Episode #105: “Life Has Transformed the Planet, Which Has Gone On to Alter the Future Course of Life”
Guest: Olivia Judson. An alumna of Stanford with a doctorate from Oxford, Olivia is an evolutionary biologist and award-winning journalist who has published in The Economist, Nature, Science, and The Times Higher Education Supplement. Her first book, Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation, is an international best-seller. Written in the style of a sex-advice column to animals, the book details the variety of sexual practices in the natural world and provides the reader with an overview of the evolutionary biology of sex. The book was a critical success and was nominated for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2003.
Date Recorded: 5/08/18 | Run-Time: 55:12
Summary: In this episode, we depart from traditional investment themes, and instead, bring you an episode featuring Meb’s second professional love, biology. Specifically, we welcome the renowned evolutionary biologist and writer, Olivia Judson.
It turns out Olivia wrote for The Economist in her early years. Meb asks how a scientist got started writing for a business magazine. Olivia tells us of the progression that led from one article submission to several other articles, to a staff job.
Next, Meb asks about the genesis for writing Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation. (For anyone unaware, the book is written in the style of a sex-advice column to animals. It details the variety of sexual practices in the natural world and provides the reader with an overview of the evolutionary biology of sex.) Olivia tells us one of her early articles was the inspiration, though she’d been studying and researching the topic for years. She thought the book would take her only six months to write so she quit her job…she finally finished it four years later.
Meb notes how much of the book identifies a power struggle between males and females, and how this shapes evolutionary dynamics. Olivia expounds, telling us how sometimes what the male wants is not in the interest of the female (and vice versa). These differences create the tensions which affect evolutionary direction.
This leads to a conversation about Bateman’s Principle, namely, the general idea that females are pillars of virtue, while males are cads. Olivia’s book suggested this isn’t necessarily true. Meb asks for more details. Olivia starts by redefining the term “promiscuous,” digging deeper into the word in light of the term “choosy.” It turns out certain females can benefit from having multiple partners, though the reasons can vary. In any case, this awareness is much more prevalent than thought 40 years ago.
A bit later, Meb asks about homosexuality in the animal world, including questions regarding procreation and genes. Olivia gives us a fascinating answer that includes the concepts of “genetic component,” “exclusivity,” and “commonality” and how these factors might affect homosexual genes remaining in the population.
There’s way more in this fun, totally different episode: A dating party where women smelled men’s T-shirts to determine which scent they found most appealing… the male Australian Redback Spider, who actually tries to get eaten by the female during sex… Meb’s surprising discovery from his 22 and Me test that he has more Neanderthal genes than 95% of the population… Olivia’s views on gene editing… Camping on the side of a volcano in Antarctica… and whether we’ll find life beyond our world.
We end with asking Olivia about her most memorable experience in all of her research. What is it?
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Links from the Episode:
- 1:45 – Welcome Olivia Judson, author of Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation: The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex – Judson
- 3:12 – Olivia Judson’s time with the Economist
- 3:42 – Inaugural Article in the Economist – Judson
- 6:13 – Her first check from the Economist
- 6:39 – Decision to write her first book
- 9:04 – The battle at the evolutionary level taking place between males and females
- 11:26 – Why promiscuity can be just as common in females as males
- 13:04 – Behaviors that may seem crazy but are really quite natural
- 14:54 – Homosexuality and evolutionary function
- 15:59 – The t-shirt study
- 20:26 – The most preposterous behavior she came across
- 24:32 – Sponsor: Inspirato
- 25:48 – Connections between homo sapiens and Neanderthal
- 26:48 – “Kissing Cousins” – Judson
- 29:34 – Why did the Neanderthals die out
- 30:09 – Thoughts on human gene editing/CRISPR
- 34:09 – Meb’s experience getting his gene analyzed
- 35:38 – Intelligence of random animals like Octopus
- 36:15 – “Why Do Octopuses Remind Us So Much of Ourselves?” – Judson
- 39:35 – Her trip to Antarctica
- 43:48 – Biggest risk of the trip
- 43:50 – Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage – Lansing
- 46:03 – Her writing process and what she is thinking about/working on now
- 48:24 – “The energy expansions of evolution” – Judson
- 49:55 – The research aiding in the search for intelligent life
- 51:04 – Her most memorable experience exploring the world
- 52:24 – Projects or questions she’s focusing on today
Transcript of Episode 105:
Welcome Message: Welcome to the Meb Faber show where the focus is on helping you grow and preserve your wealth. Join us as we discuss the craft of investing and uncover new and profitable ideas all to help you grow wealthier and wiser. Better investing starts here.
Disclaimer: Meb Faber is the co-founder and chief investment officer at Cambria Investment Management. Due to industry regulations he will not discuss any of Cambria’s funds on these podcasts. All opinions expressed by podcast participants are solely their own opinions and do not reflect the opinion of Cambria Investment Management or its affiliates. For more information visit cambriainvestments.com.
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Meb: Welcome podcast listeners. Today we have a totally unique, very special show for you. Unlike many of the episodes we’ve done here today and most of y’all who’ve been listening this for a while know that investing is one of my two biggest professional loves. And if you go back long enough, ya’ll know that I was actually a bioengineering major. In early career I started as a biotech stock analyst. So today we’re honoured to have a world-renowned evolutionary biologists, best-selling writer joining us. She’s written for “The Economist,” “New York Times,” “Smithsonian,” and of course written an international best-selling book, which is one of my favourites of all time. Long-time listeners have heard me mention it many times, “Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation.” I’m thrilled to have her with us today. Welcome, Olivia Judson.
Olivia: Thank you very much.
Meb: So, Olivia is joining us today from Berlin, and listeners, you may be able to hear the end of some pretty awesome church bells going on the background. Olivia, is it the hourly clock or what’s going on in Berlin right now?
Olivia: No. You kind of get special enthusiasm around 6 p.m., which is what it is now, but it’s also there’s been more church bells unusual because it’s gearing up for the Christian holiday that in English would be called Ascension Day, which is when I think Jesus Christ is supposed to go to heaven, but in German it’s called Christi Himmelfahrt, which means Christ travels to the sky. So that’s on Thursday.
