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Our story today is about a Professor of Biology at the University of Minnesota - Morris, and the caretaker of many, many spiders in his lab… Dr. PZ Myers.
IVAN: Welcome to ONE OF 8 BILLION, would you please introduce yourself.
PZ MYERS: My name is PZ Myers, I'm a Professor of Biology at the University of Minnesota Morris. I am getting ready to do a whole bunch of teaching. I'm going to be teaching Cell Biology and an Introductory Biology course this term. And then in my spare time, I take care of spiders, lots of spiders.
IVAN: Wow, how many spiders is lots of spiders?
PZ Myers: I think I'm getting up around 200 in my lab right now. They're very small, so it's not too scary. They fit into little containers, and they're easy to take care of.
IVAN: Is that part of the teaching work that you do?
PZ Myers: It could be. I open up my lab to students who want to do volunteer research and things like that. Unfortunately, spiders aren't really popular. I don't understand why. But I don't get very many students volunteering to work in the lab. I've had a few, but we'll see. And then they do become part of the teaching process, because I'm teaching them how to do research.
IVAN: I think that spiders have a bad rap in the world, don't they? There's something about spiders that we have all these weird connotations that are bad about them.
PZ Myers: I know. It's something I've been struggling with. I've been trying to educate people. Part of the problem is, for instance, everybody when they get up in the morning, they find a little spot where they were stung or bit in the night, they immediately blame the spiders, and it's almost never the spiders. Spiders don't bite people unless you really press them.
IVAN: You know, that's what someone said to me that spiders don't bite people, and I think you just confirmed that.
PZ Myers: Yeah, well, I handle spiders all the time. And these are venomous spiders. And I'm perfectly comfortable letting them scamper all over my hands and everything. And some of them have escaped and live in the lab. Don't tell anyone. But yeah, we have some feral spiders living there. And they're just so totally harmless, except to insects.
IVAN: And necessary for insects as well for our ecology and for our environment.
PZ Myers: Right.
IVAN: Well, did you have this fascination with spiders very early on in life? Or is that more of a recent thing?
PZ Myers: No, I did not. This was an unusual development in that for many, many years my research has all been centered around zebrafish. And we all know tropical fish, they’re cute and soothing and wonderful to keep around. And their tanks go burble and it just makes for a nice environment there. And I've been working on them for decades now. And then I started having some problems with them. Sometimes fish get finicky. Anybody who raises aquarium fish knows this, that sometimes you just got to dismantle the whole tank and reassemble it and clean everything out and give them fresh water and fresh nutrients, all that good stuff.
And that hit me one spring, and it was an awkward time because I had a bunch of students who were working in the lab, and we're all held up because we weren't getting any embryos. And I happened to read this paper by a guy named Alistair McGregor, who is at Oxford right now. He was promoting this new, exciting, interesting animal for laboratory research, which was parasteatoda tepidariorum. I know that's a mouthful, but he's saying it's a really good animal to work with and he gave an outline of their development, which is the aspect I'm interested in. And there was a little throwaway line in the paper where he mentioned that all of the spiders that he uses in the lab were collected in the home of a graduate student in Germany. So I'm immediately thinking Okay, you mean I don't have to go to exotic places to collect this species. And I went out to my garage and it was an eye opening thing because when you're looking for them, they're everywhere. There are spiders all over in my garage, and they stay out of the way, they’re just living in their webs, and a casual visitor might just say, “Well, it's kind of dusty in here,” but they wouldn't notice that there are spiders in every corner. And they were almost all of this one species, parasteatoda tepidariorum. I collected some of them and brought them into the lab, and we started doing experiments on those instead.
Although, of course experiments for me since I'm a developmental biologist, it's can I get these things to breed and lay eggs? And can I collect the eggs and look at what's going on in the embryos? And we brought those into the lab and it was wonderful, because I started raising them. And then one day, we had an egg sack hatch out and I opened up the container in the lab. This was before I knew all the details of taking care of spiders, and they started ballooning out, and the lab was full of all these little tiny baby spiders hanging from threads. And it was magical.
PZ Myers: Yeah.
IVAN: That's cool.
PZ Myers: Yeah, and I was enchanted. So yeah, now I've got to work on spiders. And the more I learn about them, the more I want to learn about them.
IVAN: That's fascinating. That's fascinating. I want to try to understand sort of your original fascination with science. Tell me where you were born. Tell me where you grew up. What does that look like?
