Barbara J King
Do fiction writers have an obligation to ensure that the science they import into their novels is credible? Or does the creative license that writers enjoy mean that there's no such responsibility? What happens when a novelist explicitly notes that the work in question is based on trusted science, but scientists insist is it not?
These questions have been on my mind since I reviewed Jodi Picoult's new novel Lone Wolf for The Washington Post. I was disappointed by Picoult's far-out characterizations of wolves and their relationship to humans. Luke Warren, the book's fictional wolf expert, describes a joyful moment sharing a carcass with captive wolves: "I lowered my face to the carcass and began to rip off strips of raw flesh, bloodying my face and my hair ..." This was bizarre enough, but my limit of tolerance was finally exceeded with Luke's remark that, even before she is pregnant, an alpha female wolf knows the number of pups she will birth, their sex, and whether they will stay with her or go off to live elsewhere. This claim is nonsense, not to mention scientifically untestable.
Only after turning my review in to my editor at the Post did I discover that wolf scientists are howling mad at Picoult for misleading the public about wolves.
When my review was published, The International Wolf Center contacted me and, through its staff, I corresponded about the novel with Dr. David Mech. A wildlife biologist, Mech has studied wolves full time since 1958. His peer-reviewed scientific work concerns wolf behavior in Yellowstone and Denali National Parks, among other places; on Ellesmere Island, Canada, he lived close-up with a pack of wolves for parts of 25 summers.
In responding to the character Luke's statements in Lone Wolf, Mech pulls no punches. It's not only the supernatural knowledge attributed by Picoult to the alpha female that grates. Picoult also has Luke describe how a kill is shared within a pack of six wolves, with the alpha supposedly getting the internal organs, the beta the rump and thigh, and so on down the line. "Totally outrageous," Mech says. Wolves don't divvy up different parts of the kill according to group status. "To the contrary," he says, the wolves "compete to get the best each is able to." Luke makes assertions about wolf behavior that Mech regards as "pure baloney."
Educators associated with the International Wolf Center agree. Picoult romanticizes not only the wolves themselves, but also wolf-people relationships, they say. Wolves don't intuit illness in people, for example, or read people's emotions acutely (though they may of course read people's body language and movements). Picoult's misinformation about wolves makes scientists', educators' and conservationists' job that much harder.
Picoult's defenders may make the obvious point: her books are fiction. Why should she be beholden to scientists' judgment of her work? She can write anything she wants about wolves. Ethically, however, I think it's a gray area, at best. Wolves are misunderstood enough in our culture and, for me, the scales are tipped by Picoult's assertion on her website that she carried out "research" by meeting with a British man named Shaun Ellis who has lived with wolves. Ellis, who is associated with The Wolf Centre in England, has lived among captive and wild wolves. For Mech, what Ellis does with wolves is not science; he told me flatly that "Mr. Ellis is neither a scientist nor an expert on the natural behavior of wolves."
In the last 10 days, I have contacted Jodi Picoult twice to invite her to respond to these issues. She hasn't replied, so I can't give her a voice here.
Wolves are magnificent animals whose true-life behaviors are described in a series of books by David Mech.
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