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Horrifying Hybrids

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Blake Smith: Why do so many monsters have us in them? From our earliest myths, the strange combination of men and animals has been a part of human culture. The animal-man hybrid gods of Egypt … the satyrs and centaurs of the Greeks … Wolf-man … Dog-man … Goat-man … Mermaids. These creatures are, as far as science can tell us, just myths. Yet sightings of such hybrids are still reported today. Could a human-animal hybrid really be created through genetic manipulation or through the insemination of our closest relatives, the chimps, with human genetic material?

Hybrids, Monsters, and Genetics … today on MonsterTalk.

[Intro]

Blake: Welcome to MonsterTalk, presented by Skeptic magazine. I’m Blake Smith, and together with Ben Radford, managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer, and Dr. Karen Stollznow, linguist, skeptical investigator and Skepchick, we examine stories of monsters and try to find out what the real science is behind such tales.

In the mid- to late-1990s when stories of the Chupacabras first appeared, there were assertions that the creature, which at that time had a roughly humanoid appearance, was the result of hybridization experiments using human and alien DNA. And more recently, two stories that directly discuss animal-human hybridization questions—One, the story from the newspaper, The Scotsman, in December 2005, that Joseph Stalin had tried to breed a gorilla-human hybrid super army, and the second, the persistent tale of Oliver, the chimp who walked like a man—multiple documentaries have explored the question whether Oliver was some kind of human-chimp hybrid. Links to those two stories will be in the show notes.

Joining us to discuss genetics today will be Dr. Steven Jones, author of Darwin’s Ghost. He’ll answer many questions about genetics, hybridization, and share some very tawdry stories about sex in the garden. But before we get to that discussion of hybrids and genetics, we’ll hear a special report from Ben Radford about a topic which continues to show the strange ties between cryptozoology and Creationism.

[Voiceover: MonsterTalk!]

Ben Radford: In late July 2009, a man living near the small, wind-swept town of Blanco, Texas heard chickens in his barn being harassed or attacked by some strange animal. The creature escaped before he could catch it or even get a glimpse of it. However, assuming the beast was a raccoon or other varmint, he left out poison for it. Next morning, he discovered a dead animal unlike anything he had ever seen. It was a beast that many would come to call … The Chupacabra! It weighed about eighty pounds and was obviously a canid, resembling a coyote or a dog, though its front legs were a few inches shorter than most coyotes. Its skin was a dark chocolate color and it was mostly hairless, giving it an odd, eerie, strange look. He contacted his cousin, Lynn Butler, who also didn’t know what to make of the strange creature. They put it in a freezer, and Butler decided that the person most likely able to identify it was a friend of his, Jerry Ayer, a taxidermist of over twenty years experience in Blanco. He traded it to Mr. Ayer in exchange for a course on taxidermy.

Public opinion of the mysterious beast was divided into three camps. Basically, the first and most popular was that it was in fact a Chupacabra, the long-sought mystical goat-sucker of folklore. The second was that it was a xolo dog which is a Mexican hairless dog of ancient heritage that had been seen in other parts of Texas. And the third was that it was a coyote or maybe a dog—a coyote, of course, with mange, which would explain the lack of hair. Jerry Ayer was the first person known to have dissected an alleged Chupacabra for taxidermy purposes. But the question of course is, is it a Chupacabra? Mr. Ayer doesn’t think so. He says:

Jerry Ayer (recorded): I still don’t know what it is. It’s very coyote-like, though. It looks—resembles the shape of a coyote—it’s got canine teeth; it’s got the basic skeletal structure of a coyote. But I don’t believe it’s a Mexican xolo dog, and I don’t necessarily believe it’s just a coyote with a bad case of mange. But I don’t know, I don’t know if I’m in a position to, you know, to say that. I’m not a scientist or anything and I don’t have the DNA results back. It’s just my opinion.

