Dr Adam Rutherford
Adam Rutherford is a science broadcaster and author with a degree in evolutionary biology and a PhD in the genetics of the eye. He is also an editor of the science journal ‘Nature’ and has presented TV shows for the BBC including ‘Horizon’, ‘The Cell’ and ‘The Gene Code’. He also writes for the Guardian and his first book, ‘Creation’, will be published in 2013.
In the summer of my second year I spent three months counting stalk-eyed flies.
On my first memories of science
I have two. Maybe three. One is of my dad taking me to Walton-on-the-Naze, which is a really rubbish town in Suffolk, or possibly in Essex, near where I was brought up in Ipswich, I think famous for being the largest town in Britain not having a pub. It also has a lot of wash out from the Thames Estuary so it’s a really fantastic place for fossil hunting. So, sitting on a beach from about the age of four spending hours and hours scraping at bits of shingle to find Cretaceous shark’s teeth, many of which I still have, so that’s one of my earliest memories of science. Second was the first space shuttle launch in ’81 when I was six and third is movies in general. Either, you can pick from ‘Star Wars, ‘The Cat From Outer Space’, which I re-watched recently and it wasn’t very good, or ‘Back to the Future’.
On beginning a science career
At school I wasn’t particularly brilliant at any subject apart from, weirdly, Latin, but I came to university, to UCL (University College London), to do medicine because I figured that was an easy career path and I rapidly discovered that a) it wasn’t and b) it was quite boring and that I didn’t want to be a doctor. So I came to do medicine, which is sort of like a science but isn’t, but during that time I discovered genetics, I discovered evolutionary biology was much more interesting than I had previously thought, so having tried to transfer to Latin, I then ended up doing genetics and evolutionary biology instead. But it was in the summer of my second year when I spent three months counting stalk-eyed flies and measuring their wing spans to compare them to their eye stalks to find out if they were more or less asymmetrical, they’re not, um, that was the point that I got the, ah, I got the bug. I realised that a life in the lab was something that was deeply attractive.
On the joys of being a scientist
I can immediately think of two high points in terms of doing actual research. The first was as an undergraduate. We did a field trip to the south coast of Spain and it’s much easier to learn statistics on a Spanish beach drinking beer than it is in a lecture theatre, but it was when we designed my first proper experiment, which was to test whether asymmetrical flowers received more or fewer pollinators, as in bees, than symmetrical flowers. So this was an experiment that involved sitting on a beach, cutting a petal off a flower and counting the number of bees that landed on it over the course of two days. That’s field science. That’s a very exciting thing to do. But from an academic point of view, a few years later during my PhD we were involved in a study which was identifying the genes responsible for a specific kind of blindness in children. We had a mouse that had a defect in a particular gene that caused a specific kind of blindness and we were trying to work out whether it was the same gene and the same characteristics in children and it turned out that it was so we were, or I was, part of a large team responsible for finding the genetic cause of a type of childhood blindness and that’s, you get a buzz off of that.
On the chaos of delight
So I’m quite lucky in that I haven’t been doing research for a few years now but I’ve been a science journalist for the last decade and it happens every week, the Feynman phrase, the pleasure of finding things out; a new paper lands on my desk and, I’m mixing up my quotes now, it’s not the ‘Eureka’ moment that turns you on, it’s what Asimov describes as when you go, when you respond by going, ‘Hmm, that’s really interesting’. And I see it happen with me and my journalist colleagues at ‘Nature’ and around the community all the time when something, you see something and just go, ‘Holy crap, is that right? Can that possibly be right? That is amazing’. And I see it particularly in new fossils and I see it particularly in astrophysics because that’s just all baffling and doesn’t make sense to anyone.
So part of my training is human genetics and human genetics became genomics in the 21st century and the big revelation about human genetics and the human genome that happened in about 2001 to 2005 was that we actually know bugger all about the human genome and that’s a good thing. That’s a good way for science to proceed and an enjoyable way for science to proceed because when you realise how little you know you begin to see how much more there is to find out and I find that really rewarding, really exciting. And that’s happened a number of times in the last decade since I’ve been reporting on genetics as we find out how little we know. And also nice, the sort of hubris puncturing moments where you think a field is sorted and you come out with a degree in genetics and then you do a PhD in genetics, and you come to the end of that process and think, well, you know, I’ve got this down now, I pretty much know how genes and how DNA works and then someone publishes a paper that says, actually, you know what, it doesn’t work like that at all, or, like last year, a big study showing how much more of the genome was active than we previously thought or that genes don’t account for large portions of heredity. These are things that we get taught, because they have to be taught in a simplistic way, but once you get into the actuality of research science you find out more and more of how little we know and that’s really exciting.
