This episode’s remarkable guest is Henry Gee. 

Henry is a renowned author, paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and senior editor of the magazine Nature. 

Henry earned his bachelor’s degree in zoology and genetics at the University of Leeds. He later completed his Ph.D. in zoology at the University of Cambridge. His doctoral research was about the evolution of bison in Britain during the ice age. Perhaps he’ll study the evolution of the current political leadership of Britain, too. 

As the senior editor of Nature, Henry specializes in evolution and the history of life. 

He’s the author of several books, including The Accidental Species, The Science of Middle Earth, Deep Time, and Jacob’s Ladder. His most recent book is called A Very Short History of Life on Earth. 

Henry has been a regular contributor to newspapers, magazines, and radio, including The Guardian, Huffington Post, Discover, NPR, and BBC. 

In addition to his journalistic and educational street cred, he’s just one funny guy, which is highly correlated, in my humble opinion, with remarkable intelligence. 

Enjoy this interview with the remarkable Henry Gee

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Transcript of Guy Kawasaki’s Remarkable People podcast with the remarkable Henry Gee:

Guy Kawasaki:
I'm Guy Kawasaki and this is Remarkable People.
This episode's remarkable guest is Henry Gee.
Henry is a renowned author, paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and senior editor of the magazine Nature.
Henry earned his bachelor's degree in zoology and genetics at the University of Leeds. He later completed his PhD in zoology at the University of Cambridge. His doctoral research was about the evolution of bison in Britain during the ice age. Perhaps he'll study the evolution of the current political leadership of Britain, too.
As the senior editor of Nature, Henry specializes in evolution and the history of life.
He's the author of several books, including The Accidental Species, The Science of Middle Earth, Deep Time, and Jacob's Ladder. His most recent book is called A Very Short History of Life on Earth.
Henry has been a regular contributor to newspapers, magazines, and radio, including The Guardian, Huffington Post, Discover, NPR, and BBC.
In addition to his journalistic and educational street cred, he's just one funny guy, which is highly correlated, in my humble opinion, with remarkable intelligence.
I'm Guy Kawasaki and now here's the remarkable Henry Gee.
What will be the legacy of humans?
Henry Gee:
It depends on which timescale you choose.
Now I'm a paleontologist by trade and so I tend to chuck millions of years around like confetti. At very long-time scales, 250 million years to take a starting point, almost nothing because almost all the rocks in which human remains will have been buried will have been sucked down into the ocean and crunched up into nothing.
There will be some, but you'd have to look very carefully. The thing is, humans have been extremely rare until very recently. And the amazing efflorescence of human life has just been within living memory, really. When I was a lad, I'm now fifty-nine and three quarters, there were half as many people as there are now.
And of course, you won't remember this Guy, because you are obviously only twenty-one by the look of you. I mean your listeners can't see this, but anyway-
Guy Kawasaki:
I'm older than you are.
Henry Gee:
Oh, there you are. You're older and hopefully wiser than I am.
In my parents' day, back in the thirties, there were a quarter of the number of people as there are now. So really, the huge rise in humans that been very small.
So although there are a lot of humans, they all happened in a very short space of time. And fossilization, being a very random and very rare process, the likelihood is there'll be very few fossils of modern humans to survive all that time.
So paleontologists of the future, who will be little green people about three inches high, will come to earth and they'll say this, “Dsifhlnxcmzitcnxkdkznu”, which will translate into “Something very strange happened 250 million years ago, but we don't know what it was because it's all been eroded away."
And I had an interesting perspective from a book that I do cite in my book, it's called Supercontinent by a friend of mine called Ted Nield. And he assures me to any listeners who are worried that it's not about pelvic floor exercises. It's about continental drift.
And he says that little astronauts coming to visit the earth in 250 million years, they probably won't find any record of human beings on the earth, but they'll find stuff on the moon. They'll find wrecks of spacecraft on the moon because there's no erosion on the moon. Nothing happens on the moon. Very peaceful, quiet place, very dull, good place to relax, I would imagine.
But there will still be spacecraft on the moon. And our little astronauts might wonder whether other astronauts made these spacecrafts to come to observe this dead planet.
Now in the near future, I'm slightly more optimistic for the next century. I don't think the catastrophe that we're all fearing will be quite as catastrophic as people think. We're sucked in by the twenty-four-seven news media where every minute there has to be some sensational news headline and so headlines have to compete.
So it's catastrophe and disaster and collapse and all that.
The climate situation is very serious, and people are doing things about it. However, people have been doing things about it in a large and small way for quite a long time, more than many activists maybe know about or would like to acknowledge.
You will remember because you are only twenty-five or if you are over sixty, you are extremely youthful, sir. You'll remember back in the sixties, there was a poor airlift, and the population bomb and people were going to be shoved together and everyone was going to be starving and it was all going to be terrible. And that was when the population was half what it is now.
That catastrophe never happened for a number of reasons. One was the green revolution. People developed strains of cereal that were more yielding and more productive than they had then in Mexico and in the states, and in other places.
But the other thing is there has been a lot of societal change. The single biggest most important factor in human societal change over the past century has been the political and reproductive empowerment of women, which was happened nowhere 100 years ago. Women in the west didn't have the vote 100 years ago, and there've been reverses and there've been ups and downs.
But because of this, people tend to have fewer children than they did. People are more educated than they were like the latest sustainable development goals report that one in two children finish elementary school whereas in 1970, it was one in five.
I'm talking broad brush here. All around the world, people are generally more affluent, healthier, less disease prone, and living longer than they did in the sixties and seventies.