Ben: In this regard, Ayer was refreshingly and unusually candid about the limits of his expertise. As Ayer finished stuffing and mounting the Chupacabra the media blitz became relentless. The news got out about his Chupacabra, and soon his taxidermy shop was getting over a hundred phone calls a day from journalists, curiosity seekers. He fielded interview requests from CNN, Good Morning America, Indonesian Radio, and all over the world, and eventually he decided he just wanted to get rid of it. He ended up selling it to a man named John Adolfi who runs a museum in the small town of Phoenix, New York, which is just outside of Syracuse. Mr. Adolfi’s museum is called the Lost World Museum, and it’s an unusual museum because it’s actually a Creationist museum. Mr. Adolfi believes the world was created in six to ten thousand years, and of course that evolution is bunk. Mr. Adolfi bought it from Mr. Ayer for an undisclosed amount, probably close to ten thousand dollars. He’s exhibiting the Chupacabra as an example of the fallibity of science, basically showing the Chupacabra to say, Look, scientists don’t have all the answers, they say the Chupacabra can’t exist, and yet here it is, even though actually, technically, I don’t know of any scientists who ever said that Chupacabra definitively can’t exist.

It will be interesting to see what happens, although as I interviewed Mr. Ayer, one of the questions that came up was, where did the idea that it was a Chupacabra come from in the first place? Because in all my readings in the news accounts, there was no mention whatsoever of, of course, the signature characteristic of a Chupacabra attack, which is animals drained of blood, mysteriously or otherwise. And Mr. Ayer told me in fact that was totally lacking. There were no animals that were drained of blood. In fact, the chickens that were originally attacked by this creature that was poisoned weren’t even harmed. They were basically just harassed and chased around the barn. So you have this whole sort of Chupacabra story—it’s basically the biggest Chupacabra story of 2009—based apparently on nothing else than an ordinary case of a canid, either a coyote or probably a dog, chasing chickens around a barn. So there was … Really, the kernel of the reason why anybody might think it was a Chupacabra is totally absent in this case. Some scientists from Texas A&M came out and took some samples from the Blanco Chupacabra, and currently they’re doing DNA tests on those. As of right now, we haven’t heard back yet. It seems most likely it’s probably a coyote.

[Voiceover: MonsterTalk!]

Blake: Hybrid monsters—monsters that are hybridizations of humans and animals, or humans and non-animals, like aliens. Ben, is the Chupacabra, isn’t it an alien-human hybrid in some stories?

Ben: Yeah, it depends on which version you’re looking at, but yeah, many times that is one of the top, say, one or two explanations for the Chupacabra is that it’s a hybrid, a genetics experiment gone awry, harkening back to the Frankenstein, The Island of Dr. Moreau type of stuff, so that is one of the big explanations for it.

Blake: Are there any kind of—I know we have Goat-Man here in the States—well we don’t really have Goat-Man, but we have the legend of Goat-Man, and that’s actually—

Ben: I hear he’s delicious.

Blake: [Laughing] Uh, I’m going to skip any puns that just popped into my head. [Laughing] Do they have human-animal hybrid legends in Australia, Karen?

Dr. Karen Stollznow: Well, I think that would be, probably like the Ape-Man stories that you find here as well, like the Yowie that would be some sort of hybrid, in some stories anyway. Other than that I can’t think of any other animals which are a blend of human and some other creature, some other species.

Blake: You don’t have any Goat—no, not goat, Kangaroo-Man or Wallaby-Man?

Karen: [Laughing] Well, probably from this point onwards there will be, but—

Blake: [Laughing]

Karen: —previously? Wombat-Man, or something, not that I’m aware of, no.

Blake: And, is there any legend of genetic experiments being done on wombats to turn them into super-soldiers?

Karen: [Laughing] No, no, I don’t think we have any sort of RaÎlian groups.

Blake: Actually, I think it’s a government program, the Combat Wombat would be pretty self-promoting.

Ben: The Combat Wombat?

Blake: Yes, I think so.

Ben: Ah.

Karen: You’ve got the name, anyway.

Blake: Right, I think it’s got its own marketing campaign just by having—. [Laughing]

Ben: Along with the Geico Gecko, the Combat Wombat.

Blake: The Combat Wombat. I think this is worth pursuing. Well, you know, it’s not up to me, it’s up to Australia, so …

Karen: [Laughing] I’ll take it home with me.

