Marissa Bell Toffoli

Interview With Writer Oren Harman

In biography, books, nonfiction, writing on July 25, 2010 at 7:49 pm

Oren Harman

Oren Harman. Photo by Marissa Bell Toffoli (2010).

An introduction to the author of the new book The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness (WW Norton & Company). Harman is also the chair of the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at Bar Ilan University in Israel.

Quick Facts on Oren Harman

  • Oren Harman’s website
  • Home: Tel Aviv, Israel
  • Comfort food: My mother’s chicken soup, which used to be my grandmother’s chicken soup but now she’s 96.
  • Top authors: George Orwell, Etgar Keret, Vladimir Nabokov, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Barbara Tuchman
  • Current reads: The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University by Louis Menand

What are you working on at the moment?

I teach evolutionary theory, the history and philosophy of science, and writing. I’m working on a new book, which is a sequel to one of my previous books, Rebels, Mavericks and Heretics in Biology. This sequel will be about outsiders in biology. I’m working on this with a friend of mine who is a professor of biology. The notion is that since biology inhabits this territory between the physical sciences (like mathematics, chemistry, physics) and the human sciences (anthropology, psychology, linguistics, sociology), then it’s actually historically been the case that many outsiders—people who were not trained at all in biology—came in to ask what are fundamentally biology questions.

I’ll give you an easy example. Someone like Noam Chomsky, with linguistic tools, tries to solve problems that have to do with brain architecture. That’s really a biological question. It’s a new way to look at the history of the development of biology.

Who do you picture as the ideal reader of your work?

I think that good works of both fiction and nonfiction can be read at many different levels.  I want a smart 14-year-old to be able to read the book and get something out of it, and not feel like he’s lost. At the same time, I want experts in the field to feel like this is telling them something new. The challenge is to span the gamut between the lay reader and the professional reader. That’s what I enjoy most about the writing—trying to pitch it to these different people.

Where and when do you prefer to write?

I used to prefer to write at night. But, I got into a rhythm, especially when I was writing this book, where I would get up in the morning and start writing. I live near the ocean, so around six in the evening I would break and run to the sea. I would just float in the ocean and all the questions that I had in my mind, for some reason, I’d find answers to them when I was floating. I would run back and then I’d do a little bit more writing before I’d conk out. I also like to write on Friday nights when everything is very quiet for the Sabbath in Israel.

It’s been said writers can do their work from any place, where would you most want to live and write?

I like, from time to time, to move to a different place just to write, to have different inspirations—you know, the view, the food, or the smells, stuff like that. I often go to an island in the Aegean Sea called Tilos. I also like old libraries, so I seek them out. For this book, I spent a lot of time in Cambridge, England just for the old libraries.

Do you listen to anything when you work?

No, complete silence.

Do you have a philosophy for how and why you write?

Of writing or of life? I’m an optimist and a fatalist.

My philosophy of writing is that I believe you really have to understand something well in order to write it clearly. You can tell very quickly by the clarity of the writing, the clarity of the thought. I don’t believe there’s a distinction between academic writing and popular writing. I think that there is good writing and writing which is not as good, and that’s what I teach my students.

Often, when you come to university you feel like you need to write in “academese” or something, which is one disease that academia suffers from. I also believe that imagining a lay reader is the best exercise a nonfiction writer can do. You have to be able to grab the attention of someone who knows nothing about the field.

The other thing that I believe in is narrative. It’s easier for people to understand ideas when they come through stories, which is why I think that biography is a wonderful way to talk about scientific ideas.

Is there a quote about writing that motivates you?

I change it every day if I have one. I have a best friend from the army who says, “You take it, you flip it, and you wait.” I love that saying.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Relinquish the notion of speaking to your peers, and focus on talking to the world. I often tell my students, imagine that you’re sitting at a dinner table with ten very intelligent people, each from a completely different field, and you have to tell them in a few minutes what you’re working on. Do that exercise before you write, and while you’re writing, again, and again, and again.

Explain to yourself why what you are doing is important. Why are you writing this, why is it significant? Beyond the description, and beyond the telling of history, there has to be an answer to the why question.  I feel like a lot writing is satisfied not to answer that, doesn’t feel like it’s called to answer that question, when it should be a sort of prior process which should be ongoing.

You can fall on a great story and tell it, but always try to dig one level deeper, and one level deeper beyond that, until you reach some sort of principle or abstraction which is general and will be relevant to almost anyone.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?

Before I went to university, when I was choosing what I wanted to study, I went to see my bible teacher, a woman I really loved. I had a very romantic idea of the “Republic of Knowledge.” I wanted to study philosophy, literature, and biology. She said, “Don’t study philosophy as a first degree. Study something, and then start philosophizing.” That was great advice. When you’re coming to college and you begin your exploits in the sea of knowledge, I think it’s a good idea to pick a discipline and dive very deeply, and then begin thinking philosophically about the meaning of it.

The other thing is that if you can write something simply, do it. Choose a simple word over a word with a lot of syllables.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

When I wake up, I know whether it’s going to be a good writing day or a bad writing day. If I perceive that it’s going to be a bad writing day, I don’t fight it whatsoever. I go the beach, or go see a movie, or read a book. When I am in the zone, things flow very quickly. I don’t have any guilt pangs ever about not writing or being stuck, which means that I have a lot of time for other things.

I love going to visit old cemeteries and old villages in my country, and anywhere else. I love sitting in local coffee houses and talking to people I don’t know. There are a lot of “philosophers of the street” where I come from. And, I love film—absolutely adore film, and music.

About Oren Harman

Oren Harman, who has a doctorate from Oxford University, is the chair of the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at Bar Ilan University in Israel. He is the author of The Man Who Invented the Chromosome, a documentary filmmaker, and a regular contributor to The New Republic. He lives in Tel Aviv and New York City.

[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Oren Harman.” Words With Writers (July 25, 2010),


The Price of Altruism by Oren Harman (WW Norton & Company)

  1. Great information! I’ve been looking for something like this for a while now. Thanks!

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