Meb: My lineage goes back to Germany, but as a young child I remember we’d drive across the country and we’d always pass “Frankfart.” I thought it was the funniest thing of all time as a five-year-old, very JV humour. But let’s go back in time a little bit. So I came across your work probably over a decade ago when you had published your book and we’ll come back to that in a second. But technically you fit in the podcast because I think you may have gotten your start, and correct me if I’m wrong, give me a little timeline correction, but you may have started out doing some writing for “The Economist,” which is a pretty famous business magazine. And I’ve read “The Economist” for years and I was reading if not your first post maybe one of your first articles, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen an article in a business magazine start with this prose. It says, “I’m worried. All of my lover’s leave their genitals inside me and then drop dead. Is this normal?” So I thought that’d be a good intro. How does a scientist get started writing for a business magazine?
Olivia: Well, “The Economist” has a science section at the back. So it’s off to the business section, then there’s science and technology, and then obituaries and books and arts and that kind of thing. And I think that originally, maybe, I don’t know, maybe the idea was to write about technology in a way that would help understand business and economics, but it became its own thing, a bit like “The Science Times” in “The New York Times.” And so it became basically a sort of update on scientific research and developments. And I started freelancing for them actually when I was in graduate school, partly because the first year of my PhD was going so badly that I thought, “My goodness. I’m gonna have to find something else because obviously being a scientist isn’t going to work out.” And I didn’t realize that this is the usual panic that all first year PhD students have. But I started freelancing for them. The way that it happened is every spring they advertise an internship for somebody with a science background who wants to spend some time at the magazine writing about science and learning journalism.
And I applied for that and I didn’t get it, but what I got instead…I was interviewed and what I got instead was a letter that said, “Well, we’re sorry, we’re not giving you the position but if you ever have something you wanna write for us, let us know.” And I picked up the phone and called the guy, and suggested a story. And he said, “Okay, go ahead and do it.” So I did it and he published something generally on the same subject. Most of my original text had been completely removed, but I got a check and I got a letter that said, “That was great. Send us more.” And that’s when I started my involvement with them and then as it happened the timing worked out so that when I finished my PhD eventually they offered me a staff job, which I did for a few years.
Meb: You know, it’s funny, I’m 90% sure I also applied for that job at one point. So I did undergrad in biotech and kind of similar to you. My brother had done his PhD and he’s like, “Meb, take some time off. Make some money. It’s a long slog.” It took him like over a decade. And so I took a year off to go work kind of in the middle as a biotech stock analyst and eventually, that one year became two and two became three and kind of pushed me into a totally different career. So it’s kind of interesting the parallel. So all right. So you started writing in “The Economist.” I think I saw somewhere you had really funny reference to your first check you received from them. I think it’s from “The Economist.” Do you recall the check I’m referring to?
Olivia: Well, it wasn’t the first, but I think it was the third or fourth. I did a piece for “The Economist” about the possible evolutionary function of masturbation in humans, for which I got a check that said, “Olivia Judson, Masturbation, 150 pounds.”
Meb: Well, that’s a pretty good rate for an article. Yeah, that’s not so bad. I don’t think we’ve gotten paid for any of our magazine article stuff. Anyway, okay, so you started writing with “The Economist.” What was the genesis of some of the ideas to write your own book? Was it something that you had just been thinking about for a while or, you know, you kind of sprung from your brain one day in holiday? How did you originally start to decide to put pen to paper?
Olivia: Well, I think…so the article that you referred to was actually the basis of the book. At least, it was the inspiration for the particular style, the idea to create a character who received letters from animals that are upset about their sex lives and say, “No, no. I know that sounds really weird but in your case, it’s perfectly normal and here’s why, or here’s what people think, or here’s what the latest research suggests.” But that came in a context of my having studied the general subject of the evolutionary biology of sex for some time. I mean, it was a subject that my PhD had been on and so tapped into a whole area that I’ve been thinking about for a long time before I started journalism or thinking about writing a book. And of course, this led to a kind of delusional arrogance. I kind of thought, “Well, I mean, I’m a journalist, I write at this speed, a book is this long, so I’ll be done in six months.” So I happily decided to quit my job and write this book, and well, four years later I finally finished it. Of course, that was nothing to my current project where 10 years later and I still haven’t finished it, but that’s a different story.
Meb: I wanna touch on this book for a little bit and then we’ll get into some other topics. We actually got some pretty funny and interesting Twitter questions when I asked yesterday, because this has been one of the most influential books I’ve ever read, and so listeners on the podcast have actually heard me reference it a number of times to say it’s one of my favourite books on so many…sort of behaviour and psychology and evolutionary biology. And granted I’m a genetics nerd, but at the same time, I think it has threads that apply to so many other areas of life. So back in the day, this is my early 20s I remember reading the book and I was trying to convince a handful of friends to read it, and I knew they wouldn’t. So I knew if I went to them and said, “Hey, I got a great evolutionary biology book you should read,” that’s zero people are gonna read that of my young 20 buddies when I said, “At the very least, this may help you convince some of your partners into some sexually deviant behaviour. And as I was just saying this as a joke, and then fast-forward, saw it on two of my buddies’ nightstands, probably that was the only thing they heard in the top of their head, but at least they read it.
So all that with a weird intro, let’s talk a little bit about some of the ideas and maybe some of how the ideas have evolved over time. So many of the concepts in the book, I heard you mentioned that almost all the people ask you about it ask about two topics, which is monogamy and infidelity and also homosexuality, but so much of it to me is about this battle between the male and the female. And so I think you had a quote, and I’ll paraphrase, you said, “At every level, males and females, genes they carry, have very different interests in pursuit of their interest as an engine of evolutionary change.” So could you describe this dynamic a little bit and a little more detail to give our listeners a little overview?