In 1968, that was the peak of population growth. It was 2.1 percent. Now it's just over half, it's a 1.3 percent, because people are having fewer children. People are having children later and there are other more ominous reasons because they're fewer resources.
So people are not having children because the earth is becoming resource limited. So the peak zero population growth will be in the middle of this century or maybe in the 2060s. And then it'll go down and after that, it'll go down quite sharply. So I'd be a bit less optimistic in 200 years because the population is going to collapse.
And one of the reasons is the limitation on resources because the human species, just one species out of millions, appropriates between 20 percent and 40 percent of all the plant growth on the planet, all the plant growth, all that sunshine coming in being sucked up by grasses.
If you go into your yard and you put your ear very close to a plant, you can just about here it go “shhhptttt”, and that's it sucking in the sunshine and carbon dioxide and making it into sugars and starches that are eaten by animals, and we eat the plants and we eat the animals.
So the human race out of all the species appropriates, such a huge fraction of that. And when you get to that, not only is there less to go around for all the other millions of species of animals and plants, which is why there is extinction, but also it means that resources for human beings are less.
Generations now for the first time in living memory, are less wealthy than their parents. You have to get more and more qualified to do things. It becomes more and more expensive to live in cities. And it could be one reason why people are having fewer children. And there are all sorts of other reasons.
So the answer to your question, I'm more optimistic about the near future, less optimistic about the slightly less than near future, and not at all optimistic about the far future.
Guy Kawasaki:
And what's the definition of far future? When does mankind disappear?
Henry Gee:
I'm not sure. I've got to think about this more. I'll do it in orders of magnitude. Within ten to the fourth years, of the order of 10,000 years, maybe less, maybe more.
But the problem is with human beings is that to an extent we control our own destiny, which other species have never done. Most mammal species tend to hang around about a million years and homo sapiens has been around in the broadest sense for 350,000.
Now, that doesn't mean that in 650,000, we'll all look at our watches on drop down dead, but a million years as a kind of average. But mammals generally live fast and die young. They tend to either become extinct or evolve into other things or just stop. There've been many different kinds of mammal over the past tens of millions of years and almost all of them have died out.
Guy Kawasaki:
You're making my head hurt.
Henry Gee:
Well, that's a shame. My head was hurting earlier. I took some Tylenol though.
Guy Kawasaki:
So you were optimistic in the short term, is that because of Greta Thunberg and the United Nations and the Environmental Protection Agency, or you think that it's just the luck of the draw?
As the homo sapiens who are conscious and can impact the few future, are you optimistic because of that? Are you just saying “That's just in the cards, Greta and the EPA and the green movement doesn't really matter. It's going to go that way anyway.”
Henry Gee:
Greta and the green movement do matter.
But one thing that is not emphasized is that people have been making changes in their lives already, which are having a great effect that Greta and the green movement and the EPA, maybe should acknowledge slightly.
I've discovered this marvelous website called Your World in Data. It's great. And I've been wallowing around at this, and it's told me some absolutely amazing things. It talks about per capita energy usage, that's the amount of energy each person uses. Now that's increasing overall in the world, which is worrying, but in the US, and in Britain, and in various developed nations, per capita energy usage is peaked. It plateaued out in the seventies and is now declining. And this is because of all kinds of little changes that people have made to their lives that don't mean making shouting, demonstrating, anything, although that's very good for consciousness raising.
For example, nobody drives those great big gas guzzling cars with engines at both ends anymore. You only see those on recreations on movies like Grease. Who drives cars like that anymore? And also cars that people do drive are much more fuel efficient than they used to be.
In my parents' day, everyone had to look under the hood of their car every weekend and fix things. And now you don't have to do that. You don't have to look at it at all because cars are so much better and have better emissions.
And here's another thing, this is how short term it is. The internal combustion engine was invented in 1876 or something by Benz. And in ten years time, it'll be as antique as the manual typewriter. They'll still be there, but they'll only be for museums or heritage items.
Everyone will be driving electric cars, which are being powered by batteries made of rare earth, which actually aren't that rare at all. So all these things happen in a short time. The age of the automobile is very short, extremely short.
And if you are a young person, like Greta, you think that the world you've inherited has always been that, but it's not like that at all.
Another one about plastic, plastic's everywhere.
So David Attenborough in his fantastic show, Planet Earth Two, highlighted that, and that show did more to change government policy than anything else. But I remember when I was a kid, my mum used to take me to the supermarket, "Come to the supermarket Henry," she would say. That's my name, Henry. That's why she called me Henry. "Come to the supermarket Henry," and I'd say, "Oh mom." And she said, "No, I need great big youths like you to get things off the top shelves."
But even when I was quite small, plastic bags were new. They were new things. And within the last half century, they were new. They hadn't been invented before and now they're being phased out.
So a lot of these things that we see as bug bears of our time have not been there for all time. Cars are only recent. Female emancipation is only recent. Plastics are only recent. Human population growth is only recent. It'll come and it'll go quite quickly.
And another thing that made me sit up and think about human population growth is something called the total replacement rate. That is the amount of children that a woman has to have to replace the population to keep it the same. And so the number is two. Boy meets girl, and they have two children and that will replace the boy and the girl. Actually, they have to have two-point-one children because of various errors, and one might fall out of the stroller or die in infancy or whatever.
But anyway, it's about two-point-one. But many countries around the world, not just in the affluent west, but in what we used to patronizingly call the developing world, have less than the total replacement rate. And in a very short time, some countries will have half their current population.