Blake: There you go. So, what’s going on with the—have you looked into the reconstruction of the thylacine at all? That’s something I found pretty interesting, the idea that they can take genetic material from existing specimens and try to reconstruct the genome and perhaps even clone or recreate a thylacine.

Karen: [Laughing] I didn’t know you’d ask me about this, I’ll have to do some research before I could answer that.

Blake: Okay! [Laughing] That’s all right. You know what, if you want to look into that, that’s actually a pretty cool story that popped up about, I guess 2002, 2003, something like that.

Ben: Mm-hmm.

Karen: If you want to do an episode about it or something, I’m sure I could find someone who could speak.

Blake: Oh, well, yeah, there’s definitely a couple of people working on it in Australia, which is, you know, a pretty good place to work on it. [Laughing] But the … I don’t know how far they’ve gotten.

Ben: I was going to say, I understand that one of the last—they’re all dead now, supposedly—but one of the last thylacines was actually named Ben.

Karen: I think that’s true, I know that much. [Laughing]

Blake: Wait, who asked him?

Ben: [Laughing] I’m just passing it along, I’m just throwing out nuggets of things that pop into my head.

Blake: So wait, how do they know his name was Ben?

Ben: I think it had a tag.

Blake: Oh, okay.

Karen: Bestowed upon him.

Ben: It had a dog tag from God.

Blake: Karen, that would be a really good thing to research.

Karen: I think so, for another episode.

Blake: The only people I’ve ever heard talking about it were the people involved with the project. And the question is, is it actually reasonable to think that you could reconstruct a dead animal from genetic pieces. For example, the—you know, if they build the genome of a mastodon, you know, can they then take an elephant genome and manipulate it to make it pop out a mastodon-like body? That’s actually—

Karen: We should find out today.

Ben: Well, it worked in Jurassic Park. I mean, that would be a fair question, you know, just how implausible is Jurassic Park?

Blake: Yeah.

Ben: We could ask Crichton, but he’s dead.

Blake: That’s true, he is a little bit dead. For now.

Ben: [Laughing] Although I’m sure his DNA is somewhere, so—

Blake: Right. [Laughing]

Ben: Well, it would be ironic to bring him back and interview him about it.

Blake: He’s also good for robots gone mad. I don’t know if we’ll ever get to do an episode on that, but that’s also—Westworld is … well, you know, it didn’t hold up as well as I had hoped, I watched it again recently and it was just not as good, but it scared the crap out of me as a kid.

Ben: That was a documentary, right?

Blake: I assume so, yeah.

Stalin’s gorilla-human hybrid army—I don’t know why that story is still around. I assume these things are completely implausible, honestly, so when we talk to an expert we’ll find out, but my assumption is that even though you could take a horse and a donkey and cross them and get a mule, that you can’t take a human and a chimpanzee and cross them and get a Humanzee. Although there are some really cool real hybrids, I mean, I suppose you guys are familiar with the Liger.

Ben: Mm-hmm.

Karen: Yes.

Blake: So, I love the liger, and not just from Napoleon Dynamite. I think it’s just a fantastically beautiful animal. But one that wouldn’t occur naturally because the cross-populations of those two species just don’t happen in the wild.

Ben: So are—is the human genome so specialized that there’s really nothing else we can cross breed with?

Blake: That’s what I think is the case. I think that the closest ancestors we have are too much dead. [Laughing] We don’t have any cousins that are close enough to us to be able to do hybridization. Although clearly at one time in our lineage, based on the evidence—you know, I saw some really interesting evidence from, I believe it was from fleas or mites or some kind of parasites that they were—Oh! It was lice. There’s hair lice and genital lice, and they could look at the differentiation between those species and those that occur in gorillas and determine that at one time we were at least were sharing habitation with those animals because we were sharing lice. So, those lice get very specialized by species, so … And of course if I’m completely wrong on that we’ll edit that out but— [Laughter] That’s the last I heard, so … And of course I think there’s also, there’s something different in the number of chromosomes between humans and chimpanzees, so it’s—that makes it also a little bit more challenging to expect to get a viable offspring from a coupling, or even if the coupling is done in a test tube. I think there’s a weird thing in there where you’re trying to talk about, Do … how do I put this? Can you get these hybrids in the lab? That’s the real valid question, because it would be very dangerous to try to get them through having a human and a chimpanzee mate, I think. They’re very wild animals.

