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A Conversation with David Byrne

David Byrne is an artist and musician and the author of several books, including Strange Ritual (1995), Your Action World (1999), The New Sins/Los Nuevos Pecados (2002), and Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information (2003). His latest book, Arboretum, is a collection of faux-scientific diagrams in pencil—more information is available online here.

Olivia Judson is an evolutionary biologist whose best-selling book Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation: The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex (2002) was recently made into a television series for the U.K.’s Channel 4. In her book and on the show, Judson takes on the persona of Dr. Tatiana to counsel frustrated animals such as the drone bee whose genitals have just exploded inside his queen, or the confused, hermaphroditic slug with a penis on his/her head.

This conversation was conducted by email shortly after the publication of Arboretum.


DAVID BYRNE: Your book, and now your TV series, obviously anthropomorphize critters—not in the cute old Bambi way, but enough so that we as readers—or watchers—empathize with the bugs and fishes needing to be battered (almost raped in some cases) before sex, or males who are at their best when their heads come off. Loaded examples, which is what I’m getting at. One could easily find biological justification here for socially unacceptable behavior—and you could be seen as putting those ideas into the heads of future perverts. Justifying, somewhat, somehow, depraved behavior. What kind of sex advice column (or TV series) cites such—to us—horrific stuff and morally repugnant behavior? Won’t you have your sex advice column license taken away or be cited in some horrible trial (the Dr. Tatiana defense as opposed to the Twinkie defense)? This, to me, leads to a lot of questions about our (supposed) morality and the (supposed) lack of it in creature behavior.

OLIVIA JUDSON: You raise several points here. First: anthropomorphism. When I was an undergraduate studying biology, I was taught never to anthropomorphize: it was thought to be dangerous, and likely to lead to all sorts of misplaced sympathies for animals. However, I’ve come to think that as long as everybody knows that the anthropomorphism is not a literal description of what the animal experiences, but a description of what it seems to us to experience, then it’s actually a good thing. It aids the imagination. And actually, I’d say that a stern refusal to anthropomorphize is the more insidious sin. For that says that we are so different from other organisms that their experiences are completely unlike ours. And although that probably is true for something like a fly, it probably isn’t true for many mammals. We’re different, but we’re not that different. Second: biological justification for behavior. I don’t want to sound pompous, but frankly, I don’t think we should ever look to nature to excuse our behavior. To explain it—perhaps. But to excuse it, absolutely not. Nature is full of (to us) unspeakable depravity. Mites that have sex with their sisters in their mother’s womb, for example. Just because mites have sex with their sisters obviously doesn’t mean that it’s OK for us. Similarly, just because adult chimpanzees have sex with juveniles doesn’t mean we’ve all got carte blanche to engage in pedophilia.

DB: I remember, as a preteen—yes, it was in Baltimore—looking at National Geographic magazines, not for the bare-breasted women (they didn’t seem like they were the least bit interested in me), but for the Jane Goodall articles on chimp behavior. I had a sense, and still do a little bit, that, to some extent, our circumstances, our families, and our peers poison our natural instincts—a bit junior-high Rousseau, I guess. Naively I thought to myself, Well, let me just look to our closest relatives, and maybe I’ll get some clues there of how we’d behave with the leashes off. Now, of course this seems a bit silly in retrospect— but only if you take it all literally—as you imply above. I didn’t start screeching and dragging my knuckles. We are social animals, however, and the rules and strictures that are imposed on us are us, at least in part.

OJ: There are potentially some rather subtle double effects here. Genes affect behavior to some extent (we don’t know how much—but I don’t think that anyone would argue that genes have no effect on behavior). However, aspects of environment can change which of your genes get switched on, and when. Thus, a baby who is never cuddled will be a different adult from the same baby if it had been cuddled: early cuddling affects the expression of those genes that make it easier to form lasting bonds with others. Of course, the adult won’t know why s/he has difficulty forming bonds: no one remembers whether or not they were cuddled as a baby.

DB: Or parents who play Bach to their babies—under the belief that listening to Bach will increase a baby’s intelligence. Maybe it does, but I myself think Bach was a bit of a doodler, an aimless jammer, so I would take issue with this one. But yes, significant changes inside from behavioral changes outside. Eating fish for breakfast as a child allows you to be a better business leader. Wildly exciting and varied behavior when you are a child might lead to indecisive or even conservative adults. These are made-up, of course—but to me they are (maybe) just as plausible as the long-range outcomes of hugging and listening to Bach.

