Outtakes from my new “Science cabaret”

& the Global Atheist

Warning label

This is a totally politically-incorrect talk about evolution. Well, evolution and a lot of other things. Please check all guns at the front desk. Also fruits and vegetables and anything else that can be thrown, including your shoes. This topic causes some listeners to experience dramatic increases in blood pressure and symptoms of temporary insanity. To fully enjoy the event, self-medicate well in advance. And put on clean socks.

The evolution of the brain

I’m worried that someday, biology is going to fry my brain. Science is getting too complicated to fit in there anymore. I’m not talking about data… We gave up on that a long time ago. If you started reading your genome out loud the moment you were born, at a rate of two letters per second, you’d be 47.5 years old before you finished. And that’s without any breaks for sleep, or coffee. That’s why they invented memory sticks. So you can go to Starbucks on the weekend, and get some sleep.

No, even the basics of biology are getting way too complex for our brains. It used to be, DNA makes RNA makes proteins. Three steps, simple enough to remember. Now we’ve found all these annoying little steps in between: a microRNA inhibits the translation of a protein that would otherwise help a microRNA inhibit an inhibitor. That’s a real story, you can look it up. Try to hold that in your brain, it might drive you crazy. Look at some of your colleagues. It’s already happening.

The problem is our brains didn’t evolve to do really complicated science. Our brains evolved in prehistoric times. Science was a lot simpler back then. There were only four parts.

The first part was technology, stuff like how to build a shelter, start a fire, and make weapons to kill big animals like mammoths. Basically, you got something long, and sharp, threw it at the mammoth, and ran like hell.

The second part of prehistoric science was pharmacology. Its purpose was to tell you if something was safe to eat. The methods were much simpler. You found a new plant and made somebody else eat it. Then you watched them a while. If they turned blue or died, well, we won’t eat that. If they got high, then you gathered up as much as you could carry, and took it back to the tribe. And had a big party.

You also had biology class, but there the only topic was sex tips: “For best results, choose a member of your own species.” …Makes you wonder what was on the final exam.

So science was a lot simpler, and the criteria for evaluating it were a lot simpler. In prehistoric times they also had impact points, but it meant something different. Impact points meant the number of times you could impact a mammoth with your spear. A high number you succeeded, a low number… The mammoth killed you. You died.

Today, research isn’t evaluated by mammoths. It’s judged by old farts called anonymous reviewers. The old way was simpler, and some people would like to bring it back. You send off your paper to a journal, and a couple of days later a big truck pulls up in front of your house. Out comes this huge, hairy monster, and it’s walking up your driveway. It’s a mammoth. It’s your reviewer. You get to look him right in the face and kill him. Every scientist’s fantasy.

A journal couldn’t send a mammoth to every author’s house. Look at the list from the human genome paper. Mammoths would go extinct again. Well, maybe not. Probably the scientists would go extinct first.

Since there weren’t enough mammoths, they’d just send one to the last author. Boy, that would change things, wouldn’t it? A group leader comes up and says, Russ, I’ve decided to give credit where credit is due. I’m going to put you as last author on this paper.

All I did on the paper was correct the spelling and take out 950 commas. I say… Uh, thanks, but I really think John’s contribution was much more important. John’s the high school kid who fixed my Internet connection. Even John’s too smart to take on a big hairy elephant.

So your group leader has to go find a collaborator. Probably a guy from an American football team, a guy as big as a refrigerator, who’s been banged in the head a lot of times. He’ll agree to anything if you offer him beer.

Today most scientists wouldn’t know how to kill a mammoth. First you’d need some kind of weapon. I looked everywhere in my apartment and couldn’t find anything. It gives you a whole new perspective on your stuff. A corkscrew? Naw. A tube of superglue? You go up to the mammoth and say, Please step over here, on this very clean surface. And hold perfectly still for six seconds.

All I could find was an old PC, from the nineties, that weighed about fifty kilos. I could throw it at the mammoth. But if that didn’t work… what then? I sure as hell wasn’t going to throw my Mac at it. You’d have to go to the Genius bar at the Mac store and say, Can you fix this? And they’d say, What were you doing with the device when the problem occurred?

The Bauhaus would probably have what you’d need to make a weapon. You drive down to the Bauhaus and this guy in a red shirt comes up and says, “Can I help you?” and you say, “Show me everything you have that’s long and pointy.” And he says, “What kind of project do you have in mind?”