Olivia: Well, it’s quite interesting because when you think about it it’s easy to see, for example, how evolutionary dynamics can develop between a parasite and a host because they’re separate entities, they’re separate species. It’s easy to sort of see, well, okay, the genes of the parasite may evolve in this direction and the genes of the hosts are going to evolve to resist being damaged and you can make easy predictions. But the thing that’s different about males and females is that most of the genes spend time in both sexes, right? I mean, if my egg is fertilized by a sperm, then genes from me could go into a male as well as a female. I might have a son, I might have a daughter, and whichever it is they will have half of my genes and half of my partner’s genes. And so this means that this creates a very different kind of tension and dynamic, and yet at the same time you often have situations where what is in the interest of the male is not in the interest of the female and vice versa. And those can be highly variable.
I mean, there’s definitely no prescription for what’s going to be beneficial or not. Sometimes it’s the female would prefer to have many partners, sometimes the male would, sometimes they both would, but sometimes one prefers and the other doesn’t, and this can create very complex dynamics and behaviours. And indeed, one of the reasons that I wanted to write about sex in the first place is that when you look at the natural world, a great deal of the variation that we see between different kinds of birds or different kinds of mammals or insects or whatever or fish is being driven by the dynamics of sexual reproduction and sometimes it’s because males prefer females with certain characteristics, sometimes it’s the other way around, and sometimes it’s members of one sex are trying to manipulate members of the other. It’s very complex, and I find it marvellous.
Meb: So, you know, one of the most interesting concepts you were talking about, kind of Bateman’s principle, which is generally that females are kind of pillars of virtue and males are cads. And your research seems to point to maybe a different takeaway and you had a quote where you said, “Folks, it’s time to bury forever the notion that the female promiscuity is an unfortunate accident, a malfunction, the result of coercion or simply as a last resort to get the pesky guy to go away. Natural selection, it seems, often smiles on strumpets.” Maybe tell us a little more about kind of what you found here. Why is that necessarily the case or a general rule or not?
Olivia: Well, the first I’d like to clarify is the meaning of the word promiscuous. So a lot of people would imagine that promiscuous means not choosy, and that’s not necessarily the case. So choosiness, how selective you are and how many mates you have are not necessarily the same access. So, for example, if I’m propositioned by 10 males and I have sex with 1, I have not been promiscuous and I have not been choosy, but if I’m propositioned by 1,000 meals and I have with 100, I have been promiscuous but I have been just as choosy as I was before because the ratio is the same. So the point is not so much that females are not selective, it’s that sometimes in some species, actually in quite a lot of species it turns out, females benefit from having multiple partners. Now the reasons that they may benefit from that can vary a great deal from one situation to another. So there’s no general rule about when it happens and there’s no general rule about why it happens, but it is much more prevalent than was thought 40 years ago.
Meb: So you guys also had a lot of…there’s a lot of case studies in the book, and listeners, you definitely just got to go buy the book because it’s a fun read you can knock out in an afternoon or evening. And so thinking about it, I mean, there’s so many just crazy examples where you have super violent rituals where the praying mantis will bite off the lover’s head and you have honeybees where the body will explode and the penis will stay in the queen. And wrapped in this concept is the thought of what’s considered natural versus the human kind of conception of what’s morally acceptable because there’s so much that goes on in the animal world that’s considered natural in their genetics that as humans we would kind of really deviate from. So are there any examples you can think of or any threads you wanna pull on that kind of concept of what we would consider to be crazy behaviours, but in the greater scheme of things the behaviours seem so mundane compared to all the case studies in the book?
Olivia: Well, I have to say that ultimately, it made me pretty glad to be human. I think that reading about some of what goes on elsewhere, part of what I loved was discovering the diversity of nature. I mean, one of my all-time favourite organisms is the green spoon worm, which has one of the largest known size differences between male and female where the male is 200,000 times smaller than the female. But in general, I ended up feeling pretty happy that humans are just doing a sort of small subset of all the possible sexual behaviours.
Meb: So much of it involves death or risk of death or a lot of it you listen to and I was laughing because it seems like so much work. But then I watch my friends on some of the dating apps, it’s been three, four days a week going out on Tinder dates and Bumble and that seems like a lot of work and expenses to me too, so I don’t know. One or two more questions are kind of on the book and we’re gonna start to jump around a bit. There’s a number of kind of evolutionary examples that I think people get confused about, I think one being homosexuality, and one of the biggest challenges of that being the consistent argument for people that, “How could you have a behaviour where if it lacks the ability to procreate how could those genes get passed along?” And maybe touch on that for a little bit, because I think that’s a really interesting topic that would be fascinating to the listeners.
Olivia: So I think that homosexuality in other organisms, and indeed in humans, is quite poorly understood. And let’s assume that homosexuality has a genetic component, which it has not been shown for any organism clearly. But let’s assume that homosexual behaviour has a genetic component, and let’s assume that it is exclusive such that homosexual individuals never mate with opposite sex individuals, and let’s say it’s fairly common. If those three conditions are met, if homosexuality is common, genetic, and exclusive, then it becomes an interesting genetic question because it’s only in that case that you have something to explain. If it’s not genetic then there’s nothing to explain. If it’s not exclusive then homosexual individuals are reproducing sometimes and so there’s nothing to explain. And if it is rare then it might just be something essentially random, and again, there’s nothing important to explain. So then, the interesting case is, could it be genetic, exclusive, and common? Now, we don’t know the answer to that for, in fact, any organism. There are certainly a very wide variety of animals that have been described having homosexual behaviour from dolphins to seagulls to camels or whatever, you name it, but what we don’t know is whether that’s a lifelong preference for those individuals to the exclusion of reproduction. We simply have no idea.
And even in humans, we don’t really know because assessing the historical behaviour of people is difficult to do and it may well have been the case. I mean, there are indications that in Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece many people were bisexual, but it’s very difficult to assess these questions in the historical past. But let’s assume that those three conditions are met and it is genetic, exclusive, and common, then it turns out that actually there are a number of different mechanisms that could lead to the genes being maintained in the population anyway. For example, if in fact it’s a gene that is highly beneficial in the other sex for in terms of fertility, then you might find that it is maintained simply because it’s beneficial in a different genetic circumstance. So it turns out that there’s no reason to think that homosexuality is intrinsically un-biological. It may be, it may not be. I think it’s difficult to draw any firm conclusions, but it’s definitely…you’re not gonna sort of think, “Okay. Well, that’s out of the question.” In fact, it’s in the question.”
