carroll explained that there is a remarkable similarity between how life works on different scales, at the macro and micro levels. The rules of regulation determine the number of cells and molecules in our bodies, and regulation also determines the number of plants and animals in nature.

Carroll saw this most strikingly on his first trip to the Serengeti with his family. As all the animals came out in full force across the savannah, his children began to ask, “Why are there so many zebra? And why so few lions and wildebeest?”

It struck him then that there are rules that govern and regulate the number of plants and animals in a particular ecosystem, in order to make it operate efficiently and productively. It is when these rules of regulation break down that things start to go wrong. Carroll used the example of Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique to illustrate this. In the seventies, Gorongosa was a well-known tourist destination, but when civil war hit Mozambique in the late seventies, the national park and its wildlife was decimated. But as Carroll told us, Nature is a remarkable and resilient thing, and given a chance and time to recover, it will, and this is proven by Gorongosa. Fifteen years ago, there were fewer than one thousand large animals in the park, but now there are well over 70,000.

Sean Carroll’s talk was highly informative, entertaining and geared towards a general audience. He was also an extremely engaging storyteller, and when he spoke of his trips to the Serengeti and Mozambique, he vividly conjured up the plains of Africa and the diversity of its wildlife. It was also great to hear that he was optimistic about the future, and hopes that the Serengeti Rules will help us conserve and protect our planet for future generations.

Lucy Zhou