PZ Myers: Yeah, I grew up in western Washington state, south of Seattle. I come from a working class family, they had to struggle quite a bit. When I was first born, apparently, we lived on the slopes of Mount Rainier, which is marvelously romantic except that I don't remember any of it, I was too young.
What happened is, as a kid, my mother in particular started interesting me in science. The very first memory I have, the one I remember is my mother got a little plastic toy microscope, and we were trying to figure it out together. I must have been like four years old or something, but we were trying to figure it out together. And we're just chasing a light around, the light streaming into the window with a mirror trying to capture it and see what we could see. And that was an eye opener for me, I got really interested in that.
So for many years after that, I was just deeply involved in anything to do with wildlife science and nature, and exploring and collecting strange animals and all that kind of stuff that probably drove my mother crazy. She may regret that microscope purchase, I don't know.
IVAN: What a sense of wonder to receive from your mom and to be able to say, “Oh, I can remember the very beginning of my scientific inquisitiveness at such a young age.” Did you realize at the time that this was something you wanted to do later on in life, that you could make a living out of this?
PZ Myers: Sort of. When I was very young, I didn't know how you make a living with this. My dad was a diesel mechanic. That's real work, that's how men make money, is they get out there and they do hard labor day after day after day. And so that was kind of my picture of what would happen when I grew up. And it was a wonder when I discovered Hey, there are actually people who do science for a living. And all I have to do is go to college and spend a few years doing this stuff that I love doing anyway. And then maybe I'll get a job. Like now looking at spiders.
IVAN: So great. What a great story there you had, and it sounds like you've realized as well. Do you have any siblings?
PZ Myers: I have three sisters and two brothers. It was a big family. I was the oldest of the bunch. They all still live in the Pacific Northwest. They didn't go far from the nest. I was like the little spider with my balloon just floating away to nowhere. But they're all right there. I try to get out there every few years and visit them.
IVAN: Tell me about why you go by PZ Myers? And, what does the PZ stand for? I'm sure there's a story about that.
PZ Myers: Yeah, well, it's both a simple story and kind of complicated story. I was named after my grandfather, Paul Wested, and so what were you going to call the little kid running around? There's grandpa, that's Paul, there's this little guy. And at first they called me little Paul but then they settled on PZ, because that's my initials, because nobody wants to be called little. So they gave the initials to me, and I actually grew up thinking that was my only pure sole name. And I went off to school and that was a shock, because my mother had to pin a note on my chest to say, your name is Paul, this is where you live, you have to come home here, you have to tell the teachers your name is Paul. And it felt like such an abrupt change in identity. I never liked it. So, you know, whenever I could I tell people to just call me PZ.
IVAN: And it has a great ring to it as well.
PZ Myers: Well, it's different. It's unique. I tell all my students, you don't have to be charismatic, you just have to be different, and you'll find a niche.
IVAN: So you said most of your family is still in the Pacific Northwest. And here you find yourself in, I would say rural Minnesota, that's what I think of when I think of Morris, Minnesota. How did you find yourself in Minnesota? What was the first place you left, after the Pacific Northwest? And how did it end up being in Minnesota thereafter?
PZ Myers: Well, I went to graduate school at the University of Oregon, which is still in the Pacific Northwest. But then I did a postdoc at the University of Utah. It's peripatetic, you can't help it, you're going to have to move around to find a position. So I went to the University of Utah and then I went to Temple University in Philadelphia. And then I started looking for jobs, real jobs, which is always a struggle. And my wife and I talked about it and we had some narrow limitations in that we didn't want to live in the far south because it is too hot and we are cold weather people. So, we kind of narrowed it to the northern tier. And then I started sending out applications, I got a few invitations back to come interview.
Minnesota struck a chord with us because my mother was born in Minnesota, so there's these deep connections there. My grandparents and my great grandparents all spoke with the classic Minnesotan Scandinavian accents, so it was like culturally home.
IVAN: How interesting.
PZ Myers: And then my wife, her parents also were from Minnesota, and she comes up almost pure Norwegian descent. So it was like fate, we were apparently destined to end up in Minnesota, and so we came here. And there was also the nice thing that I had decided I wanted to live and work at a small liberal arts college, because that's the ideal for teaching. And the University of Minnesota Morris fits that perfectly. It's kind of isolated but kind of small, kind of a little village of a university. And then also, when I answered their ad, it was like they were asking specifically for me. They wanted somebody who could do developmental biology and genetics, and those are my skill sets. So it was a natural fit.
