Dissection, Darwin, Dawkins and Dr Death: An interview with Simon Watt
By Rupert P Cole, on 6 September 2012
Simon Watt is an evolutionary biologist and all-round expert in science “edutainment”. I caught up with Simon at the British Science Festival. (You can find audio from the interview at the bottom of this post).
Simon gave two talks at the festival. In “Dissections Uncut,” he ran through some of the material that didn’t make the final edit of Channel 4’s Inside Nature’s Giants – a series he co-presented.
My personal highlight was the exploding whale video. Yes, exploding. I should clarify that in Simon’s footage no dynamite was used (though this did happen once in Oregan – worth a google). Rather, when whales decompose, gas inside builds up, which can then result in an eruption of organs.
Let’s talk about sex
Simon’s other talk, “Sperm Warfare”, took us on a biological ride through the world of sex, from weasels to humans, and many in between. He warned us:
“At the end of the show you will probably think I’m a pervert.”
Not this audience. The talk provoked questions such as “what’s anal sex all about?” And “what’s your favourite penis?” The weevil turned out to be one of his favourites, as it gruesomely bypassed the female sexual organs, and stabbed its way in through the stomach. Cruel biology.
Besides the vast collection of bizarre sex facts, I was amazed at the names scientists give to their theories. For instance, one idea for why female species have multiples mates – so that they get more nuptial gifts (usually food) – is called the “prostitution hypothesis”.
Darwin to Dawkins
I asked Simon who he admired the most in the history of evolutionary biology. Were Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, the two who gave us the theory of evolution by natural selection, the unquestioned heroes?
Darwin, Simon told me, had to be every evolutionary biologist’s hero. Not just for the theory, but also his methodology. As his notebooks show, he had an inspiring, endless curiosity with the world.
For example, for hours he used to employ his children to play different musical instruments to earthworms just to see their response. They were unmoved, it turned out. Though the point is, he answered his inquiry.
But there were many other to revere. Especially those scientists who were great communicators. Mat Ridley, Bill Hammond, Steven Pinker, and Richard Dawkins – to name but a few.
As Dawkins came up, inevitably I asked Simon about the sometimes hostile reception evolution receives. Simon thought it a shame that evolutionary biologists, more than geologists or physicists, get the most flak from fundamentalist types.
He also rejects the idea that he believes in evolution – if another, better theory that explained life came along he would have no regrets leaving evolution behind.
As the physicist Lawrence Krauss puts it: “as soon as nature points out the right direction, scientists would sooner jump off a sinking ship” than cling on to a dead theory.
Simon has his own science communication company, “Ready, Steady, Science!”, which is dedicated to education through entertainment. A recent project was a “scientifically and historically accurate pantomime for children and childish people”. It goes by the rather exciting name, “Dr Death and the Medi-Evil Medicine Show”.
Simon plays a blood-stained Dr Death, who takes his audience through the history of medicine, from ancient to modern practise with plenty of guts, gore and puppetry! Whatever C. P. Snow will have you believe, science and art really are getting on at the moment.
Rupert Cole is a History of Science, Technology and Medicine MSc student in UCL Science and Technology Studies.