Now everyone knows about Japan and the problems people are having in Japan, but also some countries that you wouldn't imagine, Spain, Italy, Thailand, they're going to have half the population. And then of course the problem is who's going to pay all those taxes to keep all these old people alive and all that. That's an economic problem.
So beneath the climate problem is another problem that a lot of people aren't talking about, which is not overpopulation, but underpopulation. So it's probably a good thing for the climate problem to have fewer people. But that decline has to be managed because it could be really unpleasant in the next 100 years or so.
Guy Kawasaki:
I want to go back to something you said, which I found striking, that you said it, and I also read it in your book, that this humongous impact of women in leadership positions.
And why do you say that?
Henry Gee:
Because in the old days, in fact even now in some places, the function of women was to have children. That was it.
And in the days when we were hunter gatherers and in our immediate ancestors, women would be pregnant or nursing from the time they were in their mid-teens until they stopped. And that was what women did.
And in fact, that's what all mammals do. And that's no longer true because of the emancipation of women. Women are putting off their reproductive decisions until later. And because the women are participating in the workforce, that's doubled the workforce. And also it has encouraged a very amazingly good thing, which is the education of girls because girls were never educated.
They were just there to keep house and have children. That's what women did. Now this is no longer true.
This has caused a revolution in society that has never happened in any kind of mammalian species, which is that people are making more conscious decisions about reproduction. And this is maybe causing some of fall in population because people in general are having children later.
They're having to make very difficult decisions about having children. It's economically difficult to have children in some places because you can't have a job and have children. You can't afford the childcare and all this and that.
Guy Kawasaki:
But aren't you saying we aren't having enough children?
Henry Gee:
No, not having enough children is great. But the thing is this decline has to be managed because somebody is going to have to support... Because the demographic is shifting to the older generation.
Guy Kawasaki:
What do you mean by manage? Because you either have more children or don't.
Henry Gee:
There is a lot of technological improvement that is happening.
For example, artificial intelligence is beginning to take a lot of jobs away that were probably not very interesting and will probably be doing a lot of the management of the elderly. And also, you don't have to pay them so that takes away the tax burden.
The COVID pandemic has really taken the scales off of people's eyes. When it's the old-fashioned way of working where you caught the 8:33, you put your bowler hat and you had your briefcase and you've got the 8:33 to Waterloo every day, Monday to Friday, that's been dead for a long time.
It's just many managers haven't realized it. You may know this, that management tends to be reactive rather than proactive. So they're going to have to accommodate. It's a change. It's not as seismic as after the black death, which destroyed the feudal system because the nobles didn't have all these peasants to work the land anymore because they'd all died.
So the peasants who were still alive wouldn't come back because they'd say, "You have to pay me more." And the lords couldn't afford to do that. So that led to the collapse of the feudal system, the growth of towns and cities and the middle class. Complete social change.
Now COVID, thankfully, hasn't had that catastrophic effect on the human population, but it has changed and will force to change people's working habits. And is going to have a lot of impact on the structure of cities and things like metropolitan transit systems, which rely on shoving huge amounts of commuters in for a short time there.
I've no idea. I'm not an economist, I'm not a futurologist, I'm just a humble bone person who thinks about millions of years. But the thing is some of the changes that did happen in the deep past did happen very suddenly.
There were changes that happened within less than a human lifetime or even in one afternoon and we're living through that period of change now. A lot of things are happening now.
All these shortages of everything, we haven't got any truck drivers in Britain. And I was talking to a colleague in the DC area who said, "We haven't got any goods because there's nobody to unload them at the docks. And there are all these ships full of goods hanging around in the sea waiting to be unloaded."
So there are all these supply chain issues that are happening all the way around the world because of COVID, because all of a sudden there's no skilled labor to do anything anymore.
Guy Kawasaki:
But isn't the simple solution to that, whether you own a restaurant or you're unloading a ship, is… guess what? Pay more.
Henry Gee:
Yeah, that's the solution. And that was the solution after the black death.
But of course, because people have relied on a model that was just in time and relied on cheap labor, they're going to have to completely redefine their model. Look, you know about this thing more than me.
I should be asking you what to do.
Guy Kawasaki:
Henry Gee:
But again, the models of way people shop, people buy, people have companies, people supply things, it's going to change in all sorts of ways we can't predict.
Guy Kawasaki:
The Nobel Prize in economics was just awarded. And the work of the three of them who share that, one of the things was testing the assumption that if you give people raises you increase company costs, and so companies will hire fewer people. And that turned out to be not true.
Henry Gee:
Yeah. But I suppose there are limits on all these things, and it depends what you're doing, and what the competition is, and whether they'd rather go and work with someone else.
I've been working for Nature for thirty-three and a third years, which is a long-playing record, thirty-three and a third revolutions, so that's a very old joke. Not many people get that.
Actually, I've been working for nearly thirty-four, but that's very strange to work for a company all my working life.
"My father said I should go and work down mill so that's what I'm doing. And my father before that," we haven't had that for a long time and it's because no one else could have me.
But people come and go all the time. People now, it's very much a buyer's market. Employees can choose what to do more. It's been happening for a long time.
In fact in my book, I talk about the various step changes in complexity of living organisms from bacteria to cells, to multicellular organisms. And I say it didn't all happen at once. All these changes happened over a long time.
And so a lot of the things we see now happening in the economy, the roots of them go back a long time. They go back to the seventies.
When I was a lad, all the hippies were derided as knit your own Birkenstocks, grow your own muesli, and now everybody's doing it. It's not as so though everybody started to do it. There were precursors happening a long time ago, and now these things are mainstream.