Meb: So the interesting thing is that…you know, I reread your book again this past week and it’s funny to revisit it because I smile at a couple of the stories like about the Argentinean lake duck and all these other fun stories that I’d just forgotten about. But one of the ones that was really humorous to me that is an interesting concept that I don’t think is maybe played out that much in the modern world yet, and it might, is you had written about the concept of the old t-shirt study. And I don’t know if that’s been expanded over the years. Maybe you could explain that study a little bit and I’ll have a funny extension to that after you give the audience kind of the broad overview of what that might have been.
Olivia: So the question was, “Are humans responsive to genetic differences, and in particular, are they responsive to genes at the major histocompatibility complex?” which is a set of genes that’s important in how the immune system behaves. And the prediction was that females would prefer the smell of males that were different from the themselves because that would allow their offspring to have higher genetic diversity at the genes important in the immune system. And so the experiment was a smelly t-shirt experiment done where men were invited to not wash for several days and wear the same t-shirt over and over again and then the t-shirts were handed out to women who were also then genetically analyzed and the question was, which t-shirts did they prefer? And it turned out that in general, it was true females did prefer the smell of males who are different from themselves at the MHC. The only big exception to that at that time was women who were taking the pill whose preferences were reversed. I have to say that I haven’t looked to see what has been done subsequently with that. It was some time ago and I don’t know how much it’s been followed up.
Meb: Yeah. I mean, to me that was kind of fascinating because I thought about it for a second, I said, “This makes so much sense.” and it’s sort of nature’s way of aligning partners to give them the best chance at possible evolutionary fitness, and once you take the pill it’s kind of convincing your body that it’s pregnant. And I said, “I wonder if a whole generation of people that have selected the wrong partners based on that.” I would love to see some more research. Anyway, my extension was that I live in Los Angeles and was actually dating a girl in Berlin at the time, Prenzlauer Berg, I think, is where she lived. And they had an event in L.A. that was essentially a dating event that was a t-shirt smelling sort of compatibility event.
And so for like three days prior, you had to wear a t-shirt and you weren’t supposed to shower or use deodorant or whatever, and put it into a bag, you got a number, and you went to this event, and of course they had beer and wine and everything else, but you went around smelling bags of t-shirts. It’s actually kind of funny because you would smell some and they’d be like, “That doesn’t smell like anything,” and you could smell some and be like, “Wow, that smells amazing.” And you would smell some and like literally want to vomit. And so, the way they had set it up was actually kind of a bad way to set it up because if you found a shirt you liked, you’d go take a photo with the bag and then that person is supposed to be watching the TV and you get matched later, but I never followed up on it.
Olivia: Well, but I think that this is the thing, actually, is that what people prefer and a kind of test like that doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s who they team up with because, obviously, preferences are modulated not only by smell. I mean, there are plenty of other things that you like or dislike about somebody. And so I think, ultimately, there’s no evidence that this is actually how people end up together.
Meb: Yeah. And then, of course, you say, “You smell great, but you chew with your mouth open and also smoke cigarettes, so you’re out,” whatever the preferences may be that people have. It’s so much more complicated and interesting. But it’s funny to me because I think almost in like the old movie, “Gattaca…” was it Ethan Hawke? It was Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, great movie, by the way. But in a world that we’re kind of progressing to where the cost of getting your genome sequenced is getting cheaper and cheaper, there was a European company that was trying to do a dating site that you could get a MHC test with, and I think it’s gone out of business since then. But anyway, it’ll be fun to watch that going forward. Okay.
So one more question on the book and then we’re gonna move on to some other topics. As you did the research for this, which you mentioned was four years, which must have been just massive. I mean, I can’t even begin to think about how to go about doing all this research. Was there a particular entry into the book? You mentioned one of your favourites already. Was there one that you read and said, “My God, this is the most preposterous behaviour or situation, like, I can’t even believe this is the real world?” Was there any sort of organism, or animal, or anything that you came across where you said, “My God, this is either my favourite example or the most ridiculous one?”
Olivia: I think one of the most surprising ones to me was the Australian redback spider, which is the only species that I’m aware of…there may have been others found since, but it’s the only species I’m aware of where the male actively tries to be eaten by the female during sex. So it’s reasonably common among predatory insects and arachnids, so praying mantises, a lot of species of spiders, for the female to attempt to capture and eat the male, but usually the male tries to get away. So in a lot of species of spiders the male has all kinds of means to hold the female’s mouth open or sort of clamp it shot, or the male praying mantis, he tends to approach from behind and very stealthily. But in the Australian redback spider, the male seems to…he basically presents himself to be eaten and he has higher reproductive success. He sires more offspring if he is eaten.
And it seems to be a situation where most males never meet a female. They grow up wherever they grew up and they start looking. I mean, the problem with a lot of spiders is that the female doesn’t travel. She just sits where she is in her web or wherever she is. And so the male basically gets to the smallest viable size and he starts looking. And I think that maybe only 13% of Australian redback spider males ever encountered a female. And so it turns out that they have nothing to lose by being eaten because if they weren’t eaten, they’d probably never meet another female anyway. But that really surprised me. It just seemed like a kind of counterintuitive thing that there would be this kind of self-sacrifice.
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So we’re talking about genetics and thinking about this and it’s so fascinating to me because now you’re starting to have the advent of some genetic tests and we have 23andMe and Ancestry and National Geographic. And I’ve done all of them because I think it’s just really fun and says, “Hey.” It’s almost a little creepy to get it back and say, “You know what? You probably really like cilantro versus the people or the thing that’s really bitter,” or, “You probably have restless leg syndrome,” and yada, yada, and, “Your hair is brown, your eyes are brown, and you know what, you’re from Northern Europe.” And it’s also interesting to see all the people that get it back and it’s totally changed their life. You know, “I have sisters,” “You’re not my mother,” all these good examples. I have so many friends…there’s a famous financial anchor who found out his dad was not his dad and all the behavioural things that go along with it.