[Music Interlude]

Blake: Quick correction. As Dr. Jones will explain in the upcoming interview, I was wrong about the viability of a chimp-human hybrid. They have a real potentiality, but a vast number of obstacles make their actuality extremely implausible. Science is self-correcting, and when possible I like to follow its lead. So let’s get onto the interview.

[Voiceover: MonsterTalk!]

Blake: We’re joined today on MonsterTalk by Dr. Steven Jones, a Professor of Genetics at Galton Laboratory, University College, London. Dr. Jones is a noted lecturer, an author, and television presenter. He writes a column for the Daily Telegraph. He’s received the Royal Society’s Faraday Prize, and has been called England’s Carl Sagan. His books include Darwin’s Ghost, The Language of Genes, Introducing Genetics, and Darwin’s Island. And now, he’s graciously come onto our show to talk about genetics and monsters.

Dr. Steven Jones: Okay, I’m the Professor of Genetics at University College, London, and I’m also head of the Genetics Department. I’m what they call a population geneticist, and I’ve spent much of my career on what might seem a rather futile topic, on the population genetics of snails, but ironically enough, what we’ve learned from those kinds of systems now applies very much to humans, too.

Blake: Excellent. So, what exactly is a gene?

Steven: That’s a standard, undergraduate, final-year, you know, bachelor-level question: What is a gene? And the short answer is, it can be summarized, I suppose, in three words: We don’t know. We thought we knew, but now we don’t. Mendel wasn’t really worried about what genes were made of. Whatever they were, they were particles that behaved independently of each other. Then we moved to DNA, and DNA and genes seemed to be a rather simple chemical. Then we got the DNA code, and it seemed genes seemed almost like words in a sentence. But now that we’ve read the complete literature of the genes, as it were, the human genome sequence with its famous three-thousand, three hundred million DNA letters, the whole thing is much, much murkier than what it seemed. For the first stop, there seem to be far too few genes compared to what we once might have imagined, around twenty-five thousand or so. And to put it in context, that’s about the same number of pieces as you might have in a Greyhound bus, a luxurious Greyhound bus with air conditioning. And I think most people would like to think they’re more complicated than a Greyhound bus, but apparently we’re not, at least from the traditional definition of what a gene is. So maybe our traditional definition isn’t right. I mean, we don’t really know what we’re handling.

Blake: Wow. Well, I was going to ask you how big is a gene, but it sounds like we don’t even know.

Steven: In the traditional sense, genes which are little units that make proteins, and that’s what people used to think of genes as being. They vary enormously in size by a function of thousands of times. But an awful lot of that variation isn’t in the stuff they make, the proteins, but in all kinds of unexpected insertions and duplications and repeats and inversions of segments within the gene itself. Some genes are scattered in various blocks a long way apart from each other in the DNA. Some genes read differently when read from left to right or right to left. Others overlap with other genes. So really, what used to be kind of, you know, Mendel’s peas, has turned into something unfortunately rather like pea soup.

Karen: As another basic question, what is a species?

Steven: [Laughing] Again, that’s a classic question which they ask bachelor’s-level students in Evolutionary Biology. It’s one of those questions, like “What is a gene?” which is much more subtle and demanding than one might think. And I think biology went through a phase when it kind of hoped it was turning into physics, okay, physics of the old-fashioned kind, the pre-Einstein kind, when everything was simple and clean, easy to define, and could be described by rather straight-forward mathematical formulae. But biology isn’t like that, it’s a mess because it evolved. It wasn’t planned, it doesn’t have any beautiful great laws. And nowhere is it more of a mess than trying to define what a species is. Now to Darwin, species were animals and plants that looked different from each other, and that was kind of straight-forward, but you pointed out, actually, that there were some intermediates which suggested that species weren’t fixed and that’s certainly the case. And there’s some creatures—fruit flies, other animals—that to the naked eye look identical, but can’t mate with each other. So maybe simple appearance isn’t enough to define what a species is. Quite a popular view turns on sex, and biologists as you’ve probably noticed are obsessed with sex, and the definition is that two creatures belong to the same species if they can exchange genes, if they can have sex with each other. But, you know, hang on a minute, you’ve got what we call barn owls in North America, and the barn owls of North America, which look exactly like the barn owls of Europe, and would mate in an aviary, never mate because of the Atlantic, so they can’t have sex with each other. Are they the same species? So it’s a very difficult thing to pin down.