So it's the same in life as with living organisms.
I was listening and in Britain there's a great debate that comes up all the time. It's the demise of the British high street, the shopping street, where little old ladies with their string bags would go and buy bread and meat and everything.
And people are wondering how to revive the high street they were before COVID. And there was a phone in program on the radio, and they had a truck driver who delivered things. And he said, "When I'm a truck driver, delivering things, I'd much rather deliver to a big out of town stores or miles where there's places for trucks to deliver things so you can actually park and deliver your things and go away."
And he said, "The high street has been dead for years. It just doesn't know it yet." So it's dead high street walking. And then about great cyber punk writer, William Gibson, author of Neuromancer, who said something like, "The future is already here. It's just not been widely implemented."
Here was an experience I had in my life. I went to a science festival in Italy, the Bergamo science festival. Wonderful. I was invited to give a talk in the theater where Donizetti had his operas and it was marvelous. But I was collected from the airport in Milan by a chap with a Tesla model S. I'd never been in a Tesla model S, and I didn't know it at the time, but they were sponsors of this science festival.
And their deal was that they pick up everyone, all the guests. So it was this Tesla model S and it had virtually no controls. It had a great big iPad thing in the middle. And I said, "Is this one of those that drives itself on its own?" he said, "Yeah." So we were doing many miles per hour on the Autostrada. And he took his hands off the wheel and it just followed the lane.
He said, "Of course I have to drive it myself if I had to change the lane." And I thought self-driving cars?
My kids who are, how old are they now? Twenty-three and twenty-one. I tend to forget. Once they're old enough to move small objects, I'm aided. They have no inclination to want to learn to drive, which has saved my bank balance greatly.
Because they say, "We're going to be living in cities most of our lives. And we'll just hail an Uber or we'll just have a little app on our phone. And this little Johnny cab will come in out of Total Recall and take me to wherever I want to go. And they'll only have a little mannequin of a man in the front just to reassure people that there is some human driving this thing."
The only reason we don't have self-driving cars now is not to do with technology it’s to do with litigation and insurance, and who's responsible if someone gets run down by one, the technology's been there for years.
Guy Kawasaki:
So if everything goes according to what you say in your book, short term, long term, medium term… the whole thing plays out.
Does that support or reduce the possibility of the existence of God?
Henry Gee:
I haven't actually put God in there at all. You got me on all these things I'm not qualified to talk about, but hey, I'm going to put my foot in my mouth here.
Richard Dawkins produced this book called the God Delusion, terrible book, absolutely awful. And the reason it was awful was not because it was an atheist trap. No, that's fine.
The reason it was awful was because he made a categorical error. He was trying to show that God doesn't exist by disproving God empirically. So he was trying to say, "If you have a people praying for health of their loved ones, will their loved ones become better more than if people don't pray for their loved ones?" Bonkers.
But what convinced me to be an atheist was John D. Barrow writing about impossibility. And he disproved God in a logical way that it's impossible to have things that are omniscient. It's more to do with knowledge than existence.
You might want to believe in God, but it's entirely not necessary, and the God that people think about makes no sense. So I wrestled with belief for a long time and now I'm quite convinced it's quite unnecessary.
If you feel you want to believe in a great supernatural being, great, lovely, just keep it to yourself. I don't think my book tells you anything about the existence of God. It might tell you something about the existence of life and complex life.
Guy Kawasaki:
As you lay out that in a million years or whatever, we'll all be gone, and things will continue to evolve. One could ask the question, who's pulling the strings?
Henry Gee:
No one's pulling the strings. The whole problem is when you come back to what living things are to begin with, defining what a living thing is, living things evolved not long after the earth formed and they'll be gone in about a billion years and the earth will still be going on. It just won't have any life on it.
So that's a window in which life evolves. But then you ask, “What is life?” in the context of the evolution of the planet? And people are still debating that.
Stuart Kauffman, who I know, who's a brain the size of a planet, has got some amazing stuff out on pre-prints about trying to define life in terms of a system that is constantly evolving its own phase space.
In other words, systems, complex systems, have a phase space in which they exist. The thing about living things is they're constantly making their own space to exist.
They're constantly evolving their own new niches, such as when animals moved onto land. Well, the plants moved first, but they made little environments that didn't exist before for the animals to move into.
And then the animals moved in, and they invented carnivory and herbivory, and invented all sorts of new niches that didn't exist before.
And then the plants became trees and that produced leaves and habitats for things that didn't exist before.
So this is what life does. It creates opportunities for more life to move into places that didn't before exist.
Now at its root, you can see this as a physical chemical system. Life is a physical chemical system, and we're manifestations of that.
Now, even though life tends to create its own opportunities, it tends to subvert luck and chance to its own existence, that can't exist forever because it relies on earth-system-processes like plate tectonics to generate carbon dioxide, and to recycle rocks and the atmosphere.
It's all part of that system. Now, living things help lubricate the tectonic plates by providing all the sludge that goes down into the earth. But then, tectonic plates only work because of purely physical systems like the radiation from the Earth's core that keeps the mantle hot.
And eventually that radiation will just fizzle out and no amount of lubrication of life will help that carry on. Life will not exist. At least life not as we know it. Well life as we know it, and possibly not even as we know it, but life is part of the natural life cycle of a planet.
Planets generally do have life, but then a question of “What is life? What would little plasmoid beings listening to this podcast, orbiting the sun, think of this?” And “Would we define them as living?”