A fun question I had for you is as I was reading many of your articles, I think this one was in “The Times,” and you were talking about in the past few years sequencing of the Neanderthal genome. And in my tests it said I have more Neanderthal genes than like 95% of the population. So I wanted to go to the expert and say, can you explain a little bit about what that means and kind of a little overview of kind of that genetic area of what the difference is between what we have, Homo sapiens today, and potentially Meb’s close cousin, the Neanderthal?
Olivia: Well, the first thing I’d like to say is I think that Neanderthals generally get a kind of bad press. There’s a sort of feeling that because they’re extinct by and large, they must have been somehow stupid, and I don’t think there’s any evidence that that’s true. The other thing is that they’re obviously extremely closely related to Homo sapiens and were able, as your ancestry shows, to interbreed with them so they were not particularly different. And I think what interests me is the story of human evolution is becoming so much more complex than anyone thought it was, that there seem to have been really many different kinds of humans around for hundreds of thousands of years, and piecing together the story is very hard because often what you have is half of a finger bone or a little bit of just a few tools or a hearth place. And so increasingly, I think the story is getting complicated and intriguing. I mean, I think that…you know, one of the things to go back to the Neanderthal, I mean, it’s obviously the case that there was some interbreeding and it’s obviously the case that there would have been hybrid children. Whether they would have been noticeably hybrid or not, I don’t know.
I mean, I went recently to the Neanderthal museum that’s outside Dusseldorf in Germany and the Neander Valley is where the first Neanderthal skeletons were found. And this museum has in it mannequins of Neanderthals based on facial reconstruction techniques and so on, but they’ve been dressed in human clothes and they’re kind of standing around in the museum. And part of the point is, actually, you know, you wouldn’t really notice them in a crowd. And so I think that it’s kind of, to me, it creates a sort of sense of wonder and curiosity. I mean, as far as I’m aware we don’t even know the basic things like, did they have their own language? They could obviously make utterances but did they have a kind of linguistic speech or, I don’t know? I mean, certainly, some of the earliest evidence of complex tools comes from Neanderthals. So Neanderthals were using fire to melt tree resin in order to make glue and they would use this glue to mount ax heads onto handles. And so there was obviously a lot of sophisticated behaviour and, you know, I think, well, you come from a distinguished lineage.
Meb: I thought the short answer was gonna be you’re just guaranteed to be good-looking and really brilliant. That’s where it’s from. So, all right. So the Neanderthals, why did they die out? Is there any generally accepted wisdom as to kind of what happened?
Olivia: Not as far as I’m aware. I think there are a lot of ideas. One is that maybe they needed to eat more meat than they were able to get once the climate began to change. One is that humans drove them to extinction. It’s not at all clear. But it’s certainly the case that something happened since the relics that we have are genetic remnants like you.
Meb: We will do one more question on kind of genetics and then we’ll move from bio side to rock side here in a minute. One of the other questions that we had was from a guy and said, “I’m a Homo sapien with the family medical history that suggest our hometown was really small. What are your views on human gene editing, the potential dangerous, time horizons and a lot of the revolution and what’s going on with kind of the CRISPR technology in the past 10 years?” As thinking back to the book…and for me, thinking about to evolution kind of playing out over history in sort of this natural environment, all of a sudden you have a lot of this modern society where it creates sort of different flows for natural selection whether it’s, mentioning earlier, maybe the pill or actually potential to make adjustments to the genetic code. Do you have any general thoughts on kind of maybe looking back and looking forward as to what’s the future here?
Olivia: Well, I think, I mean, so the thing about CRISPR is that it’s an extremely powerful technology. So it makes much easier something that people have obviously been thinking about and talking about since the 1970s at least and now it suddenly becomes possible, maybe.
Meb: And by the way, not to interrupt you, but maybe give our audience just a real quick definition of what CRISPR is.
Olivia: CRISPR is basically a way to do very precise gene editing without nearly so much hassle and fuss as previous techniques would have required. Ii is not my area of expertise at all, so I won’t say more about it than that. But it does offer the possibility of changing the genes that people carry so that your offspring will inherit something different from what you have because you’ve changed it. Or you could do something where you edit in an existing person so that they no longer have…in principle, I don’t know how practical it is, but so that they no longer have a particular genetic problem that they have. You know, I think that people always like to worry about how new technologies will be used and I think that those worries are good because they stimulate people to think in detail about how they could be used. I mean, there was a huge amount of discussion in the 1970s when people first discovered that it was going to be possible to do any kind of genetic editing.
So people have been thinking about it for a long time. The difference is it is becoming more of a possibility and something that you actually might think about doing. I don’t know. I mean, I guess I’m sort of agnostic about it. My basic feeling is that we still know rather little about how most genes behave and what they do. Many genes, especially on the human genome, seem to be embedded in big networks of other genes. And it’s not really clear to me that the sort of stereotyped idea that while you could have genes for being more intelligent or whatever is really right. I mean, I think that often what happens is much more…it’s an interaction between many genes and the environment. And certainly, with the exception of some clear genetic diseases that kill you when you are 30 or 15, many of the genetic variants that are out there also have all kinds of interesting benefits, and so I think that it’s a complex question. And certainly, if it was me I wouldn’t be starting to play. but I think it will be interesting to see how it develops.
Meb: Have you ever done any of the genetic ancestry tests at all?
Olivia: I have not done any of the genetic ancestry tests. And I think that for me personally, what is always interested me more is the extent to which the environment, which is something that we can often change, also impacts the way the genes express themselves. And so I’ve always been interested in the idea that if you, for example, improve air quality you also save a lot of lives and that that’s actually rather easier than kind of fiddling around in most people’s DNA. And so the genetic aspect of it has always interested me much less than the environmental aspect of it.
