What made you decide to study zoology at Oxford?
I was a passionate naturalist from the age of about ten, having been introduced to birdwatching by my father. Birdwatching got me into natural history and natural history got me into the biological sciences. A zoology degree represented the chance to study animals and animal behaviour—I just saw it as a way of studying my hobby I suppose. But I had done enough biology to realise by then that the concepts of evolution and genetics were absolutely huge ideas, and why would one not want to spend one’s time looking at huge ideas?
You’ve been actively involved in science communication for several decades now. Has the general public’s perception of science changed since your time at Oxford?
I think these things do change, but possibly they don’t change as much as we think they do. There was a little bit of a revolution going on when I joined science journalism in terms of saying, “Hang on a minute, genetic engineering is happening, microchips are happening, we’ve got to explain these things to our readers”.
When I joined The Economist, a man named Richard Casement had gone to the editor and said “Look, it’s absurd that we don’t have a section of this magazine devoted to science and technology, will you let me start one?”. He started out by doing some fantastic basic explanatory things: what a silicon chip was, what genetic engineering was. He’d get right into the nuts and bolts of scientiﬁc ideas.
For me, getting really deep into what causes ice ages and so on has always been the fascination. This allows you to have a debate with your reader about something that is both esoteric and complicated, but explainable if you use good metaphors. You don’t want to patronise so instead you simplify. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do, whereas an awful lot of what passes for science journalism just very quickly scoots straight over the science part, then goes straight to the politics of this speciﬁc scientiﬁc issue. There is a market out there for curiosity about the world and not everything has to have a political angle.
In the opening of your TED talk, ‘When Ideas have sex’, you talk about how often scientiﬁ c concerns are blown out of proportion. Whose fault is this?
I’ve seen this happen again and again, whether it’s on GM foods, fracking, climate change, the ozone layer… Often there is a real problem, but also a degree of exaggeration and indeed hysteria. I think the blame lies partially with the media which will always report sensationalist, exaggerated versions of the truth.
But there is another group called pressure groups, the NGOs, who often play a very large role in hotting these things up. We’ve seen it with Friends of the Earth being rebuked by the Advertising Standards Authority this month for mistaking the risks of fracking. There is quite a big industry of that going on, more than there was 30 years ago.
Those are the two main culprits in my view, but scientists have to take some of the blame themselves, because the temptation to exaggerate the problem and therefore increase your own funding is deﬁnitely real, to the extent that if you publish a paper saying that “Actually this problem is not as bad as people think”, then you are at some [level] threatening the budget for your own work. But I don’t think it is quite as cynical as that in the minds of most scientists.
Science at its best consists of Professor A saying “This is a problem” and Professor B saying “Nonsense, you’ve put a decimal point in the wrong place”. For me, science works when everyone is pushing their own agenda, with their agendas often in different directions.
In your TED talk you go on to discuss the evolution of human culture, emphasising the importance of exchange between cultures. What makes exchange so important?
I’m convinced that the invention of exchange—me giving you a ﬁshhook and you giving me a ﬁsh—may have played a very large part in the development of modern human society and in the sudden explosion of prosperity that we have seen in the last 200,000 years. The argument comes from a lot of ﬁelds: psychology, anthropology, biology, economics and the understanding of the non-zero sum nature through which both sides beneﬁt. The more you specialise then the more exchange you can do, the more you can exchange, the more you can specialise.
You can look at more recent archaeology to see what’s happening on islands like Tasmania where people were isolated for 10,000 years: culture went ‘backwards’, became ‘simpler’. So for me the blindingly obvious elephant in the room that a lot of anthropologist have neglected is the role of exchange in driving culture.
What particularly intrigues me is that when you look in the animal kingdom this kind of exchange of diﬀ erent things at the same time, rather than the same things at diﬀerent times, is virtually unique to human beings, with some very minor exceptions. It’s also apparently unique to modern human beings, with quite good evidence beginning to accumulate that Neanderthals didn’t do this. They only ever used local materials for their tools, implying there was no exchange over long distances. I think that exchange is the key to understanding the modern revolution of 200,000 years ago. It’s all about how intelligence became collective and cumulative.
Do you have any advice to young students looking to get into writing and journalism?
It’s not as easy as it used to be because the revenues of the media have dried up almost completely, thanks to Google. There is much less opportunity for professional careers in journalism than there used to be. That’s, I’m afraid, a rather depressing thought. It means that a lot more journalism is amateur. Through mediums such as social media people can contribute in all sorts of ways, so it’s a much more open profession in that sense, but I would be wary of making it a whole career rather do it alongside something else.