Alice Roberts: Significant Species & Sexism in Science

Alice Roberts is a renowned scientist, TV presenter and author, with special expertise in the fields of anatomy, osteoarchaeology, physical anthropology and palaeopathology. Science Editor, Leo Kindred, got the chance to meet her, and to traverse her many fields of interest.

Your new book, Tamed: 10 Species that Changed Our World, is a look at the species, both animal and plants, that humans have domesticated for our own use. Where did the inspiration come from for the book, do you have a favourite species?

 I’ve been interested in human origins for ages, and I love how you can bring lots of separate strands of evidence in and weave them together. There are clues from fossils, from archaeology – the material culture of the past, from written history, and now from genetics as well. In fact, genetics is transforming our understanding of how humans evolved.

I started to get interested in tracing the origin of other species, too, and I’d read that apples originated from Ur-orchards in Kazakhstan. When I started to research that a bit more, I uncovered a wonderful story – of the origin of apples with large fruit on the flanks of the Tien Shan mountains, of the spread of apples along the early Silk Roads, of the invention of grafting and the arrival of apples in Britain with the Romans.

I started to cast the net wider and research lots of other species that seem really familiar to us today, which we’ve domesticated, to find out where they came from – and how we tamed them. I think my favourite amongst the species I’ve written about in the book is dogs – our very earliest allies. Genetic and archaeological evidence is now suggesting the first dogs were domesticated – from European grey wolves – more than 30,000 years ago.

For the TV program Incredible Human Journey you slept outside in the African bush. With dangerous predatory animals nearby, did you ever feel in danger of being attacked or eaten?

That was one of the most terrifying nights of my entire life! I don’t think I was really in any danger – the rangers there often spend nights out near waterholes, to do a census of the animals that congregate there during the night. But it was frightening to hear leopards walking through the grass very near to me, and hyenas fighting down at the waterhole

Following a Radio 4 series with David Attenborough which made a case for the Aquatic Ape theory of human evolution, yourself and Mark Maslin offered a rebuttal of the idea. Why do you think the Aquatic Ape is flawed and why does it persist as an idea?

The so-called ‘Aquatic Ape Hypothesis’ was first proposed by Alistair Hardy, in New Scientist, back in 1960. It was an interesting suggestion, and he said it would be put to the test as new fossils and evidence of human evolution came to light – well, it has, and none of the evidence uncovered in the intervening 57 years has lent any support. That didn’t stop Elaine Morgan from writing books about it and popularising the hypothesis. It seems to hold some sort of romantic attraction, but it just doesn’t hold water! And I think it just distracts from more serious discussion and debate about real questions in human evolution.

Evolution by natural selection is still the best explanation of how Homo Sapiens emerged, but the theory is still widely disbelieved in a way that the theory of gravity isn’t. How can you best physically show someone evolution in progress?

I don’t actually think that evolution itself is that widely disbelieved, although I do think there are a lot of myths and misconceptions around. Evolution is on the primary curriculum now, which is great, as it’s such a fundamental theory in biology. Natural selection is a key process in evolution, creating change over time from the random variations thrown out by mutations, and it is possible for us to see it action in organisms that reproduce quickly. The emergence of drug-resistant bacteria is of course a pertinent, current example. In Tamed, I write about Belyaev’s incredible experiment with silver foxes in Russia, which showed the effects of selective breeding graphically. And selective breeding is, after all, artificial selection – or as I prefer to call it, human-mediated natural selection.

It obviously doesn’t help that the scientific use of the word ‘theory’ – as in, an explanation which is more than just an idea or a hypothesis, and which has been tested and provides a good fit for the evidence, and which hasn’t been disproven – is different from the lay use of the word, where it implies something tentative.

Earlier this year it was announced that human remains had been discovered in Morocco which were dated at around 300,000 years old, around 100,000 older than we had thought humans had been around for. Given their location in the North of Africa and the much older timescale how does this impact on the East of Africa origin of humanity as a theory?

Those fossils from Jebel Irhoud! This is why I love evolutionary biology so much – there are always new surprises. I think a lot of palaeoanthropologists have been suspicious for quite a while now that the wealth of fossil finds from East Africa is an artefact of the geology there, with the Rift Valley providing easy access to ancient sediments, but also an artefact of focused exploration in that area. Jebel Irhoud seems to suggest that is that case, and we should be looking at a wider, pan-African origin of our species.

I once saw an interview where you talked about how the gender imbalance at the top of academia in science was due in part to it being historically a structure built by and for men, and that now we’re trying to “crowbar” women into these roles. What would you say about the situation currently and what advice would you give female students wanting to study further in science today?

A science and tech committee report on ‘women in science in academia’ a couple of years ago contained a great quote: “the academic career system was developed when most faculty members were men (with stay-at-home wives)”. Unfortunately that’s still true – and true for other careers as well. We have technology which can support flexible working now – why aren’t we using that to its full advantage? Why isn’t part-time working – for men and women – more embedded and widespread? It might be tricky for employers to accommodate these changes, but if we really value equality, we’ve got to grasp the nettle! We should all be pushing for these changes. But I’d still advise female students to go for it, to follow their passion.

As a famous female scientist how bad would you say sexism is a problem for women in science still?

Absolutely. Some of it’s shockingly obvious – and perhaps, then, easier to deal with it. It’s the more insidious manifestations – including unconscious bias against women when it comes to recruitment, promotion and progression in careers – that’s more insidious and difficult to tackle. But it can be done, and training and mentoring can help a lot.

 Last year you interviewed Richard Dawkins at the Royal Institution. Much like yourself I was fascinated by his writing in The Selfish Gene and his ability to communicate ideas in science. However, his name is as much likely to elicit scorn as admiration from many, do you think he is a much-maligned figure in the public eye?

 I think he is by people who have quickly made up their minds about what they think he’s trying to say, rather than reading his books, and perhaps listening to his criticisms of dogmatic thinking more carefully. But it is a tricky domain to negotiate – the clash between scientific thinking and religious belief – where the latter is dogmatic or literalistic. Somehow

we need to maintain respect and tolerance for each other’s beliefs, while having these discussions about what is best for individuals and for society as a whole. I occasionally lose it with anti-vaxxers on Twitter, and then berate myself, because that polarises the argument even more.

Going back to aquatic matters, you made a wonderful programme for the BBC- Wild Swimming with Alice Roberts. Do you still enjoy a good dip in a nice lake? Are there any favourite spots you would recommend to those of us with a love of nature and a wet suit?

I love swimming outside! In the sea or in rivers. The Wye is still a firm favourite, and a dip at any beach is always welcome. My kids (7 and 4) love it too.

Given the huge scope of programmes and books you have done on archaeology, physical anthropology, evolution, health, swimming, lucid dreaming, and even Frankenstein – is there anything you can’t do and what else are you interested in which you might go on to explore in future work?

I’m almost entirely unmusical. I love listening to music, but I don’t play any instruments. But my husband makes up for that, and he’s written some fantastic, ethereal guitar tracks for my current book tour!

Future work – I have a research project on a large group of archaeological skeletons I want to get off the ground next year, and I want to do more on popularising developments in evolutionary biology, too – in books and on TV.