OJ: Why don’t you like Bach? And who would you rather listen to?

DB: My guess is that his composing is too interesting for something that doesn’t go anywhere. I like a lot of contemporary music that doesn’t go anywhere—Scelsi, Morton Feldman—and traditional music often doesn’t go anywhere either, and I often like that—gamelan, Afro-Atlantic sacred drumming, blues. So why not Bach? I think it’s too involving—you have to pay attention, or at least devote a certain percentage of your conscious mind to it, whereas in many of these other examples you can allow the music to become part of the environment—and also they leave room for you to complete the music—there is space there. Bach doesn’t allow you entry. I know this is blasphemy to many.


DB: Here’s one of the sort of connections and on the face of it ridiculous assertions similar to those in the Arboretum book drawings that is not meant to be wholly facetious: paradise is death.

OJ: Why?

DB: Paradise is death because in paradise nothing changes. Or at least in many conceptions of paradise perfection is absolute, unchanging, static. That’s putting it in dramatic terms, but my perception is that organisms need resistance, difficulty, and challenge to be strong and to be what they have evolved to be. Someone wrote that, without wind, trees get all droopy and can’t stand up straight. They need to be blown about, to sway, to strengthen their tissues and, well, become a tree. Likewise, we strive for social stasis and perfection, but we find that then life becomes enervated, the energy runs out like a tap turned on full. To me this is parallel to the Red Queen (and all creatures) having to run to stay in the same place.You have to change to stay where you are. No rest for the weary. Keeps things interesting, though. To some extent then, if everything keeps changing, slowly and subtly,then one can only pin down what a creature is at a given moment—a sort of quantum view of life forms. Either ten minutes later or one thousand years later, it’s all slightly or very different.

OJ: Yes—though how much change there will have been in a thousand years depends to some extent on whether you are a bacterium or a bristlecone pine… Some bristlecone pines are more than four thousand years old.

DB: So, does that mean that, in pure terms, a bristlecone pine is less evolved than most bacteria? I guess so. The bacteria, in absolute terms, are probably quite different than what they were four thousand years ago, while the poor windswept tree has a clock that, from our point of view and that of bacteria, appears to have stopped. I guess this only sounds odd because we tend to use the word evolved to mean more complex and higher up the food chain—but of course that’s not true, something could evolve into a simpler state.

OJ: Which brings me to your broader point—morality. This is an interesting area.We are evolved animals, and our moral codes are the products of our minds. Some ways of organizing societies (including morality) may therefore work better than others. I think one could make the argument that one problem with communism is that, as an ideal, it is too far away from what humans are actually like. Regarding other animals, I don’t think it makes sense to talk about morals.We don’t say that a snake is evil because it kills.

DB: But we do think of them as sneaky, don’t we? Maybe because they have beady eyes. Could we have genetic predisposition against beady eyes? Don’t we unconsciously anthropomorphize critters based on our own criteria as to whether a face is trustworthy or not? Whether a body posture is threatening or not?

OJ: Actually, with snakes I think it might be more visceral. The great E. O. Wilson has written some lovely essays about why some of us might have a visceral fear of snakes—a fear that is not learned, but just “there”… Perhaps a snake was a bad example—let’s say a lion, instead.The association with lions in literature is nobility… but you don’t want to be on foot near a hungry lion. Even when a lion does kill a human, though, we don’t consider it to have been evil.

DB: Point taken.We want to be like lions; kings wear lion manes and cloaks; clothes and collars mimic lions’ manes, and it’s a venerable personal and family name.Poor snakes don’t get to partake in much of that symbolic glory.


DB:Am I imagining it or do you cite a large percentage of examples in which the female of a species either has multiple partners, selects the partner, or discards or kills the male when she’s had her way with him? Am I imagining that in some other books I’ve read, usually written by a man, the emphasis is often on the male picking and choosing, flitting about, as he often doesn’t have to care for the kids,and behaving,well,like the females you cite? Is there a bias amongst your peers? Amongst critters?

OJ:The original historical view was that female animals were passive: they didn’t choose males, they didn’t seek sex. Darwin suggested—and was ridiculed for it—that many female animals have a sense of beauty,and that they choose the males that they find the most handsome. In many species, this has now been shown to be correct. Then everyone thought, “OK, well, females may choose their mates—but they don’t seek sex. After they’ve had sex they get on with laying eggs.” This turns out to be nonsense.DNA data has allowed paternity testing of everything from loggerhead turtles to harlequin beetle–riding pseudoscorpions (they’re pseudo because they look like miniature scorpions, but don’t have a sting; they’re harlequin beetle–riding because they travel around from rotting log to rotting log underneath the wings of the harlequin beetle)…. and in species after species, females have turned out to be engaging in—and seeking—far more sex than anyone imagined.