Ben: Hmm. What are some of the—you talked a little bit earlier about your background in doing population genetics with snails. What are some of the interesting or surprising things you’ve found in your research with the population genetics of snails?

Steven: I think you’d have to ask, interesting to whom? I often used to say that I’m one of the top six snail geneticists in the world, and the other five agree, right? [Laughing] It’s kind of a specialized field. But actually, it’s an interesting field, because these snails I’ve worked on—and incidentally Steven J. Gould, Steve Gould was also a snail geneticist—these snails I’ve worked on for many years were quoted as a classic example of a system of variation and diversity, of genetic diversity, and they vary greatly in the pattern on the shell and the numbers of stripes and the color of the shell. This was always quoted as something that wasn’t important, and it was just random noise, okay. And you hear that again and again in modern genetics, that there are literally tens of millions of variant sites in my DNA which are different from those in your DNA. And the standard assumption is, oh well, this is just random noise, you know, it’s just a few mistakes in the system, it doesn’t make any difference, really.

But to say that is an excuse for being incurious, it’s an excuse for not doing research. And in the case of the snails, as soon as we started doing research on them, and other people too, it became blindingly obvious that what had been described as unimportant—the number of stripes on a snail shell—was absolutely crucial to the way it lived, particularly with how it dealt with thermal stresses, heat, climate change, because the color of the shell alters the amount of solar energy it soaks in, soaks up. So it’s kind of a wider message there, I think, which is often forgotten, which is it’s no good just assuming something is unimportant because you can’t think of a function for it. You’ve got to look, and so far people are not really looking very hard for what might be important at the DNA level.

Blake: Now, we talked about sex being important to species. Aren’t most land snails hermaphrodites?

Steven: Most of them are, yes. And slugs are even more bizarre than snails. Slugs are snails that have lost their shells. Most land snails are hermaphrodites, and quite surprisingly some of them are able to mate not only with other species—boy-girl meets girl-boy, okay—but they can also do it to themselves, which is the obvious thing to do. It’s what Woody Allen calls sex with somebody you really love—self-fertilization, okay.

Blake: [Laughing]

Steven: And the question arises, why do they bother to get together, with all the pain and anguish of finding—if you’re a girl-boy, why do you have to bother finding another boy-girl in order to mate, okay, when you can do it to yourself? And it turns out that actually the sex lives of snails—as bizarre though it might seem to study such a thing—raises some interesting questions about sex itself. I mean, that’s one of the two big questions in biology, and they’re related to each other. What is the point of males? is the first one. Why do females allow males to get away with it? Why do women allow men to force them, women, to copy those male—men’s genes? It’s kind of expensive; I mean what the hell’s the point? And the second question, which is less frequently asked, is why are babies born young? How can two elderly and decayed pieces of protoplasm, okay, by which I mean, you know, eighteen-year-old boys and girls, how come they get together with an altogether simple gesture produce a brand new piece of protoplasm which starts again from scratch? And they’re the kind of central questions of biology which are hard to answer. They’re kind of related to each other. And the snail and slug thing, it’s kind of interesting in that regard, because if you’re a hermaphrodite, you’ve taken the first step, really, to giving up sex, okay. And if you self-fertilize—you mate with yourself—you’ve taken the second step to giving up sex.