IVAN: Could you describe Morris as a part of Minnesota? What it looks like demographically and how the University of Minnesota as I understand is a large university system. How is the Morris campus, this little niche that's different and how does it meets your requirements?
PZ Myers: There's a couple of campuses of the University of Minnesota, Crookston is up north of us, and they are also a small rural campus. But how would I describe University of Minnesota Morris? Well, let's see its population is about 5,000 so it doubles when students come. And it's not quite a one street town, there's actually two or three streets and we actually have two stop lights. So that helps you imagine what kind of little town we're in.
The university itself, we’re kind of down right now because of the pandemic, but in good years we’re around 1500 to 1700 students, so it's a really nice size, and it's kind of what I like to work in. As I mentioned, University of Utah, University of Oregon, Temple University, I would teach an introductory biology course there, and you go in, and there were 500 students sitting in the auditorium. Here, we get maybe 100 students in that same kind of course, and we are so conscious of the importance of small classroom size, that we then assign two professors to it and split the course up into two sections. So, a class with 50 students, that's beautiful. And in some of my classes it gets down to around 10 to 20, there's a really personal kind of teaching experience that you can get there. You get to know your students. They get to know you.
IVAN: And we definitely want that in the world today. We want more educated young humans, young adults that have that personal connection, who can display that empathy, but who can also understand the scientific method, and the work that they're doing at the same time?
PZ Myers: Yeah, and I think it's also important that they have as role models, faculty that they can get to know well, who actually love teaching and research. So we can combine those two things, we can help students figure out that, yeah, you can contribute to society in a whole bunch of different ways. You can do science. You can work with students. There's all kinds of things you can do.
IVAN: Have you ever had a memorable boss or leader or professor or colleague throughout your career that you can just kind of look back on and say, Wow, that person had such an important and indelible mark on what I'm doing today?
PZ Myers: Oh, there was a bunch. I was actually really lucky. I hear stories from other colleagues and other faculty that they had some miserable experiences at the university level. And it was a concern when my daughter went off to become a grad student. I had to warn her, some professors are jerks, stay away from them. But I didn't have that experience.
When I was at the University of Washington, for instance, I had Johnny Pulka, and John Edwards, who were two invertebrate biologists, they studied flies and other insects. And they were really into the teaching stuff. I remember being invited to the professor's house with other students for presentations and things like that. My professor invited me to come along with him to a scientific conference and that was another dazzling experience to find out that there were all these people talking about it.
And then of course, I went to the University of Washington, and my big inspiration would be Charles Kimmel, who at the time I was there was not a big name, he was a little guy in terms of reputation, but he was such an excellent mentor. And it paid off for him because right now he's probably one of the most famous people working on zebrafish in the world. So it's nice to see that he succeeded so well. He had a strong sense of ethics. So I went through five years as a graduate student with him and I never published a paper with him, which, in many scientific circles would be considered, oh, no, he must have hated you. You've been snubbed? But no, it was because he would help you with things, we would talk. But he had this really strong sense that you only put your name on papers that you have directly contributed to. And so he told me that I was going to be publishing solo papers for a while, and that he would find me collaborators and we would work with them. And then their names and mine would be on the paper as well. And I came away with this strong sense of science integrity, from the guy that sticks with me. So yeah, those were the big influences.
IVAN: I would assume you have graduate students?
PZ Myers: No, this is an undergraduate University only, so only undergraduates here.
IVAN: Oh, I did not know that. I just assumed there were graduate students as well there.
PZ Myers: No, I wish there were. But no, it's undergraduates only, which is both good and bad. The good part is you get to work with students at a very young and impressionable age and you can teach them a lot of things and they go on. The bad thing is, most laboratories rely on students to do most of the publications, you guide them and then they do the work and they publish. And usually what I end up doing is spending two years with this student, teaching them all this cool stuff, and then saying, Rah, rah go off to graduate school and take over the world. That's my place in the scheme of things.
IVAN: I have so many questions. So you've essentially been at the University of Minnesota, Morris for a very long time.
PZ Myers: 22 years.