DB: I’m going to presume then that our previous maleoriented view was not just based on limited data but also on a fear of some of our own wives and girlfriends getting the “wrong” idea. That getting the “wrong” idea might upset the tidy notion that the world is naturally male-dominated.The fact that it was believed that almost all creatures followed this macho rule book proves that, well, that the social and religious codes handed down from the Middle East a couple of thousand years ago were maybe OK for desert tribespeople,but they weren’t based on fact, and might be irrelevant to most of us now.

OJ: I’m not sure. Until about 1970, all of the arrows pointed the same way: theory, experiment, and field data. It was only after DNA testing that everything got upset. And views of whether or not women are chaste have changed a great deal in recent historical times… remember that John Donne poem,“Go and catch a falling star,” which concludes that beautiful and faithful women do not exist? The only way to avoid bias is to rigorously scrutinize your own assumptions—but sometimes you’re not even aware of what you assume. Some scientists can transcend bias. Gideon Mantell, one of the first people to study dinosaur fossils, deduced on the basis of a single tooth that there had been giant plant-eating lizardlike animals. This was in the early nineteenth century, and no one knew that any kind of dinosaur had ever existed.To my mind, this was someone whose reasoning led him to an extremely unlikely conclusion—yet he had the courage of his convictions.Whereas many people would have said—and did say—because their minds were closed, that his giant lizards were impossible, he was able to shed his beliefs, and see. Such people are rare.

DB:What a beautiful story. Not only was a giant creature inferred from a lone tooth, but a whole way of life too! People must have thought he was nuts. Talk about the world in a grain of sand! Now I don’t feel so alone inferring that brilliant epiphanies might stem from stains and spills, or that from autograph collectors it’s a small and natural leap to theologians and priests. (Notice that I align myself with someone eventually proved correct, not any old nutcase.) Admittedly my leaps are more metaphorical and presume a lot—but I suspect that poor Mr. Mantell must have taken quite a ribbing at times—or maybe he was just plain ignored. How far can one go with the creative leap idea, the notion of the transcendental flash of intuition? Did you read the quote from the Russian mathematician (the one who refused the prize for the Poincaré Conjecture) saying something to that effect? That at the highest and purest level, math (and much science, let’s presume) is like art, music, and poetry—the insights to a mathematical solution might be daydreamed in the whirls of cream in a coffee cup, or in the balletic interplay of soccer players. “You may think I’m watching clouds and staring at the ceiling—but I’m working!” (Let Marx sort out the pay scale for that sort of labor!) Could intuition be the feeling when two previously separate constellations of neurons link up? When disparate fields come into contact, even briefly?

OJ: I don’t think these questions follow. I’m not sure that Mantell had a leap of intuition: he followed logic to its improbable conclusion (if you know enough about teeth, the shape of a tooth can tell you a lot about its owner).

DB: OK, you’re no doubt right that his dinosaur hypothesis wasn’t an instantaneous bolt out of the blue, as I made it sound… But there are just as many instances where step-by-step logic like his could have inferred something as momentous, but was ignored, denied, or suppressed. Even if he could have supported everything from a molar—which I guess only seems freakish when you think of the difference in size between a tooth and a giant lizard—he had to have had something akin to faith to give him the courage to persist in his convictions. To many, faith implies belief in the irrational and unprovable—in this case I mean neither of those—more like a strong trust in the logical connections that led him to his conclusion. But not everyone has that bold trust—it’s a close cousin to obsession, and madness. One man’s logic is another man’s insanity. Well,maybe not when the facts are all available— we’d like to think the truth will out—but that’s the way it often looks out here, that rationality is sometimes the brain’s way of deceiving others, and itself.


OJ: Your drawings are all about leaps—though more of association than of faith. Explain to me how you went about doing them. And where did the shapes come from?

DB: Yes, some of the connections are specious—as if I am saying we must be related because we have the same number of letters in our names.That sounds like lunacy, but then some relations and associations turn out to be almost that unexpected—or that form is indeed content. I began drawing them very consciously—I scribbled down directions to myself for the first few I did.“Draw an evolutionary tree/network of stains and constellations,” for example. But then, as I did more and more of them, they became less predetermined and conscious, sometimes, and more an extension of a thought process. A thought process unconstrained by rationality, in most cases—intuitive and unconscious. As they are drawings by hand, the physical motion of drawing allows a flow that eliminates or bypasses the need for words.The censorious part of the mind that wants to frame things in sensible,well-constructed sentences is ignored and I surprise myself—well, sometimes. The odd, imaginary (and sometimes invisible) trees, bushes, and webs are, I think, also the hand “thinking” before the brain has a chance to stop it or censor it.

