Eminent American Evolutionary Developmental Biologist, Educator, and Popular Science Writer
DEBANANDA S. NINGTHOUJAM, PhD
There are great scientists. There are equally famous artists. But as, C P Snow famously said, the two cultures usually don't meet, i.e. the scientific and the artistic worlds don't intersect.
Some scientists however have shown that sciences and arts are two intersecting sets and the two worlds are bridgeable areas of human creativity and not permanently separated chasm.
Here, we shall profile the life and career of Sean B. Carroll, who is a multi-faceted scientist par excellence: pioneer of evolutionary developmental biologist (Evo-devo), molecular biologist, geneticist, educator, executive, science film maker, science columnist, science magazine author and popular science writer.
Carroll was born on September 17, 1960 at Toledo, Ohio, USA.
As a child, he was very curious. He used to turn over rocks to look for snakes. At around age 11/12, Sean started rearing snakes at home. He started observing typical patterns in the snake's body and how they form.
Maybe this precocious curiosity helped prod him towards a career in evolutionary developmental biologist (evo-devo).
Carroll earned a BA in biology from Washington University, St. Louis in 1979. Subsequently, he received his PhD degree in immunology from Tufts University Medical School in 1983.
He proceeded to pursue his postdoctoral studies under the supervision of Dr Matthew Scott at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Scientific career and contributions
After his postdoctoral stint at Boulder, Carroll joined the University of Wisconsin Madison (UWM) in 1987 as an assistant professor. In the same year, he set up the Laboratory of Cell and Molecular Biology at UWM. The Lab's research focus is on evolution of cis-regulatory elements during gene expression using drosophila (fruit fly) as a model system.
Sean is a pioneer of the discipline of evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo). Evo-devo studies how genetic changes control evolving body parts and patterns of animals including fruit flies, butterflies, and, possibly, humans.
Dr Carrol's group has been asked the crucial question of how genes work in various ways to generate the diversity of forms in animals that we see. His laboratory has been involved in studies of genetic control of body pattern in flies, butterflies, and other animals.
His research team has discovered (published in several papers) how gene activity in embryonic stages of fruit flies determine the development of wings and are now looking for counterparts of such genes in butterflies.
Carroll is currently Allan Wilson Professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics at UWM.
He is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator.
Sean is a remarkable polymath. Besides original contributions as a scientist, he has appeared on the radio and TV. He has also been a science film producer.
He wrote a science column called Remarkable Creatures for New York Times during 2009-2013.
Carroll also appeared on the PBS Nova documentary named The Family that Walks on all Fours, which was broadcast in 2006.
He has also been an award-winning film producer.
Carroll has served as executive producer or executive in charge of several feature documentary films or series including The Farthest (2017), Amazon Adventure (2017), The Lucky Specials (2017), Spillover: Zika, Ebola & Beyond (2016), Mass Extinction: Life at the Brink (2014) and Your Inner Fish (2014), as well as approximately twenty short films. which have garnered him various awards, including one Emmy and two Emmy nominations.
To top it, Carroll has published a number of popular science books.
He has also delivered many interviews and lectures about his research on Evo-Devo and his popular science books.
Popular Science Books
Carroll has authored several popular science books. Due to space constraints, all of them cannot be elaborated here. Some of his major PopSci books include: From DNA to Diversity (2004), Endless Forms Most Beautiful (2005), Into the Jungle (2009), Remarkable Creatures (2009), Brave Genius (2013), The Big Picture (2016), The Serengeti Rules (2017), and The Story of Life (2019).
E O Wilson, eminent biologist of Harvard University, says the following about the book The Serengeti Rules by Sean B. Carroll:
"The Serengeti Rules is a superb journey of a book written by a scientist of the first rank. Unfolding seamlessly from molecule to ecosystem, it explains with authority and grace why modern biology is central not just to human life but that of the planet itself."
Gunter Wagner of Yale University praises From DNA to Diversity in the following words:
“With almost poetic ease, the authors tell a highly complex story without distorting its scientific substance. The story line goes through the levels of biological hierarchy all the way to the details of gene regulation and emerges with a deeper understanding of biological diversity. In Sean Carroll developmental evolution has found its Darwin.”
“What is life, and how should we live it? Those two questions weave through Brave Genius, a remarkable profile of the friendship between the philosopher Albert Camus and the biologist Jacques Monod. With deep research and compelling story-telling, Sean Carroll follows these two Nobel-prize winners from the desperate depths of World War II to international fame”, so says Carl Zimmer, the famous science writer about the book The Brave Genius by Sean B. Carroll.
His latest book The Story of Life is about the stories of great discoveries in biology and the people who make them from the master storyteller of science of our times, Sean B. Carroll.
Awards and honours
Carroll received several awards for his scientific contributions including the Shaw Science Award (1989), Stephen J. Gould Prize (2010), Benjamin Franklin Medal (2012), and Lewis Thomas Prize (2016, for his significant contributions in science writing).
Carroll was given an honorary doctor of science (DSc) degree by University of Minnesota (2009), and by Tufts University (2017).
He is also an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), USA; American Academy of Arts and Sciences; and American Association for the Advancement of Science.
His popular science books are Carroll's best legacy to the scientific, the intellectual, and the cultural world.
He would also be remembered as one of the pioneers of Evo-Devo.
Since 2013, he has been listed as a member of the Advisory Council on the National Commission for Science Education, USA.
Some of the memorable quotes of Sean B. Carroll include the following:
w “We have taken control of biology, but not of ourselves.”
w “Let us listen to the lesson of Martin Luther King, who wrote:
"The movement does not seek to liberate blacks at the price of the humiliation of the whites. It wants to liberate American society and to help all people to liberate themselves.”
w “Evolution of form is very much a matter of teaching very old genes new tricks!”
w “Fifty years ago, when the human population was about 3 billion, we were using about 70 percent of the Earth’s annual capacity each year. That broke 100 percent by 1980 and stands at about 150 percent now, meaning that we need one and one-half Earths to regenerate what we use in a year. As the authors of this now annual study note, we have a total of just one Earth available.”
w “SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS.”
w "I would like for them to learn naturally, effortlessly, almost without knowing it, that the love of beautiful things, critical thinking, and intellectual honesty are the three essential virtues."
w “So, for our own sake, let’s know all the rules, not just those that pertain to our bodies. Only through wider understanding and application of these ecological rules will we control and have a chance to reverse the side effects we are causing across the globe.” ( As Carroll wrote in his book "The Serengeti Rules")
Carroll is married to Jamie. The couple lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland, USA. He is 58 years old at present and continues to indulge in his manifold passions of scientific research, science education, and popular science writing.
Sean B. Carroll (1960-) has left lasting trails in the intellectual and the scientific world as a trailblazing evolutionary developmental biologist, a prominent science writer, and as a science educator.