IVAN: Yeah, 22 years. That sounds like a stable, consistent job and research interest. And that means that you have, I would assume, projects and research interests that you can allow to evolve over more than just a year or a funding of two years, you can follow them over long periods of time. What have you been struggling with, that you haven't been successful in over the course of the last 20, 22 years? Maybe you wish it was different?
PZ Myers: Well, do I wish it was different? I don't know. It would be different if I had a team of graduate students. Like I said, the thing with undergraduates is you have them for maybe a year or two, and that's not time enough to bring a major project to fruition. So, the student comes in, you get them all excited and enthused, and they do good. I've had great students who've done marvelous things. But it's never been quite to the point where it can be published. And then they go away, and I get a new student in, which means I have to train them all over again. So that's the bad side of this.
But at the same time, what I've been doing is, I've got certain projects that I've been working on myself. Yeah, that's the thing. You got to do the experiments here by yourself, with students as assistants. So that's the way forward. So like, right now I've got sitting on my computer, a paper where when I first started working with spiders, I said, you know, I don't know enough about spiders. We got to go find out how spiders live. What do they do?
And so a team of students and I hit the town of Morris, and we wandered around, knocking on doors and asking to be let into their garages so that we could catalog all the spiders there. And so, I've got a bunch of that stuff sitting there. So I got all that data sitting on my computer right now. But what I need to do, the next step is, and this is part of the motivation for this is, I want to look at how populations change over time.
So, I need to get students and go outdoors and do the same thing again, so we can do a year by year comparison. Except there was this rotten pandemic, suddenly it became a really bad idea to go to private homes and knock on the door and say, I want to go wander around in your house, may I? You get told no all the time. So we kind of shelved that project and it's waiting until, if ever, the pandemic dies down, and we can move on to it.
IVAN: Gosh, I hope it does die down and there's some additional sense of normalcy that we can be living through.
PZ Myers: Right because just doing things on my own and just doing my own monitoring without the numbers that would come from having students. One of the things that's worried me is that insect and spider populations are declining everywhere.
IVAN: That’s bad.
PZ Myers: Yes. And when we first did this we’d go to a garage and we'd find 10, 20 or 30 spiders in there and now it's gotten much worse. They're doing okay in my garage because I feed them, so they've got stuff to live on in there. This summer has been a bad summer for spiders. I've been going to our various haunts and checking them out, and we're just not seeing as many.
IVAN: Is it primarily the heat that is affecting the spiders? Or is there another explanation? Another reason?
PZ Myers: It's partly the heat. But also, it's because of the decline in their prey. This has been one of the shocking things I have seen is, for instance, if I go out at night, and I go for a walk downtown, it's safe to do that in Morris, you can just go for a walk downtown. And you walk by the streetlights and it used to be you'd look up at the streetlights and there'd be a cloud of gnats and mosquitoes and spiders, just a fuzzy, rapidly moving cloud. And they're gone, I don't see them anymore. It used to be that I'd go outside my house and you'd get the gnats and the little flies and all that kind of stuff, and it makes it sound like the house is filthy, it’s not, but they were clinging to the walls of the house. And that's what spiders would live on, they'd eat those things. And now I hardly see any. Something's going on. I don't like it. Maybe it's the weather, maybe when the weather changes, it will get back to normal. But I need to get out and do some more quantitative measurements to see what's going on there.
IVAN: Yeah, that is really worrying. I was at my allergist last month for my annual checkup and to determine whether or not I continue with my shots and the incredible science that basically prevents me from having to deal with the environmental allergies that I have, but also lets me have two dogs at home, this is great. And she was saying that they have seen an increase in the number of patients that they're seeing as a result of allergies. In and of itself, that could mean that the marketing's better, right? So not a data point that you can trust 100% but it's one of the data points. But she said that the allergy seasons, the severity of the seasons has not only increased from an intensity perspective, but how long they last has increased as well.
And so she’s seeing that the seasons last longer, like for example, ragweed is lasting two weeks longer than it used to, and that the amount of ragweed is much higher. And that was just one example she gave me and that was because that was something that affects me. And even in her observations, she was troubled by that as well, because she has not seen that over the last 20 years of being in practice.
PZ Myers: And spiders don't contribute much to allergies. So what we may be seeing here is a complementary effect that we've got declining insect populations, declining spider populations, which means the plants are very happy and they are spewing out pollen everywhere.
IVAN: What do you do for fun? I know that you have a blog and a YouTube channel. I know that you're quite active on the blog and on Twitter. I assume this is what you're doing for fun unless you're doing other things as well.