You stand there… Finally you say, “I need to kill an extinct elephant…”

Nothing in my apartment would be any use in making a weapon or anything else 100,000 years ago. The same thing goes for my brain. The only things in my brain are the names of a bunch of molecules. The rest is taken up with PIN numbers. If I remember those, I can do everything else with my SmartPhone.

You know how when you get a new PIN, you have this feeling of panic? For a week you can’t remember the new PIN or any of the old ones? That’s evolution talking. It’s telling you, You need to save this space in your brain for something useful, like how to kill a mammoth!

It’s why kids don’t like math class. Some boring teacher is going on and on about algebra, and their brain is whispering to them, Will this save your life? Let’s go outside and throw some spears? It’s a survival instinct. That’s evolution talking.

I know that biology has already fried part of my brain, the part that learns people’s names. That was important in early human evolution. It helped you avoid inbreeding. Say you’re in a bar and a woman comes on to you. You say, What’s your name? She says, Karen. You say, Wait a minute, aren’t you my sister?

Remembering names also helps in reproduction. You go on a second date with a woman and don’t remember her name, she thinks, Do I want my kids to be as dumb as a doorknob? You’re not dumb, you’re a biologist. But it’s too late, she’s making moves on a guy across the bar.

I don’t have room in my brain for people’s names anymore. They’ve been chased out by the names of molecules. They’re competing for the same brain space. Probably the hippocampus. If you’ve ever seen a hippocampus, it’s small. And it’s shaped funny. There’s just not enough room for both people names and molecule names. Something has to go.

Nobody tells you this when you start to study biology. And your brain doesn’t have those pop-up messages – you know when your hard disk is getting full. It would be helpful. Your brain would make a rude noise and say, To make space for this molecule, delete your mom’s name.

I used to be able to learn the names of all my university students, dozens and dozens of names. But now… some days I’ll be sitting in my office, and sitting across from me is my office mate. We’ve shared an office for two years, but sometimes I look at her and try to remember her name and all I can come up with is… Tubulin? P53?

It’s a problem in Germany. When you meet somebody you’re supposed to shake their hand and say their name. People shake my hand and say, Hi, Russ, and I stand there and say, Hi, uh… I usually just hide in my office unless there’s a conference. At conferences people wear name tags. But you shouldn’t be caught looking. You’re talking to a famous scientist and trying to read her name and she’s thinking, Is he staring at my breasts?

I don’t say people’s names when I shake their hands, but I have an excuse. I’m an American. Everybody knows Americans don’t have manners, or even culture. Back in the 17th century, when Europeans sailed to the New World, there wasn’t enough space on the ship for cathedrals or symphony orchestras. And you didn’t take the good silverware because the pirates would just take it. We’ll have that stuff shipped over later, they said, but there was a whole country to tame. Fighting Indians and building houses and turning lots of cows into hamburgers. It was like going back to the Stone Age, but with lots of guns.

After about 200 years we finally had time for culture again, but we’d forgotten most of it. Even the most basic things, like how to use silverware. The pirates know, but we’ve forgotten. It’s why Americans invented fast food. All fast food can be eaten with your hands. While you’re driving and talking on your cell phone.

It’s a problem when we get invited to some fancy restaurant. You sit down and there’s lots and lots of silverware. Strange utensils you’ve never seen before, you don’t even know what they’re called. Okay, you can identify a fork, but you’re sitting there thinking, Right hand? Left hand? Sometimes they give you two forks. Then you just take one in each hand.

By the 20th century America had moved out of the Stone Age. We could have learned to be polite again, but it would have cost a lot of time and money. John F Kennedy could have said, Today I’m announcing a ten-year program to restore our manners. Instead he decided to go to the moon.

Nowadays we don’t have to know how to kill mammoths. They’re extinct. But scientists are thinking about bringing them back. They found a frozen mammoth in Siberia, and they’re going to clone the thing. They’re going to take some of its cells, thaw them out in the microwave, and make clones of mammoths. What could possibly go wrong? Any ten year old could tell you what could go wrong: Jurassic Park, that’s what could go wrong.

So just in case, I’m going to the Bauhaus to get some supplies.

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I am a science writer at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin, author of fiction and popular science books, an artist, and a professional musician who performs on the viola da gamba and Medieval and Renaissance stringed instruments. I edit manuscripts of all types and teach the full range of scientific communication skills. I am doing theoretical work in this subject - see for example https://goodsciencewriting.wordpress.com/2018/03/11/ghosts-models-and-meaning-in-science/

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