Ahead of the Leeds International Festival, Professor Alice Roberts talks to Anna Cale about what makes us human, inspiring conversations, and how science can enrich our culture.
Professor Alice Roberts (original photo David Stevens.)
At school, I always thought I wasn’t very good at science. Apart from paying meticulous attention to my apparatus diagrams in chemistry lessons, I always felt overwhelmed by it, rather than engaged. I regret that now.
When it comes to the art of engaging people in the joy of science, Professor Alice Roberts would be top of anyone’s list. A biological anthropologist, author and broadcaster known for ground-breaking television shows such as The Incredible Human Journey, she was in Leeds to take part in the city’s International Festival. Speaking a few days before she took to the stage, Roberts talked about why this particular festival was top of her list.
“I think festivals are a great way of engaging with a wide audience. And I love Leeds, I’ve got an honorary doctorate from Leeds University so I’m looking forward to coming up. I love it as a big vibrant northern city.”
Roberts is always keen to do gigs away from London, “I think it’s incredibly important that people like me travel around the rest of the country and don’t just engage with the South East. I try to avoid London and focus more on other places.”
Appearing at festivals and other live shows is also a way to inspire others to join a conversation, “Part of my impetus for doing live shows as well as the television and the writing that I do, is to engage directly. I think there’s something really powerful about a live appearance and enabling people to have a conversation.”
Roberts is also keen to stress that you don’t need to be a scientist to be interested in science, “I’m a huge advocate of science being part of our culture instead of separate from it. There are wonderful stories that emerge from science.”
“It is about inspiring young people, but it’s also about lifelong learning, because people can continue engaging with science throughout their lives.”
Roberts was appearing at the Leeds International Festival as part of a series of talks curated by Leeds Beckett University on the theme ‘what does it mean to be human?’ I suggest that’s quite an ambitious question to ask.
“It’s a great question, because you can approach it in so many different ways. You can approach it in artistic ways, in philosophical ways, and you can approach it in a scientific way.”
For Roberts it’s about trying to understand who we are as humans and approaching it from a biological and scientific perspective.
“It’s fascinating that wherever you go around the world, every single culture has an origin story. People have always been fascinated by these questions of who we are and where we came from.”
“Those questions played within the domain of philosophy and religion for many centuries, but increasingly it’s science that is providing us with the answers.”
Roberts continues, “We’re not just talking about metaphors, we’re not just talking about fairy tale origin stories but real origin stories. Where did our species come from? How did we evolve? What makes us human?
“I think for a long time we thought about humans being quite separate from nature. What biology says of course is that we’re not separate from nature, we’re part of it. We’re just another twig on the great tree of life.”
The focus of Roberts in her talk was to look at human migrations around the world during the Stone Age. It’s a theme she covered as part of her landmark BBC series The Incredible Human Journey a decade ago, but new research means the story has moved on since the programme was first broadcast and we can now paint a new picture of those ancient journeys.
Roberts talks about the origin of our species in Africa, and the expansion of our ancestors. Most remained in Africa, a very successful population, but a small proportion expanded out. “Those pioneers go and colonise Europe, Asia, the Americas, and eventually Australia as well.”
“But there have been some astonishing revelations in the last 10 years, that we weren’t aware of when we made that series, so it’s a great time to update.”
Part of that shift is due to advances in technology. Ten years can be a long time in science.
Roberts explains, “The massive breakthrough has been ancient genomics. When I made that series 10 years ago there was some ancient DNA knocking around. People had managed to extract DNA out of old bones and very old fossils and had started to look at parts of that DNA.”
“Most of the story we were able to tell 10 years ago was based on a very small part of DNA called mitochondrial DNA. Now we’re in an era where we are actually looking at ancient genomes, all of the DNA that’s in the chromosomes, as well as the mitochondria.”
“We’ve now got a wealth of information, from not only into humans, but also the later species.”
Roberts explains the big revelation that first broke the surface in 2010 was that modern humans, Homo sapiens, had interbred with Neanderthals.
“Looking at the Neanderthal genomes, scientists have been able to extract DNA from Neanderthal bone. Looking at the Neanderthal genome that they reconstructed, it became clear that modern humans and our species Homo sapiens, had interbred with Neanderthals.”
“That was just astonishing, and something we wouldn’t have know if it wasn’t for genetics.”
The field of ancient genetics and genomics has leapt forward since then, while still complimenting archaeology and the traditional study of fossils. Although the story has moved on, the broadcast of The Incredible Human Journey was a turning point, “It opened up that whole area of science to a new audience. It’s a really positive story as well. For me as an anthropologist I’m very aware of the background of my discipline, and a fairly sordid past.”
“Going back into the 19th century, anthropology was very tied up with a lot of racist ideas which developed into some dreadful political fallout in the 20th century. I think that modern anthropology is now able to tell a much more positive story of humanity, a story of diversity, and is celebrating differences.”
Those advances in technology and research show that the story of humans is always evolving, and the constant change means it’s an exciting field to work in. “I think this is what is exciting about science generally is that it doesn’t stand still.”
But Roberts is concerned that science is often not seen as a dynamic and creative subject, something which means there’s often a lack of interest in studying it, “I’ve interviewed teenagers who’ve said that they’re giving up science at A level because they want to do creative subjects instead. And I’ve felt utter horror at the fact that they don’t perceive science to be creative. I wonder what we’re doing wrong in order for them to think that.”
Roberts is passionate about conveying the creative possibilities of science. It begins with a body of knowledge, but there is so much more, “It is about standing at the edge of that and looking out into the unknown, working out ways of probing that unknown and being creative in terms of making hypotheses.”
“It’s exciting and creative, and always changing. We’re always adding more knowledge and it is extraordinary.”
Roberts is keen to harness and encourage the continuation of the joy and wonder younger children show, “When I go into primary schools all the kids are interested in science, they’re all interested in everything.”
“They don’t see these boundaries between the subjects that we then erect in secondary school and at tertiary level education. I think that’s sad. We somehow need to break those boundaries down and allow people to continue being interested in science.”
People of all ages should be encouraged to retain a health interest in science, “There’s so much joy there. It’s not just about making sure that you’re informed and able to make decisions from an informed basis, it’s about tapping into that source of enrichment in our culture too.”
That’s where an event like the Leeds International Festival comes in. The festival aims to showcase the creative ideas of the city and provide a platform to discuss big ideas. An ambition that Roberts is also keen to support, “I think it’s wonderful, it’s time out from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and an opportunity to reflect and consider. And I think the diversity of the festival is very exciting.”