PZ Myers: That’s just pure personal enjoyment is sitting down and writing something on the blog and I've been doing that since 2002.
IVAN: Long time for a blog. That was before they were cool, right?
PZ Myers: Right. Well, are they cool? I don't know.
IVAN: I think they're coming back PZ. They're definitely coming back.
PZ Myers: That will be good. Yeah, so I started writing this thing in 2002 and it was, in part, a response to moving to Morris, because I am so isolated out here. I've got colleagues, but in a small university, they've all got very different interests. They’re all splitting up the discipline in various ways.
So a blog was a way to reach out and contact the world at large and also just sort of extend my educational reach and fun stuff like that. And yeah, it was just for fun at first, then it got picked up by a group called Science Blogs and for a while I was rolling in money from the blog, which surprised me.
And, yeah, there's been little things that bring in money there. But then, a couple of years ago, a friend and I started this blog network, it's called freethoughtblogs.com. Here we were active in the secular and atheist communities and those communities have not been particularly good at social justice and good stuff like that. So, what we want to do is establish a blog network where we could recruit writers with all kinds of different backgrounds, similar ideas about secularism, and let them just do their thing.
At first, we tried to support it with advertising and advertisers are evil, they're leeches, so many bad ads that we just gave up on that. We said, Nope, we're not going to fund it, we'll just pay the costs of the server out of our pocket and give people free space and just see what they churn out. So now it's a labor of love that actually costs me a little money. Not too much money, but a little money. I'm willing to pay it just to get this nice, lively group of people all working together.
IVAN: And you also have a YouTube channel.
PZ Myers: That's something I am experimenting with. I’ve put up a video every once in a while but mainly, these are just videos that for the moment interest me about subjects. I've done videos where I harangue against some of the silly people out there. For instance, a couple of weeks ago, I did a video where I just aimed a camera at a big bunch of maggots, which was surprisingly popular.
PZ Myers: Yes. People were interested in this because you can see all these maggots just writhing around in a compost heap. And also, the sound, you can hear them eating, which in some ways is kind of gross and horrible but still, it's a fascinatingly different perspective on nature to just put a camera into something like that and see what happens.
IVAN: I would not have expected that that particular video would be as popular as you just described it. So strange what happens on YouTube.
PZ Myers: Yes, I've been doing videos of spiders and I've gotten used to the fact that I put up a spider video, hardly anybody will want to watch it. So I figured this maggot video that's gonna be worse, nobody's going to turn that on, and no, thousands of people suddenly started tuning in. I don’t know what it was.
IVAN: I don't know, either. I think I've seen a couple of your videos where you have criticized some silly people as you just referred to and tried to use logic and reason and common sense to explain atheism and science and humanism and so on. And I would have thought those would be popular.
PZ Myers: They are.
IVAN: Oh good. I think the genres, like reaction videos, I think that's what it's called or something like that.
PZ Myers: I don't do real reaction videos, because what I'll typically do is I'll take some absurd claim, and I will dissect it and explain why it's wrong. So it's a little bit different than a reaction video where somebody says something stupid, and you say, Gosh, look at that. Isn’t that guy an idiot? But yeah, even from the early days of my blog, that was a big focus. As an evolutionary biologist, I've got to get out there and criticize these terrible ideas from graciousness. So that's a regular feature as well.
IVAN: Do you think that there is progress being made in educating, in breaking down the mythology? Or are we suffering as a rational thinking society that I would expect us to be?
PZ Myers: A little bit of both. So, yes, there is progress. For instance, acceptance of evolution broke the 50% mark in the United States a year or two ago. So we're actually doing better than we were when I started. So that's a good sign. But then at the same time, you've probably read all the news about polarization and how people are splitting into different camps, that's happening, even in the science creation stuff, is that there are really hardcore creationists who go big on this stuff, and are actually making pretty good money promoting this stuff. And sometimes it feels like we're the little Dutch boy with a dike trying to plug up the holes, but there's the ocean of creationism and religious thought out there that's trying to pour through. So that's what we struggle with. So it's kind of both. And of course, if you look at the political world, oh, it's worse.
IVAN: Oh, it's so much worse, isn't it?
PZ Myers: Yes.
