Q&A: Alice Roberts
Alice Roberts’ career as a science broadcaster has flourished with a series of popular documentaries like The Incredible Human Journey, Are We Still Evolving? and Prehistoric Autopsy. She is also Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Birmingham University. She spoke to us about belief, evolution and why she loves bones
Describe your religious background
I was brought up going to an Anglican church, and I went to a Church of England junior school (where I remember that we didn’t have hymn books in the Infants, and we just sung along, so that I was quite surprised, on graduating to the juniors, to discover that the song wasn’t about “the Lord of the Dance Settee”).
When I was a teenager I started to have problems with the fundamentals of Christianity. Anglicanism is probably amongst the least dogmatic versions of Christianity, but there’s still a need to believe in a God, and the possibility of resurrection. To me, these tenets seemed irrational, and I stopped going to church.
With some distance between myself now and that newly atheist teenager, I feel that there were some valuable aspects to my religious upbringing. This included being encouraged to be reflective, to consider the impact of my actions on others, and the discipline of setting aside dedicated time each week for quiet contemplation. It’s not that I believe these can’t be achieved without religion, of course they can, but it may be easier to achieve if it’s organised for you!
How would you describe your religious belief now?
I’m a confirmed atheist. Although, being a scientist, I have to keep an open mind. The evidence presented to me so far indicates a lack of deity. But if I ever meet one, I’m prepared to admit I was wrong.
What’s so great about bones?
Bones (and teeth) are often all we have left of ancient humans and other animals, and we’re actually lucky if even just the skeleton gets preserved as a fossil. The physical remains of ancient organisms allow us to glimpse our own ancestors as well as to populate the entire tree of life through time. It’s an incredibly rich history.
I’m particularly interested in the way that bones tell us how an animal moved in its environment, but also how pathology (disease) leaves its mark on the skeleton – and that, too, can give us clues to how an animal was using its body, how it was interacting with its environment and how diseases themselves change over time.
What’s the best fossil you’ve ever found?
I’ve only found scrappy fossils, but they are treasures, nonetheless. I have a beautiful arc, just a fragment, of a turn of a huge ammonite shell, which my husband recovered from a wall he was excavating (so it had already been picked up as an interesting fossil). I’ve also got a lovely fossil shell from Gorham’s Cave on Gibraltar, where the last known Neanderthals lived some 28 thousand years ago, given to me by the archaeologists there.
What’s your favourite scientific discovery?
It has to be the elucidation of natural selection as the mechanism for evolution, as discovered by Darwin and Wallace. It’s an elegant and powerful theory.
If that’s too abstract, then it might have to be Jenny Clack’s wonderful fossil tetrapod ancestor, the giant, newt-like Acanthostega from Greenland.
Are we still evolving?
Of course we are. It’s the destiny of life on the planet. You can’t escape the grim reaper of natural selection in the same way that you can’t escape death. In a developed country where we have fewer children and more of them survive to adulthood, thank goodness, there’s less material for reaper to work on, but he’s still there. In developing countries, with high childhood mortality and large families, natural selection is very much hard at work.
What do you think of people like Ray Kurzweil and the transhumanists who want to use science to live for ever: visionaries or nuts?
Absolutely nuts. We’re quite flexible and adaptable, so perhaps a greatly extended life wouldn’t be the mental strain that some have suggested it could be (as long as friends and family come along too). But that really would be tinkering with the mechanism of evolution. Variation, through the generations, allows species to adapt to changing environments – and environments will always change, in the long term.
I always think that we should pay more attention and concentrate more funds on improving the quality of life of people living now and in the near future – globally.
What was the most interesting thing you discovered researching The Incredible Human Journey?
Whilst making Human Journey and the more recent Origins of Us, I’ve greatly enjoyed meeting people in far-flung places, living lifestyles which are far removed from our own experience in a post-industrial Western nation. It was fascinating to spend time with the Evenki reindeer herders of northern Siberia, in winter, and to meet modern-day hunter-gatherers in Namibia and Tanzania. I talked to Hadza women about looking after children and family life in general. It’s wrong to don rose-tinted glasses in these cases, when it’s clear that life is harsh, medicine is almost non-existent and childhood mortality high, but I still think that other cultures can teach us important lessons about community, about belonging, about valuing people.
In a more academic vein, I’ve enjoyed pulling together threads of evidence from archaeology, genetics and studies of past environments to paint a fuller picture of the history of our own species.
You are now a Professor of the Public Understanding of Science. What do you think are the most important aspects of the job?
I hope my appointment sends out a strong signal that universities – the University of Birmingham in particular – are serious about public engagement. It’s about getting away from an “ivory tower” stereotype of academia. I feel very strongly that academics are public servants, that the research going on in universities is not just for a small elite, but for the good of society at large. We need to involve the public outside universities much more in the direction in which research is taken, as well as effectively communicating the findings of research.
What science is the least understood by the public?
I think evolutionary biology is fairly poorly understood, or, at least, there seem to be very firmly adherent misconceptions that pop up very regularly in conversations with non-biologists. I think the main one is that evolution is progressive, and aimed in a particular direction. Even some television executives seem to find it hard to get away from that idea!
However, I think anything involving a lot of mathematics is probably the least well apprehended realm of science. Maths is a language of its own. When I watch Brian Cox’s programmes, I enjoy learning about astrophysics, but I know that I will only ever approach it through metaphor, through a glass darkly, whereas he has seen it clearly – through the language of the universe.
You’ve said you hate the word “geek”, yet there seems to be a movement to adopt it as a badge of honour. Have you changed your view?
No. I think it’s pejorative, divisive and encourages a ghettoisation of science. I want science to be accessible to everyone – not just those who are happy to label themselves as geeks.
Why is science so male-dominated? Is it changing?
It’s changing in school, and at the undergraduate level. If you look at careers in science, though, the proportion of women steadily declines as you go up the career ladder. I think this is indicative of a deep inequality in our society. Women are still having to choose between families and careers.
Alice Roberts' latest TV programme is BBC2's Prehistoric Autopsy, co-presented with the biologist George McGavin