I wrote a science fiction novel called The Sigil. And one of the main characters was a Pope, who nobody knew it at the time was actually Neanderthal. He didn't even know it at the time. And he was very I interested in alien life, and he said, "Would strange plasmoid beings around Zita Cankry even require salvation?”
So, do crows have a notion of God, I wonder? That would be interesting to find out.
One of the problems about the existence of God, most quite serious, is because for 98 percent of the existence of homo sapiens there have been other human species on the planet with whom we could have had a conversation, but they were sufficiently different from us to perhaps have different views of God.
Neanderthals were deep thinking creatures who would've undoubtedly had something to say on the matter, but we're the only species around.
So we only have a restricted notion of God. So one of the problems we've had is not being able to have conversations with other intelligent beings that think differently from us, think really differently from us.
What does an octopus think about this sort of thing?
Guy Kawasaki:
There's a movie about that.
Henry Gee:
One of the most intelligent creatures there is, the octopus. It has about nine different brains.
Guy Kawasaki:
Very tactical.
With your perspectives, now I've learned you're a short-term optimist.
What do you tell your kids about recycling, green energy, taking a shorter shower? Do you tell them that in the long run, all human kinds will disappear?
Henry Gee:
They tell me. Recycling and being part of harmonious about your energy use and being sensible has an aesthetic value. There is something noble in not being profligate with resources. It's just something people do now.
You don't throw out all the trash, you recycle stuff. And the kids have been brought up with it by us, at school, but it's become part of our life.
Now we do it without thinking, in the same way as we used to throw out everything in the trash without thinking. It's now become part of that daily habit.
Now our recycling bin is much bigger than our other trash bin and this is partly because we think about it and it's partly because manufacturers of things make more recyclable parts. You can recycle plastics. I remember the day, those Tetra packs that you have milk and things in, you couldn't recycle those until quite recently. But now you can because they've got the technology to do it.
So we do it.
Guy Kawasaki:
What I'm trying to get at is in the grand scheme of things, does it truly matter if you recycle?
Henry Gee:
In the grand scheme of things? Probably not, but we have to live in the now.
We can't keep thinking of the past. The future is yet to happen. We have to live in the now.
And what we have to do is make it as comfortable for us and our fellow humans and other animals as we possibly can. Because although it gives me the heebie jeebies thinking about the future, the fact is we've all got to get up tomorrow in the morning. And we've all got to put one foot in front of the other repeatedly without falling over, and be nice to our friends and neighbors, and try to get through the next day.
And if we are going to do this in any comfort, we have to be more conscious about recycling and reusing than we have, although we have been for some time, and generally doing our bit.
There we are. Keep calm and carry on. Very British, you see?
Guy Kawasaki:
A little bit of a shift here. So bigger picture here, can you define for people, what is science?
Henry Gee:
Science is basically the organized manifestation of common sense.
Most kids are natural scientists. They think about very useful things like “What if I stick my finger in this electrical plug socket, what will happen?” And “What will happen if I do this to that?” It's basically a spirit of inquiry.
When I was five, if I could write up my first scientific experiment in scientific language, it would be called “On the effects of total immersion on small garden invertebrates.” It's basically just curiosity about the world.
And it's usually beaten out of us at school, but you tend to find teenagers aren't that interested in science. It's the little kids that are and they grow out of it because somehow it seems uncool. It's the hormones. That's what it is.
And then they get back in it when they're a bit older and it's only the big kids, the nerds, who keep being scientists because they haven't grown out of liking dinosaurs, because that was their one moment of superiority. They could name ten different kinds of dinosaur before they were potty trained.
But some of us kids never grew out of that. It's just curiosity.
The problem with all these things is they have become very professionalized. They've become very industrialized. They've become very specialized.
But back in the days of Newton and 200 years ago, there wasn't such a word of science. It was called natural philosophy and it was a branch of philosophy. It was a branch of just knowledge and scholarship and what you tend to find in real scientists, the really good scientists, are they are usually passionate about other things as well as science.
You know this because you've interviewed lots of people, Einstein. I don't think you interviewed Einstein, but he was a good violin.
Guy Kawasaki:
I'm not that old.
Henry Gee:
He was a good violinist. And one of the people who I have the great fortune to know is Jared Diamond.
And I've been at his house next to the Bel Air Hotel in the canyon. He has in his salon, string quartets. He invites a local string quartet and other people come and watch. And he's a fantastic classical pianist. And he's interested in everything.
Even though he was a physiology professor, he outgrew it in a sense. He became a geography professor, because he was more interested in going and living with people in New Guinea and looking for rare species of bird. And he's one of these people who are interested in everything.
And scientists are basically people who are just interested in everything, and it becomes caramelized to a particular specialist.
I was always in interested in fossil fish. Why I was interested in fossil fish, we could have a discussion, but I ended up doing my PhD on fossil cows for all kinds of strange reason to do with funding. And I thought, "Well, I'm going to look at it this way. Cows are just highly specialized fish adapted for water of negative depth." And once I'd done that, I was quite happy.
Guy Kawasaki:
So you have a very useful and pragmatic definition of science.
But as you point out, isn't the end result of much of science an explanation of the probability of something occurring?
It's not black and white.
Henry Gee:
No it isn't. This is the thing, and this is the problem that scientists have had when trying to battle pseudoscience or creationism, is that people who practice pseudoscience are always very certain of what they can do and what they can achieve.
And science by its nature is very uncertain. Now, this doesn't really play on twenty-four-hour news media where you have to have a sound bite.
I remember in the days when I used to go and talk to journalists about science and they would ask me, "Is something or is it not?" And I'd say, "It depends." And they say, "You can't have that. You've got to say whether it is or it's not."