On being shocked by new discoveries
It would be harsh to describe the idea of primordial soup as nonsense, but, as a culturally ingrained idea as the origin of life, I, like most people, have spent most of my life assuming some kind of primordial soup was where life originated on Earth and for the last few years as I’ve been looking more and more deeply into that as a subject, it has emerged that it just can’t be true. It cannot possibly be the origin of life. There cannot be, due to the unfortunately non-negotiable nature of the laws of physics, primordial soup cannot have been the origin of life and that was rewarding to find that out and to try and work out what the actual origin of life might be and we’ve got a better model which is based on the laws of physics being intact, which I think is a better model to follow in science. So I think that was the biggest, ‘Hold on a minute, everything you know is not quite right’.
On refuting creationists
So, of the many standard responses to being faced with a creationist or an intelligent designer argument there are some, which are sort of scientific and philosophical such as, ‘Intelligent design isn’t an answer to anything’. If you require an intelligent designer in your argument then that’s untestable, we have no evidence of intelligence other than human intelligence in the natural world, so that’s one but that’s a little bit hand wavy. When it comes to intelligent design as an idea, most of the things that we talk about being intelligently designed aren’t that intelligent at all. So, things like shin bones. You know, every time I crack my leg on the bed I think that’s a rubbish piece of design, or back pain is another example that only humans suffer. Only the most spiteful and niggly deity would give us such pain during child birth or, or, look at injuries, compared to us, when our kids get a cut, it’s like Wolverine compared to us. You can see it physically healing up. I stood on a piece of Lego two mornings ago and I’m limping like a cripple. My toe has gone purple. What a pathetic injury to have.
See, the problem with talking to people who believe in creationism and intelligent design is they just come up with the same boring arguments every time. The eye. The eye. My PhD was on the eye. ‘The eye is so complex that it couldn’t have evolved in stages.’ Except for the fact that all of the suggested stages of the evolution of the eye exist in nature. We can show single celled organisms that respond to light. We can show multi-cellular organisms that have pits that are like how we imagine the early eyes might be. We see so many different types of eyes that it doesn’t make any sense that they would’ve all have been designed separately. So, that’s one. Genetics as well is such strong evidence to support the idea of natural selection and evolution rather than intelligent design. All of our genomes of all organisms that have ever existed are quite clearly related. We know that because the genomes of us and our nearest cousins, chimpanzees, are incredibly similar, something like 97%, but we also know that we share something like a hundred or two hundred genes with our most distant cousins on the evolutionary tree, archaea and bacteria, and they do the same function in bacteria as they do in us. And the amount of redundancy you have in genomes as a result of evolution is fantastic evidence for either evolution via natural selection or a really, really lazy intelligent designer who can’t be bothered to come up with a better or new structure, so just does it again a little bit differently in different organisms. So it doesn’t make sense at all using modern techniques that all creation was special and that all creatures were created individually. It just is a parsimonious argument that they were sequential designers, tested over geological time and refined using a blind process.
Without meaning to be pompous, there is one animal that really refutes intelligent design more than anything else, and that’s us. Because all of our behaviour, ah, so much of our behaviour doesn’t help us at all. We are a warlike, belligerent, idiotic species that does the most foolish things all the time, like create deities that we then can’t defend. And what kind of designer would create a creature and then abandon them for the rest of time without any decent set of instructions on how you’re meant to behave. That doesn’t make sense at all does it?
On the goals of being a scientist
I think it’s really important not to have specific goals when you enter science. That you don’t want to cure a particular disease, or you don’t want to find out a particular thing. What I love about science and what I’ve always loved about science is that it takes you in directions that you never predicted. That every time you answer a question you find that there are ten more, some of which are less interesting than others, but it’s those, it’s that pathway that you can’t predict where suddenly you go, ‘Ha, I didn’t see that coming. That’s what I’m going to spend the rest of my life looking at’. And that is the process of science. It’s a continuum of discovering stuff that makes you go, ‘Hmm. That was unexpected.’