Meb: It’s kind of easy on our side because we have, on our family history both sides, going back like couple hundred years and kind of knew the ideas of where we had descended from over the families for a couple hundred years. But you go back even further than that and everyone starts to become some sort of mutt, and I remember we had a big swath of kind of Eastern Europe and Western Russia as well in there somewhere, which to the living group is unaware about this.
Olivia: I have one question I wanted to ask you about that, though. So you send your genes to a lot of different services. Did they all tell you the same thing or did you get different results?
Meb: Yeah. We knew my mom’s side was English and Irish and my dad’s side was French and German. Like you can take it back on both sides I think to the 1700s. We even have all these fun, like, wills. My dad was a farmer in Nebraska, grew up on kind of a farm with no running water and so we have these wills where it says, “I’m gonna leave my grandson, each of my grandchildren $3 and here’s two pigs and one horse.” And on the French side it’s even more kind of endearing where it’s talking about these family histories where they have 12 kids and 7 of them die from just child mortality and all that stuff. So yeah, they all said kind of the same general swath of Northern Europe, but I’ve had a lot of friends that have had just crazy…I had one buddy who grew up his entire life thinking his family was Greek and they always hated the Italians. I think that was the two. And then it turned out he was actually Italian, so really funny takeaways like that.
And some are heartbreaking too, of course, but a lot of people they have them now or say, “Hey, by the way, here’s your first cousin or here’s your brother.” This recent Golden State killer murder was partially solved by one of the ancestry sites. So anyway, it’s more of a curiosity for me. I think it’s interesting than anything. All right, so post book, you’ve been on all sorts of adventures, which is kind of like my dream. So you’ve written about ctenophores, millipedes, microbes, cassowaries, if I said that right, octopuses or octopi, I don’t know what the plural of that is. Is it octopuses?
Meb: Okay. By the way, it’s kind of made me almost…I think I kind of have to stop eating octopus because I feel like there’s some sort of deep embedded psychology that you just can’t eat beings that are that intelligent. That was one of the more interesting articles I read in a long time. It’s just what a fascinating, weird kind of alien animal. This isn’t even a question. Maybe you can explain real quick kind of the intelligence of the octopus and kind of that genesis. Was that “National Geographic,” maybe?
Olivia: It was “National Geographic,” yeah. I love octopus. I’ve loved octopuses ever since I was a kid and I read a book by the French pioneer of scuba diving, Jacques Cousteau, about octopus and squid, and I became extremely interested in octopuses. And then I saw my first octopus when I was snorkelling, when I was about eight, and I was just absolutely delighted, and I basically don’t eat octopus. But it doesn’t make much sense because I’m not sure that it’s easy to say, “Well, cows are less intelligent or pigs are less intelligent than an octopus.” And I’m not sure that an intelligence hierarchy is necessarily the way to decide one’s diet, but for me it’s more like a kind of affection. I think they’re amazing animals. I really enjoy watching them in the wild. The greatest adventure I had recently was when “National Geographic” asked me to do a story about them and sent me diving in Indonesia for a week, Indonesia being a hotspot of diversity in the ocean, in general, corals also and fish but also octopuses. And it was incredible. We saw the hairy octopus, which is a tiny little guy about the size of my thumb who looks like a piece of red algae.
We saw these extraordinary animals that are sort of more like pieces of spaghetti. I mean, they’re not really like the octopuses I’d seen before, which were Mediterranean octopuses. These guys have extraordinarily long legs and the legs are all controlled with extraordinary precision, and to see an octopus hunting is to watch really quite a dexterous act. And I think that in a strange way that’s part of what I find appealing about them is that they’re extraordinarily different and yet because they are so dexterous you can’t help on some level, at least I can’t help on some level relating to them. But, you know, they do all this weird stuff. They change color, they disappear, and at the same time they don’t live very long. I mean, in some ways, it doesn’t make sense to not eat them because they’re very efficient at turning food into octopus. And so from the point of view of energy, it’s very efficient, but I don’t like to do that.
Meb: Do I remember correctly that in the article, and correct me if I’m wrong, is that so many species almost all the neurons are in the brain. Was it the octopus that had a vast neuron network throughout all of their tentacles and everything else?
Olivia: Yeah, about two-thirds of the octopus’ neurons are not in its head, but in its arms. So it has a kind of distributed nervous system, which is fundamentally different from a mammalian nervous system. It’s fundamentally different from us. I mean, it’s very difficult to imagine what the world is like from an octopus’ point of view because in the first place, not only are they in the water, but they don’t have any bones. They can disappear into the tiniest cracks because as long as their beak can get through, which they have a kind of parrot-like beak with which they tear away flesh of the animals they’re eating. But as long as that can get through a crack, the rest of them can go through without any problem, and it’s very strange. I mean, it wouldn’t work on land because you need some kind of exterior structure in order to be able to stand up against gravity, but in the water it’s remarkable. And we don’t really know. We don’t really know what the sensory world of an octopus would be like. I mean, I think it’s one of the most difficult things to imagine.
Meb: Interesting. So you’ve been in a lot of these adventures. Antarctica, which sounds awesome, which I don’t think we have time to get into today, but I would love to.
Olivia: I’ll just say that that was the most astonishing trip. Before I went to Antarctica I thought that the good thing about the trip…I don’t like cold weather, so I thought the good thing would be telling people I was going and then telling people I had been. I didn’t think that camping on a volcano in Antarctica was something I was gonna enjoy at all, but I loved it.
Meb: Well, okay. Well, let’s get into it then because one of my favourite parts of that story…this is why it’s always nice to have a scientist around is, you’re sitting in your tent or camp or ice cave, I can’t remember which, in which you’re stuck there for how many of our hours on end, lull in conversation, sitting next to your tent-mate and you said, “You know what? What’s your favourite microbe?” I love that. You can always find something to talk about with a scientist. So let’s go down that road, maybe talk a little bit about Antarctica. I mean, the closest I’ve been to doing anything like that was doing a spring break in college, we didn’t go to Panama City, but we went mountaineering in Colorado and slept in an ice cave, and I actually…I mean, I loved it. And again, it’s kind of the tell people you did it, but sleeping in the ice cave was like the most miserable experience. You go to bed with a hot water bottle in your sleeping bag to keep warm, wake up and it’d be a solid block of ice and it just smells like flatulence and everything else with four guys in an ice cave. So tell us a little bit about it. What was the point of the expedition? What were you doing down there?