IVAN: Although things like the James Webb Telescope going up and bringing all those beautiful pictures back, that's inspirational. And I would imagine that would be inspirational to everyone as well. I mean, here's a feat of science right? Down to the transistors and the chips that powered the rocket that went up and did all of the things, not just all the planetary science, not just all of the engineering. This is a giant effort from humans across the planet that got that telescope up there. And I mean, it's inspirational to me. I'm sure it's inspirational to you. I wish it was inspirational to everyone, and that it was recognized.
PZ Myers: There's a funny thing going on there is, for instance, you talk to creationists, and nowadays the party line from creationist is oh they love science. Science is great. They just trim out all the parts of science that conflict with their religious worldview. So there is still in this country a good solid core of popular support for good science.
It is just that there's the shysters working the side and trying to tell you that their nonsense is science when it's not. So that's optimistic for me. Also, as I mentioned, I teach a lot of courses, and one of them is I teach the introductory evolutionary biology course and that's always been interesting, because I found that the way to make it work is, this is rural Minnesota, we always get students coming in who are literally creationists who don't want to believe this old earth evolution stuff. But the way to win them over is you just show them the evidence, and the evidence is beautiful. Dinosaurs are a great tool for breaking through that. Dinosaurs are awesome. So you bring out some of the dinosaurs. We’ve got fossils around here. I've got a little collection of fossils I bring into the classroom, and you can actually just hold them and touch them and you tell them, Hey, that Trilobite you're holding there is 350 million years old and you gotta respect that, right? That's got to get through to them to realize that there are things that are so awesomely old. And then you show them how life was so different over the years, that it hasn't been static and unchanged, it can't possibly be 6000 years old, and here's why. So that kind of works. I've had a few successes there in weaning people away.
IVAN: What inspires you to keep doing that? To keep teaching? To keep informing people and educating?
PZ Myers: Well, there's always the successes, as I mentioned. It's always good to have something so that you're not simply butting your head against a brick wall all the time. So, you get some achievements there. But also, personally from an early age, I was inspired by science and evolution and all that good stuff, that I grew up reading Time Life books, Louis Leakey and all that bunch, and getting really excited about those discoveries. And I think that what really helps is that even if the kid you're talking to is obstinate, can't get through it, you can feel it, that the teacher can know that this is amazing stuff. It's too bad this kid isn't getting it, but I'm going to go home and read this book again because it's so darn good.
IVAN: And that'll inspire to do it again tomorrow won’t it?
PZ Myers: Right?
IVAN: Try again.
PZ Myers: Yes. Yeah, because the story is so beautiful. Why would I want to tell any other story? Again, that's what teaching is all about is telling people good stories. So you're not going to get me to give up the best stories in science that we've got.
IVAN: That's so inspirational. What makes you smile? I hear you laugh.
PZ Myers: Lately it’s been hard to get me to smile, with the pandemic and the politics and everything. Probably the most surefire thing to get me to smile is visiting my grandchildren. That's a natural, right?
IVAN: Yeah. Where are your grandchildren?
PZ Myers: One is in the Seattle, Tacoma area so we don't get to see him very often, which is unfortunate. And he's a very rambunctious little guy, he’s four. And then my daughter is actually closer, her kid is in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. So about four hours away. We can drive there for a weekend every once in a while. And she's about three, three is a cute age.
IVAN: It is, isn't it? The wonder in their eyes. The belief system that they have, they're trying to figure things out. Yeah, three is a great age.
PZ Myers: Yeah, it's a really tempting age too. When my wife and I were having children, we had one kid. We said, That's enough, that's a lot of work.' And then they hit three and we said, Oh, man, that is so beautiful. I got to have another one. And we went through three kids that way, just getting seduced by these beautiful little three year olds. So that's how far apart they're spaced anyway.
IVAN: Perfect. That sounds absolutely perfect. ONE OF 8 BILLION is the name of the podcast, as you know. And I often feel like that number is so huge, and I feel disconnected from all these other 8 billion humans. And then at the same time I feel connected to them as well through my local community, through the people I see every day and work with and so on. And then yet again, I think about the James Webb telescope and I remember that, as another guest said, it's just a keyhole into the universe. We're only seeing a very small portion of the universe when we look. So it makes me feel even smaller, just thinking about all the people on the planet. How does being ONE OF 8 BILLION make you feel?