But what scientists have to do is be humble before the evidence. And so that, in scientific inquiry, all you can find is to circumscribe some probability of something existing or not.
I think never in the field of human inquiry have so many people known so much about so little, and known so little about so much. Both would work. But at the end, what you do is you have a hypothesis.
You say “In what circumstances could water flow uphill”, and you find some tests to do it. And you find that within the limits of your tests, water cannot flow uphill, and you have a limit on your knowledge.
There's a talk I give called “The Unknown” and I've given it all over the world. And in it, I rhapsodize about the immense philosophical strides of what posterity will view to have been the most important philosopher of the twentieth century. And that is the great Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense. He was only a philosopher in his spare time. And he had this classification of knowledge-
Guy Kawasaki:
The three kinds of knowledge?
Henry Gee:
The known known, the known unknown, and the unknown.
So when you think about it, this actually is a very good way of defining knowledge. The known, there are things that we know and most of these have been established by repetition.
So for example, we know that the sun's going to come up in the morning. Actually we don't. Back in the day when we couldn't see the earth from space and we didn't know about planetary orbits, we didn't know the sun was going to come up in the morning.
One Aztec would say to the other Aztec, "Hey, I hate ripping out hearts from people just to make the sun come up in the morning," and the other, "I think we should stop." And the other Aztec will say, "Well, are you going to take the risk? You see, we might stop it and the sun won't come up in the morning." But we now know more.
So there are things that we know, and there are things that we don't know that we don't know. There are realms of knowledge that we don't even have the vocabulary with which to ask the questions about it.
Occasionally, they intrude onto the realm in which science is done, which is the known unknown.
You know certain things are happening but what if you change the parameters on certain things that we do know? What if you heat your test tube slightly more for slightly longer or not enough? And then you will establish some new limits, but there's always the realm of ignorance out there.
And one of the problems that the science communicators, like Richard Dawkins, tend to do, is the view that scientists is the accumulation of facts, and the more facts we have, the less the pool of ignorance. The more facts we have, we shrink the pool of ignorance as if it's a zero sum game.
When actually what you have as a working scientist, you find that it's completely different. The more you find out, the more disproportionately huge the realm of ignorance becomes.
So you realize you've been hiking up this hill and you can see the summit at the top. But when you get there, you realize you've just got a plateau and there's the summit even further off. But until you got to the first bit, you wouldn't know this. You've discovered an even more realm.
And this is why this finding raises more questions than it answers. Because of course it does, that's what science does. If science didn't do that, we'd all finish science.
We could all go home and play golf. Or I could go down to my shed and listen to the complete recordings of Boris Johnson or something. Everyone could do other things.
But science, like life, is forever creating more space for it to habit. The best example of this, not in the things that I do which is paleontology and evolution, but in high energy physics where you have these incredible devices the size of city blocks buried underground, and they have thousands of people working on them looking at atom smashers.
And basically all they do is they find a lower limit on the mass of the schlepton or something.
And you've heard of that wonderful spoof scientific publication, The Journal of Irreproducible Results. They had a wonderful spoof on this and it was called “On The Effect of Peanut Butter On The Earth's Rotation”. And they had the list of authors and there were a thousand of them. And if you read through, you had Marilyn Monroe and Mickey Mouse and lots of things.
And then you actually got to the paper at the bottom and the paper went like this. It was one sentence. And it said, "As far as we can tell, peanut butter has no effect on the earth's rotation."
So this is a typical scientific paper. Maybe if we fired peanuts at each other at higher energies, there would be an effect on the earth's rotation.
That's another experiment. But we've discovered a parameter space in which peanut butter has no effect on the Earth's rotation. And basically, if you take away the earth rotation and the peanut butter part, that's how science works.
It works by, you're trying to minimize the unknown, but frustratingly and terrifyingly and rather beautifully, the unknown becomes more, the more you do it, which is rather fun and keeps us all in work.
Guy Kawasaki:
And what is your reaction when you read about governors in the United States who prevent vaccination or people who say that, "I won't get vaccinated because there's chips in it” or “It's going to cause me to not be pregnant."
Henry Gee:
What can you do?
It's very difficult to do because one's initial response is to compel people to do it, but then that will only fuel their own conspiracy theories.
What one has to do is gentle persuasion. You have to persuade people gently to do this. And it takes a long time and mostly it doesn't work, but in the end, in generational terms, it will.
Now of course, politicians are doing it to appease their electorate. “I know people, I'm friends with people who are like this.” The thing is you can keep needling them with logical questions and they just don't see it. They refuse to acknowledge them.
You say, "Look, you've got a mobile phone, haven't you? The government already knows where you are. You already have a social security number. It won't take them long to find you if they really need to find you. Why would they have a chip in it?"
And “You take such and such a pill if you have a headache, do you really know what's in that pill or how it's been tested?” There's a great deal of misinformation and all one can do is tear out one's hair in frustration as you see from my bald head-
Guy Kawasaki:
You have nothing left.
Henry Gee:
I have nothing left. So you can do that.
But a great medicine for everything is humor. And I heard this one the other day, three conspiracy theorists walk into a bar. This cannot be a coincidence.
There you are. Thank you for laughing
Guy Kawasaki:
People don't laugh to that, that's an IQ test.
Henry Gee:
What can you do about unread people who don't think logically? All you can do is try and gently persuade them because force won't work.
In fact, force in their world proves that... Isaac Asimov said “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent. And if you couldn't argue a way to it and have to use force, then you've lost the argument.”
Guy Kawasaki:
That explains January 6th.