Olivia: So I was doing a “National Geographic” story. So I was travelling with a photographer and the photographer’s assistant and we were with a group of three microbiologists who were interested in trying to find out what might be living on the slopes of a volcano in Antarctica. And the thing that’s interesting about a volcano in Antarctica is that it is simultaneously a very cold place but also has spots that are extremely warm. Even though the air temperature could be minus 40, the soil can be 80 degrees Celsius, so kind of forgotten what that means in Fahrenheit, but let’s say it’s 150 Fahrenheit. And so you have this strange contrast between the external temperature and the temperature in the soils of the volcano itself. And so they were sampling the microbes in order to see whether volcanoes around the world have a kind of population of microbes that are flying around by in the currents of the wind and just kinda settling wherever it’s convenient or whether each volcano has its own local population of organisms. And so that’s essentially what they were looking for.
But from my point of view, it was…we were camping for two weeks on this volcano. It’s called Mount Erebus. It’s a very extreme landscape. It has something that very few other places in the world have, which is that instead of the normal funeral [SP] where you have a kind of vent on the side of the volcano with steam coming out, the steam turns to ice immediately and you get these enormous ice towers being constructed, and on the top third of the mountain it looks like a [inaudible 00:42:34] went around making abstract ice sculptures. They’re extremely odd looking and very strange. I’m not a mountaineer. I have no experience in mountains, really, and we did a hike around the crater rim of Mount Erebus. That was one of the scariest days of my life. It was a sheer drop on one side to a lava lake and a sheer drop on the other side all the way down to the ocean.
And, you know, you’re wearing boots that have soles about five inches thick so that you hopefully don’t get cold. If you move too fast, you sweat and you get cold and you cool yourself from the inside by breathing heavily into the cold air. So you have to move at just the right speed so you’re not getting too hot and not getting too cold. And it’s high altitude. I mean, the whole thing was kind of terrifying. And at one point the field guide, he said to me, “Well, you know, Olivia, the one thing you have to know about mountaineering is however far you’ve come, you have to be prepared to go just as far again. And by the way, you have an icicle on your nose.”
Meb: Mountaineering, you know, it was a young man’s pursuit for me where I used to want to climb every mountain on the planet, and the older I get I’m like, “Man, that sounds like such a hassle. It looks so cold.” So what was the biggest risk when you were there? I mean, thinking back to the Shackleton days and what a fantastic book that was about his expedition. In the modern world, on your trip, was the biggest risk getting stuck in a storm or a helicopter crashing or falling into a lake or hypothermia? What’s in kind of y’all’s situation or were most of the risk kinda mitigated by technology and just modern knowledge? Was it still a little bit gnarly, you had to keep an eye on where you’re stepping?
Olivia: Well, so, I think, statistically, the biggest risk in Antarctica is helicopter crashes. No doubt about it. I think that from my point of view, the biggest risk was really getting too cold, especially during the first few days when we were there when we were in an altitude acclimatization camp, which was just tents on ice. And the other risk that was important was altitude sickness. Certainly, in the past expeditions to Erebus some people have sometimes had to be helicoptered off because of extreme altitude sickness. But I actually have a medical sensitivity to cold, I have something called Raynaud’s syndrome, and I had to get special permission to go. I had to go and see a vascular surgeon in Washington who stuck my hands and feet into cold water to see whether he thought I was a big frostbite risk. And so I don’t think that there was much real danger, but obviously things can go wrong, and if they go wrong in an environment like that, they can very quickly become a problem.
Meb: Going back to your old book, it becomes a problem, you die, your genes aren’t passed on, such is life, natural selection. You’ve been selected out. Raynaud’s is where you have like…what do you get, like white fingertips where like the blood doesn’t circulate correctly? Do I remember…?
Olivia: That’s right, yeah. Basically, you get…the bigger problem for me, I think, it’s not so much my hands but my feet. I think that once I lose circulation in my toes it takes quite a lot of work, especially in an outdoor situation, for it to come back. Hands can be dealt with more easily. But yes, it’s basically all the blood withdraws from your fingers and toes and it’s associated with frostbite risk.
Meb: All right. Lesson learned, hang out more in Indonesia than in Antarctica. By the way, there’s an interesting takeaway. A lot of people will be surprised to think about getting altitude sickness in Antarctica. I think most people, you get this picture of penguins and this big flat icecap, but when really you talk about it, you’re actually getting up there on altitude. A couple more quick hits and we would love to keep you forever, but a lot of the Judson fans, listeners, myself included have been patiently waiting for your second book going on now a while. Maybe tell us a little bit about kind of what you’ve been thinking about, the writing process, maybe. I think I read somewhere that your best cure for writer’s block was simply moving to the South of France, and that to me that sounds like a great idea, Jeff. We may have to do our summer sabbatical…where do you wanna go, by the way? We can come up with some good idea. Maybe we’ll do it in Greece. Talk to us a little bit about the writing process, what’s going on, what are you thinking about, moving from bio to rocks, and everything else.
Olivia: Well, so, I became interested about a decade ago in the observation that a great deal of the human experience of Planet Earth is actually the consequence of the activities of past organisms. So the fact that the sky is blue and that the air is full of oxygen, that would be two very simple examples. But it’s much more extensive than that. It turns out that the chalk cliffs that are such icons of the English South Coast, those are the remains of organisms that lived around 100 million years ago, and the tools that many European early humans were using to cut up their meat are actually the stone remnants of organisms called radiolarians that lived 500 million years ago.
