You are an academic biologist. How did you get started writing "popular" science for magazines like the New Yorker and Discover, the kind of pieces collected in Monkeyluv?

I did the first couple of pieces in grad school, tightly anchored on the baboon field work I was doing. As far as I can tell, simply because I could get pieces in on time and didn't complain too much when they edited it, a couple of magazines started to ask me, could I do a piece on this or that, and it expanded from there. I think in terms of the writing urge, well, through a good part of my adult life, I spent a good three or four months of the year alone in a tent out in East Africa waiting for mail every two weeks. You get very dependent on mail, and thus you get very intent on writing to half the people on earth you've ever met.

It's clear that you really know the science, and yet at the same time you're having fun with it. Do you emulate any role models when writing?

If I had to pick a mixture, I would aim to be a cross between Jared Diamond and Tom Wolfe. Which I recognize is not a merging that is easily done.

So how do you choose what to write about these days?

At any given point, I've got four or five topics I'm mulling over, and what it is, is a good excuse to do the opposite of what you do as a lab scientist, spending forever knowing more and more about less and less, some little sliver of a factoid. And instead here, I just do a three-month obsessive hit-and-run on a subject and never think about it again.

Do you feel a tension as an academic doing this kind of writing?

Tremendous amounts of tension. It does take up a lot of time. On the other hand, most of my science peers have a lot of their time taken up by being on this committee or chairing this program or being editor of this or that journal, so I would much rather be doing this with my "non-direct science time." But there's a funny science culture about this stuff... the sort of snotty term for it is that you get Saganized. People decide you can't possibly be doing serious science anymore if you are also spending time trying to communicate about it.

So have you been Saganized? Do other people see you that way?

I'm sure to the extent that it happens, it's virtually always anonymous—but, boy, God help me if in one of my technical science papers I write some incoherent paragraph, because I will hear back from the [peer] reviewers, usually framing it somewhat snidely, "Well, for a guy doing all this writing for nonscientists out there, that sure was one horrible discussion section."