Henry Gee:
I was watching that. I thought the guy with the Buffalo horns was Ted Nugent, but then I thought he must be older than that.
I was expecting him to appear in the loin cloth and the Gibson Birdland guitar, but no such luck and give us a rendition of Cat Scratch Fever or something. But he was just some poor deluded soul who lived with his mom, probably didn't get out enough.
In the end, rationality will win out, but it takes a long time and there are many reverses. It's not something that will happen overnight.
We know the earth isn't flat and we know the sun will come up tomorrow, but there are still people who think the earth is flat. What could you do?
Guy Kawasaki:
Some of those are in Congress.
Henry Gee:
Yeah, I know. It's strange.
Being a Britain and I see the strange things happening in US politics I say, "Remember the war of 1812?" That's all I remember. Remember the war of 1812. Are you actually in Hawaii now?
Guy Kawasaki:
No, I'm in Santa Cruz, California.
Do you think Britain wants America back?
Henry Gee:
No, I don't think so. Whether America wants Britain to rule her sensibly by the queen with her nice hat. And she's a bit old now, the queen. She's about ninety-nine and she's for the first time used a walking cane in public. Amazing.
Guy Kawasaki:
Serious question, how does one tell good science from bad science?
Henry Gee:
Because it's reproducible. The good science ought to be reproducible.
Now, in other words, a scientist ought to give the recipe, the method, whereby you can replicate the results. And you can tell this, if you are using snake oil from a snake oil professional and it doesn't work, the snake oil salesman can always say, "Well, you weren't doing it. You didn't rotate your body in the correct way when the cuspid Lupicol was in Trine and Venus was up Uranus. You didn't do it properly."
But scientists have to be open. They have to say, "This is how it works." And at the moment, this is quite serious, there's a reproducibility crisis in science because people don't take the time to reproduce the experiments of others.
And after a while, in certain small areas of certain little disciplines are built on the house of cards because the original experiments are not reproducible.
And there have been some quite high-profile reproducibility problems, which have only accentuated the fact. Everyone wants to have stem cells, which are the cells that can be programmed to produce hearts, brains replacement tissues for everyone. Brilliant.
And there are ways of reprogramming grown up cells to become stem cells. And there was a team in Japan that came up with a very easy recipe for doing this.
It got a lot of publicity and there were papers and it turned out it was all nonsense. And somebody I know slightly, actually committed suicide. He wasn't directly involved, but he was implicated in it because he'd had some supervisory roles.
And there's that lady in the California invented this magic device to tell everyone if they've got anything. And basically it was nothing there. It was all a complete fabrication.
So science has to be reproducible. So those of us, like me, who work in journal publishing have to go to great lengths to make sure the scientists make their data accessible to everyone so that everyone can look. Everyone can try it out.
If you are using a particular strain of laboratory mouse, you'll be able to gift that strain to any laboratory who wants to try it themselves. It's not perfect, but then nothing is.
To be good science it has to be reproducible. Someone else who's not a relative, or friend, or guru, or acolyte of the first person, has to be able to use the same materials and get the same results again and again.
The problem is that science at the cutting edge is hard to do and is hard to reproduce.
I had a friend in my year at college who spent his whole PhD trying to get one experiment to work. And there was one technician in the lab who had ‘the touch’ and they could get it to work. It was almost like superstition or witchcraft.
Now, the particular experiment that he was trying to do is now old hat. It's so easy. Anyone can do it. In fact, nobody bothers anymore. Things have moved on.
But when you are at the cutting edge, sometimes you never know quite what will work. There are certain factors that you haven't built in like how humid it is, or what time of day it is, and what the magnetic field is doing.
So at the very cutting edge, it is quite hard to reproduce because you may not know all the factors that are involved. But that's really a difference between science and non-science. Science has to be reproducible. That's the basic thing.
Guy Kawasaki:
So couldn't a legitimate scientific discovery be written off as not reproducible, and therefore, not true?
Henry Gee:
Oh yeah. There's a very famous one.
There's the, ‘every magnet has a north pole and a south pole’. There's two ends to each magnet. Under certain circumstances in theoretical physics, you can have a magnetic mono pole. It's a particle that has a north end, but not a south end or a south end, but not a north end. And somebody once thought they'd seen one, but it was never seen again.
And it might have been true, but you couldn't establish it as true. And it's the same with the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
People see very strange little signals, which seem very regular and ordered, and they see them once a never seen them again. And so it's very hard to test and investigate these once only phenomena.
This is a problem one has paleontology where you can't test the results in a way. It's very hard to be scientific. You have to use all sorts of other means to do this and be a bit crafty.
Guy Kawasaki:
And my last question for you, very practical, very tactical. How can we teach people to understand the difference between correlation and causation?
Henry Gee:
Ah, very good question.
The people who have to teach are medical scientists, actually, they're absolutely appalling at this. It's actually a very hard question because it goes to the root of probability.
Now, back in nature ages ago, we did a spoof on this. We published a graph that showed a beautiful correlation between the number of live human births in Germany, and the observed number breeding storks in Germany.
Well, it's a correlation. The number of breeding storks is the same as the number of live births. It's correlated. It's true. You can't deny it.
But then, what you have to wonder then, is the causation. They're two different things.
So you have to come up with hypotheses such as, maybe the availability of gooseberry bushes in Germany was the same. Or maybe you have to actually do some experiments watching storks and see if they actually do bring babies.
Or if babies in other countries where the correlation between storks is not the same as the correlation with babies, maybe they're correlated with buzzards or antelopes or something.