PZ Myers: Oh, ONE OF 8 BILLION is pretty good. That's a number I could appreciate more because in my business, we tend to think of much bigger numbers that life has existed on this earth for 4 billion years. Animals have been around for about half a billion years. And there's all these diverse species that have arisen over that time. And all of them had numbers like that – billions and billions – some even trillions. And so, I multiply them all together and yeah, I'm tiny and insignificant compared to all that. And on top of that, because I'm interested in deep evolutionary time, I look at my life and I'm going to be just a brief speck that's going to appear and vanish and disappear. And no one will remember me in years to come. So that kind of sensation of transients and mortality I have become accustomed to and actually find very comforting. All your mistakes are going to disappear someday, don't worry about it.
IVAN: Don’t worry about it. That's a great attitude, isn't it?
PZ Myers: It's only the good that you do that's going to live on. And that's going to live on through proxies, like your grandchildren or whoever, the people that you inspire. So I can sort of separate myself from the coarse meat of who I am and think of myself instead as just this one shining moment with many shining moments before and many shining moments after, that don't have to involve me.
IVAN: And it's a really good way of being able to appreciate now and life now and everything that we have now?
PZ Myers: Yes. Yeah, when I'm stressed out my one meditation technique, which will sound kind of macabre and gruesome is I like to just sit back and imagine that I'm dead, the years after when I'm gone, and I just think about what good will live on. Think about your grandchildren growing up, and them having children and great grandchildren. Think of the planet getting cleaned up, all this other good stuff that it takes so long that you can't be part of it. But you can meditate on it and get inspired, we hope.
IVAN: That is inspiring. I was just talking to someone the other day about this. How fortunate are we that we are on this planet in this situation that we're in with the ability to think and analyze and look at everything around us and be able to realize that we're actually doing that? And how many things had to have gone right from a scientific perspective for all of this to all line up? And what are the chances that this exists elsewhere in the universe? And I don't know, maybe I should ask an evolutionary biologist.
PZ Myers: I take a slightly different point of view from you. It’s like winning the lottery, and you look at the lottery number, what's that? What are the odds, this number would win this time? And it's really unlikely, but at the same time, it's extremely likely that somebody would have won. So when I think about these kinds of things, I'm thinking, that things could have been so much different, and they have been different, and they will be different and that can be beautiful, too.
I don't even have much of an attachment to the idea of humans being special and being particularly good at contemplating the universe or whatever because I can go into my lab, and I can pull out a container with a spider in it and look at it, and it's sitting there. It's thinking, it's got all kinds of dreams and plans, like finding a fat juicy fly and finding a mate and they're quite happy with that they seem. They’re thriving, they get bigger, they grow, they have babies. Same thing I'm trying to do.
IVAN: Right. How likely is it that there is another planet in the universe, or more than one other planet that has had some sort of evolutionary processes take place where there is some sort of life that maybe resembles our kind over here?
PZ Myers: That's a whole range of different possibilities. I think it's pretty much guaranteed that there are planets with evolution in life on them because as I'm going to be telling my students tomorrow in class, life is just chemistry and chemistry happens all over the universe. So it's definitely pretty much certain that under the right conditions, life will arise all over the place.
So consider the whole universe speckled with little bits of mold, and grit and grease and slime and creatures crawling on them. That's just the way it is. Whether they would grow up to be like us, that's a little more complicated, because what do you mean like us? If there were a giant, intelligent spider, a sentient spider, would you say, Oh, well, that's not like us or would you recognize that there's kinship there, and that the way we look at the world has got to have some similarities. So that's one way to look at it.
And the other is that the kinds of intelligence we use to write philosophy books and do politics isn't necessarily the kind of intelligence most intelligent species would evolve. They'd have better things to do with their brains than all that. Maybe there's a whole planet of intelligent spiders, who think their destiny in life is to create great art. Would we recognize them like us?
IVAN: I love all the possibilities that you've just made me think of? That excites me and makes me happy. Is there anything that you hope you'll see in your lifetime that we maybe haven't seen on planet Earth yet?
PZ Myers: Oh, on planet Earth? Of course there's a huge number of scientific questions that I would love to see answered, but probably won't be answered in my lifetime. Since we're talking about evolution, the origin of life, there's all this exciting work being done right now and on deep sea biochemistry on how things arrive in volcanic vents and that's a really hard thing to study. It's going to take time. I'd like to know more about that and more details of the biochemistry of the earliest life would be a cool thing to know.