OJ: Having said that, however, science is obviously littered with flashes of inspiration. It’s a much more imaginative enterprise than most people realize, I think.

DB:OK,two more things.I was reading an article in the New Yorker last night about neuroeconomics—trading sort of thing.They confirm, in a much more scientific way, what I’d suspected—that we don’t always behave as rational beings. Here’s a quote: “If emotional responses often trump reason, there can be no presumption that people act in their own best interest.”Whoa! No wonder the economic experts on TV get their predictions wrong at least half the time. It’s fairly commonly accepted that political decisions—voting on issues and supporting causes—work the same way.We scratch our heads when people vote against their own best interests—poor people voting for tax cuts to the super rich, for example—but they do it time and time again. But what would be the evolutionary advantage to this—to acting against your own interests?

OJ: I think that depends on whether emotional responses are actually a good way of measuring self-interest. Perhaps, often, they do—or did.

DB: I think you’re right—they did, and still do most of the time. But as we learn that they are buttons that can be pressed to elicit specific reactions—politicians use emotional buzzwords, flags and symbols, and carefully composed image juxtapositions—well, the reliability becomes less certain.You can manipulate the public—or a boyfriend or girlfriend—more easily if you have learned how to use these emotional tools. Then the recipient is helpless—a clever face overpowers what is being said. Geoffrey Miller, the author of The Mating Mind—whom you cite—wrote recently that, as we surgically manipulate the outward signs of reproductive health—artificially large breasts or steroid-pumped bodies—we bypass these perceptual tools that we have developed—we fall for the illusion. We can’t help it. What do we do?

OJ: Well—we can do what most of us do a lot of the time, which is to engage in an elaborate second-guessing of ourselves… I know I do that! But maybe it doesn’t matter much. If someone looks younger than they are because they’ve gone under the knife—does it matter? I think there are things that may be more important than looks—namely, smell. We live in a very smell-less environment—but smell is crucially important. Take someone who looks great but smells bad. Smell trumps looks on the question of going to bed.


DB: It seems the U.S. has determined that your TV show is a bit too risqué. There are, as far as I can tell, no plans for it to be picked up here. If true, this is sad, but we know those Puritans have had a long and deep influence. What puzzles me is how a simple thing like the forty-ninth parallel can change people’s behavior, their sense of the world and of themselves. Probably there are even small biological differences as well—why not? And those might be passed from generation to generation. Does any of this seem plausible?

OJ: Oh, I think the main differences are cultural. First, the U.S.has had a lot of immigration,for a long time,and a lot of intermarriage. Second, human generation times are quite long—which means it would take quite a while for genetic differences in behavior to spread through a population. And we know that Puritanical attitudes can be installed quite quickly—just look at how fast attitudes to smoking have shifted.

DB: Absolutely. Guess I got carried away and maybe that bit should be taken off the record. It’s been amazing for me to watch, over my lifetime, how waves of cultural attitudes wash over a people, change their behavior completely, and then wash out again, like the tide. How quickly it happens too. Chris Hedges wrote a wonderful book called War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning that specifically examines the seductive power of waging war—how a people can get swept up, become irrational monsters, do despicable things, and then, as the wave recedes, return to the compassionate folks they once were. Like illnesses or infections, cultural attitudes—whether beneficial or harmful—take us over and we become zombies until the spell wears off. But it’s always lurking. Lastly, we’re having this “discussion” for a magazine that focuses on the arts—on literature, pop culture, music, and film—it’s not a science magazine by any stretch. My presumption is that my little drawings are one way to jump over that gap—and fall in sometimes too. But from your side, the sexy side of evolutionary biology, where does the above fit in? Are we all, or some of us at least, bowerbirds and peacocks? Or more correctly, mound-building termites crossed with peacocks? Where does all this making stuff and storytelling get us?

OJ: We are humans—apes with big brains. I think it’s likely that the big brain is our version of the peacock’s tail. I sometimes imagine, when I hear someone speaking, that there is an invisible peacock’s tail of words shimmering behind them. But of course, there’s a crucial difference. In peacocks, only the male has a tail. In humans, we all do.

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