And I had not really known anything about this. I have to say that my education in evolutionary biology had been very much about the present and had not included very much about history, and I had certainly never pondered questions such as, why had there been four billion years elapsing before the first animals start to appear? I hadn’t really thought about questions like that. I hadn’t thought about these immense spans of time very much. And through a couple of articles or a couple of journal articles that I read, I came across that more than two-thirds of Earth minerals are a result of the activities of living beings. And this kind of launched me into a book investigation that I had never expected to do and I certainly never expected it to take so long, but it’s been tremendously exciting and I am on the homestretch.
Meb: And is this tangentially or kind of related to the recent energy expansions of evolution article that you put out in “Nature?”
Olivia: So the “Nature,” “Ecology and Evolution” piece is a précis of this book. And what I was arguing there is that the pattern I’ve described to you in which the organisms alive in the past have created the environment we live in today, the thing that excited me tremendously as I stumbled on a mechanism. And I argue in the paper that Earth history can be divided up into five energetic epochs and that each of these corresponds to organisms evolving to use a new source of energy and each of them also corresponds to much more complex ecosystems and an increase in the impact that living organisms have on the planet. And the environment in which we find ourselves today is a result of these cumulative expansions in the energy available.
And what is very exciting to me is that while the first two types of energy geochemical energy and sunlight were available right from the beginning of Earth history, the remaining three have all been made what they are by living organisms. And so it really shows that life has transformed the planet, which has gone on to alter the future course of life, and I think of it as the building of a biosphere. And it really does explain why it is that for four billion years there were no animals. It’s not just a question of evolution. It’s also a question of environmental transformation. And I think that one of the things I’m so excited about is I think that this will help us to think about what we might expect to find elsewhere.
Meb: Kind of guides the search a little bit too, right, where…and you kind of walk through this. So listeners, the five words, geochemical energy, sunlight, oxygen, flesh, and fire, and kind of looking for potential life elsewhere, it may guide our buddy Elon looking for new intelligent life or potential planets. Is that a kind of general thought as well?
Olivia: Certainly, I think so, yes. I certainly think that…Well, let me make my personal prediction. My personal prediction is that some kind of life will turn out to be fairly common in the universe. Complex life, I think complex intelligent life with technology, I think will obviously be much more rare because it will depend on the cumulative effects not just of evolution but of the geological potential of different planets. And so, for example, a planet that is very far from a star or possibly one that has no star at all may, if it has a lot of internal heat, still be able to produce some kind of life, but it may never be able to develop anything further than a few microbes. And I think that this does potentially give a way to think about what to look for and where to find it.
Meb: Olivia, there’s like 20 more pages of questions that I have and would love to get to, but I promise we’d only keep you for an hour. Anything else got you really excited today that you’re thinking about, you know, as we look to the future and as we think about a lot of these topics? And I’d like to actually frame that question a little bit differently first and we can add that as a part B. Because we normally end our podcast…we have all these investing nerds like me on here and we say, “Okay, what’s been your most memorable investment?” I wanna kinda flip the question for you because as a scientist you’ve experienced so much and looked into so many different ideas and worlds that are foreign to many of us, but I would love to hear…and this maybe Antarctica, so if it is you have to answer a second one. In all your years in the wild, in the library, on the computer, thinking, researching all these concepts, studying organisms, what’s been your most memorable experience and why?
Olivia: I’m afraid I would have to answer Antarctica. I think it’s gonna the unbeatable one for me. There’s something about the stripped-down beauty of an environment that is reduced to white, blue and gold that I found absolutely…I don’t know. It was like I was extraordinary thirsty for the environment. I just kinda gazed out at the landscape and for me that was really a remarkable experience.
Meb: Oh, great. All right. So now you’re decamped to Berlin. Let’s talk about the future now. I imagine the book is number one on your mind, but is there anything else that head scratchers, curiosities, anything you’re really excited about that is on your brain and you’re kind of marinating on today?
Olivia: There are some extremely exciting experimental results in the origin of life and I think about those a lot and I think that, yeah, there’s some guys in Strasbourg who’ve got some really exciting new results and I’m anticipating exciting developments.
Meb: Can you tell us any more? Is this another preview for the work coming out?
Olivia: I think you’ll be better…you should speak to them yourself. They’re very good. They’re extremely interesting. I can send you the details of the guy who’s been doing the work. But I think it’s tremendously exciting experimental results. I mean it’s certainly nowhere near to anything that gets up and walks around, but it’s provocative.
Meb: Well, good, hopefully this will all lead to the answer of Douglas Adams’ original answer of 42.
Olivia: That’s right.
Meb: We’ll finally find out what the question is. Olivia, we’ll link to all the show notes from this, your papers, your books, the research you talked about out of Strasburg. Where’s the best place for people to follow you if they want to follow your new book coming out? I know you’re not on Twitter so we can’t razzle [SP] you there, but where do people follow all your work?
Olivia: Oh. I have a website that’s being built. It’s not built yet, but eventually there will be a website. As I said, I’m not really online that much at the moment because I’m trying to finish, so watch this space.
Meb: Okay. Is your website Olivia Judson? Would that be the correct spot if and when?
Olivia: Yes, it will be, but it’s not there yet.
Meb: Okay. Well, good. Well, look, Olivia…
Olivia: Sorry about that. I know that I’m a sort of faulty 21st-century person, but…
Meb: My co-producer, Jeff, still uses a Motorola Razor phone, so I don’t feel so bad. I think I would be much happier. All the research today is showing that a little bit of detachment from all this technology makes people a little less crazy and little happier anyway, so.
Olivia: Well, I’ll tell you what I love about my phone, which is an old Nokia. I can use it for a week without recharging it.
Meb: However, you get lost in Berlin, you’re gonna have to start asking people for directions instead of using your phone, which what a wonderful problem to have. Olivia Judson, Dr. Tatiana, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been a pleasure.
Olivia: Thanks a lot.
Meb: Listeners, you can find the show notes. We’ll post them up on the blog, mebfaber.com/podcast. You can always find the archives, all the other podcasts as well. Leave us a review. We love to hear what you guys think: good, bad, terrible, wonderful. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes, Podcast Stitcher, my new favorite, Breaker. Thanks for listening, friends, and good investing.