Correlation is just a relationship between two things, but it doesn't necessarily have a cause.
This is an awful problem in medical science, where people say eating oranges once a month will stop you getting cancer, or something. And they're all kinds of ways to get round this way. You follow people over a long time, and you try and find all the other factors involved.
But then here's the thing, if you are trying to find correlations between lots of things at once, not just storks and babies, but storks, babies, gooseberry bushes, income, and age of parents. If you have more than twenty of them, at least one of those correlations will be spurious just because a test of a correlation is whether we have a probability limit.
The probability is, if it happens one time out of every twenty, it's not going to be a fluke. So if you have more than one and twenty-one of them, there's bound to be a fluke.
Now people use some statistics, but correlation are things that happen together. Causation is, did one thing affect the other thing?
And citizens have to be scientists. They have to ask questions.
I've always asked questions. I've always been skeptical of everything before I can remember. My mother used to tell me in the playground another little boy would come and say, "Henry, do you want a sweetie?" And I'd say, "I'll think about it."
But most people have to have that question. They have to learn to question the things they see in the news. Does one thing cause another? There might be all sorts of other things involved.
News journalists are very poor, generally, at making this distinction. I don't actually listen to or watch the news very much anymore. It's just not very good for of the heart pressure.
I tend to listen your podcast and other things, and other people's podcasts, and go and look at the sea to make my own mind up.
Guy Kawasaki:
I have to tell you, I love, and I'm being sarcastic, every financial news program at the close of the New York Stock Exchange or the FTSE, they always explain why it went up or down after it closes.
If they were so smart, why don't they tell you in the morning what's going to happen?
Henry Gee:
We know that the financial movements are caused by all kinds of indefinable things, whether “such and such a stockbroker got out the side of bed that morning”, or all sorts of tiny things.
It's chaotic. It's sensitive to initial conditions and these little conditions are so tiny. You can't really define what they are, butterfly effect and all that. And if they were so smart then why isn't everyone rich? It's gambling.
There's nothing so good as hindsight.
Guy Kawasaki:
I realize you're an atheist, but if you're wrong, God is sure having a good laugh right about now.
Henry Gee:
Or she might be having a good laugh.
Guy Kawasaki:
She, she. I picture God as a Whoopi Goldberg kind of character.
Henry Gee:
You may already have done this, but there is a book out, I can't remember the author, called the Anatomy of God. And it's all about the historical evocations of parts of the body of God, and it's a book I'm definitely going to read.
I can't remember who it's by, but certainly when you look up my book on Amazon, my book is called A Very Short History of Life on Earth, and it's available in all good bookshops.
And if you look at Amazon, it says at the bottom “Books like this that other people read”, and one of these is the Anatomy of God, which I read a review about. And it's really interesting.
It says, "Why do people picture God as looking like a combination of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Gandalf, and Professor Dumbledore?"
Why do people do that? Usually in films it's Morgan Freeman. Wasn't that in Bruce Almighty, Morgan Freeman was God?
Guy Kawasaki:
Megan Markle is a better model.
Henry Gee:
My interest is who's going to play James Bond after Daniel Craig retires.
Guy Kawasaki:
Kanye West.
Henry Gee:
Possibly, you could suggest that.
Or who's going to play Doctor Who after the next one retires?
I keep saying to my wife, "They ought to have a fat middle-aged Jewish Doctor Who," and she said, "Henry, if you go into the TARDIS, it wouldn't take off." I thought that's not very kind, but I suppose, true.
And in some ways, you've just got to laugh. You're right, God's having a very good laugh because what else could you do?
I do in my book have a few genuine jokes, but they're usually tucked away at the end. I heard an interview a long time ago with Saul Bellow, author of Letters, who wrote these deep, serious works of literature.
And I heard an interview and he was so funny. He was cracking a joke every five seconds.
And I thought, "This is a great guy." And then the interviewer, bless him, asked the question. And he said, "Saul, you are so funny, but your books are so serious. What happened?" And he said, "My editor takes out all the jokes." That's true. That's true. That's what happens.
Guy Kawasaki:
Henry, you are a very funny guy. I have to say it.
Henry Gee:
It's usually when I've had my medicine.
Guy Kawasaki:
Take more.
I truly do believe that a sense of humor is causative with intelligence or maybe intelligence is causative with a sense of humor. It's not just correlation. So I thank you for a very humorous interview.
Henry Gee:
Thank you. And one endeavors to give satisfaction as Jeeves probably said to Bertie Wooster.
Guy Kawasaki:
I'll pray that tectonic plate shifting stops.
Henry Gee:
It will stop, but in about a billion years. Don't buy shares in the immediate stopping of plate tectonics.
Or if you do, think of it as a very long-term investment.
My dad always tells me, "You got to think of it as a long-term investment. Just keep hanging on in there."
Guy Kawasaki:
Well, in the long term, we're all dead.
Henry Gee:
Exactly. David Raup, who's a paleontologist, said “In the long view there have been no living organisms because probability wise, 99 percent of all living organisms are extinct. So if you're going to use that statistic, there were no such things as living organisms. We are all figments of somebody else's imagination.”
Guy Kawasaki:
I have to say that my favorite part of this interview is when Henry Gee says that the empowerment of women has been the most important change in the last 100 years.
Amen to that baby.
I'm Guy Kawasaki and this is Remarkable People.
My gratitude to Jeff Sieh and Peg Fitzpatrick, Shannon Hernandez, Alexis Nishimura, Luis Magana, and the drop-in queen, Madisun Nuismer.
Until next time, Mahalo and Aloha.