Here's an obscure question for you. If we look at all vertebrates, we all have four limbs, sometimes you lose two, but most species have four. Why? What is the basis of that pattern? We've got hints of it, things like hawks genes, they're expressed in these patterns that are associated with the formation of limbs and other segmental structures. But how do we get that pattern? What's the molecular agent that is producing these oscillating patterns of, for instance, pair rule genes and segmentation? I want to know more about that. Well, you know, we get little hints every once in a while, people keep finding new stuff, but I'd love to have an answer to that before I kick off.
IVAN: Why are vertebrates two or four legged? Yeah, I never thought about that.
PZ Myers: And insects have six, spiders have eight. Why? I mean, it's probably just an evolutionary accident that there was some pattern that was set up 500 or 700 million years ago that led to this. But what was the basis of that pattern? If we want to think of things in an experimental way, how can we change it? Is there a way to make eight-legged people? I don't know.
IVAN: Oh, my gosh, I don't know either. I wonder how much of it has to do with the sort of the physics behind the size of the animals that ended up being four legged or two legged? When you think about them, they’re an order of magnitude larger than insects and spiders, right? And they're vertebrates as opposed to being invertebrates. I have so many questions.
PZ Myers: Where’s the obstacle to having an extra pair of limbs? Think of birds. It sure would have been handy for them if they'd had a third pair of limbs, one of which they could make into wings and the other four would be for walking on the ground?
IVAN: Birds. Yeah, why don't they have arms as well as wings? Why do their arms turn into wings? Yeah.
PZ Myers: Get on that.
IVAN: Thanks, I think I will. I'm going to hang up here and then that's exactly what I'm going to be doing.
PZ Myers: Yeah, It's a good question. And I don't think the objection about based on size is necessarily the valid one, because there are some very large spiders and very large, for instance, centipedes and millipedes. There are for instance spiders that are big enough to eat birds and mice.
IVAN: So that nullifies that idea. Yeah, okay. I want to be a student again, now.
PZ Myers: Why did you have to stop?
IVAN: I didn't have to stop. I'm still learning. I'm still learning. But I think I want to take that introductory class you're starting tomorrow. Is that going to be available online in any form?
PZ Myers: I don't know yet. It's going to depend on the students. I get together with the students for that class on Thursday, and I’m making all kinds of accommodations for the pandemic. And I'll be talking to them and I’ll just ask them, Do you want me to put this on Canvas, which you won't be able to see? Or do you want me to put it on YouTube? Tell me. And I'll figure out what they want.
IVAN: If the vote happens to be a tiebreaker, and you need an extra vote, call me. I think my vote would be YouTube as opposed to Canvas.
PZ Myers: Okay. Yeah, it's a tricky thing, because I want open access everywhere. I think it's terrible that so many things, so many textbooks, for instance, are ridiculously expensive and walled off. Scientific papers are all behind paywalls. Classes, you can't just walk into a class, there's a registrar who expects you to pay. Isn't that silly?
IVAN: I wish it was all open too. That would be amazing. Thank you so much for talking to me and for spending your time with me. I'm so thankful. I appreciate learning where you came from, how science is just so wondrous in your eyes. I could listen to you answer my questions and talk the whole day. So, unfortunately, we have to end this episode, but it's been wonderful talking to you. Thank you so much.
PZ Myers: Yeah, it's been a great conversation. Thank you for contacting me.
IVAN: I hope you’ll join us in the next episode of ONE OF 8 BILLION… when we hear from writer, speaker, podcaster, and the “Inbox Zero” guy, Merlin Mann.
MERLIN MANN: I used to get really mad about email and would get really like frustrated with people who were like, you know, sending me lots of email and like wanting me to engage.
And that just in other areas, I'll talk about how it doesn't scale up. You can't treat everybody the same way in life, or you become a monster. But like, what I had to learn was before you get mad about an email, consider that that might be that person's way of saying, I love you. Even if they're writing you hate mail to say, I used to like what you did and now I don't, that's a belated love letter.
This has been ONE OF 8 BILLION, a podcast about all of us... online at 1of8b.com. Join us again next time as we listen to one of eight billion other stories!
This is episode 143 of ONE OF 8 BILLION. It was recorded on August 23, 2022 and first published on September 28, 2022. Audio length is 49 minutes. Transcription by Roxanne Chumucas. Summary, highlights and editing by Brian Lucas. Music by Lexfunk. Produced by Jonathan Freed.