And it turns out there are some real consistent patterns, which is that for snails and slugs and plenty of other creatures including plants, and plenty of plants are hermaphrodites, it’s much more common to give up sex than to have sex with yourself. In places in the far north and far south of the planet, up in high mountains and that kind of stuff, than it is down in the tropics and on the plains, and that kind of thing, there’s a kind of pattern. And the pattern seems to have something to do with who your enemies are. If your enemies are, as they would be up in Arctic Canada, say, or up on the top of the Rockies, if your enemies are predictable—they come every year, they’re cold, they’re starvation, that kind of thing—you can afford to evolve one particular set of genes which is good at dealing with that, and you can keep that set of genes by not having sex. However, if your enemies are other animals or other creatures like parasites, okay, and diseases of different kinds, who themselves are constantly evolving, then you can’t afford to be with just one set of genes. You need to have sex, and all that sex is, really, is playing cards with genes, playing poker with genes. You reshuffle your hand of cards every generation by having sex. You mix your genes with your partners, and that means you get a new hand each time, which means that you can evolve much, much more quickly. So the sex may be like playing poker—you might have a pretty good hand, but if you have the same hand every time, sooner or later you’re bound to lose. You can only be guaranteed to win in the long term by shuffling your cards.

Blake: Wow. When slugs or snails mate with themselves and produce offspring, do they actually literally have to mate, or is more like a parthenogenesis?

Steven: Well, they do have to mate, they have various complicated mechanisms. The thing which is bizarre is when they mate with other creatures, okay, when they go for out-crossing, then they’re in a big conflict because if you are simultaneously male and female and you’re out to have sex, what you want to be more than anything else, you want to be the male, okay, that’s what you really want to be, because then you can have the pleasures of sex—in so far as slugs feels pleasure—then you can have the pleasures of having sex without the cost of having to lay eggs, right? So what happens in these hermaphrodites—boy-girl meets girl-boy—and the mating process can go on for day after day after day, they grow their penises, some of them, several times longer than their bodies, which they fight with. Sometimes one manages to insert its penis into another one, mates with it, and then bites off the penis of its partner, so that the partner can’t then reciprocate. So it’s kind of a bizarre business really. It shows you what an expensive trait sex is, and how advantageous it is to be male rather than female.

Blake: Wow. [Laughing]

Karen: Wow.

Ben: I’d never thought of it that way.

Steven: It looks really good on speeded-up film, it’s quite amazing, I can tell you.

Blake: So, does the bitten-off penis regenerate, or …

Steven: In time, in time, but of course, if you haven’t got a penis, all right, and you’re a hermaphrodite, then you’re a female. And that’s great, because then you can be mated again and again by this nasty bugger that’s just bitten your penis off. So it happens a lot. I don’t recommend being reborn as a slug, it’s not a comfortable experience.

Blake: I’ll have to think about that the next time I’m salting them in the garden. [Laughing]

Steven: Yeah.

Ben: Their lives are already pretty rough, Blake.

Blake: Yeah. [Laughing] I should be kinder. Okay, so, let’s talk about monsters. And before we do that, I need to talk about one of the most commonly quoted “genetics facts” people say, that chimpanzees share ninety-eight percent of their DNA with humans.

Steven: Well, that’s kind of true. That’s the old figure, which is based on a very simple and crude technique that must be fifteen years old now. That’s the prehistory of modern genetics. Now the chimpanzee genome, the DNA sequence of the chimpanzee, has been read from end to end, as has the human, of course, and the figure is now about ninety-five rather than ninety-eight point eight percent. And that sounds like a pretty hefty gene sharing, degree of gene sharing, and in some senses it is, but it means we differ from them in about a thousand genes, in the traditional sense, and maybe even more. If we accept that we don’t really even know what genes actually are, a thousand genes is a lot—bear in mind that one gene, a change in one gene, can easily kill you, or it could make you into a dwarf, or it could give you sickle-cell disease, or it could give you diabetes. So if we differ from then in a thousand different genes, that’s a pretty substantial difference.

Karen: We hear a lot of stories about human hybrids and monsters made from genetic mixes of humans and non-human animals. I think one of the most popular versions would be the ape-human hybrids, the Humanzee or the Gorilla-Man—

Steven: Yeah, right.

Karen: —and there are stories of Goat-Men. Is there any way that a human and a chimp or gorilla could successfully cross-breed?

Steven: There have been claims about these, but I think they’re fundamentally fraudulent. Having said that, given the advances in—I think it’s pretty unlikely, however gothic one’s sexual tastes, that a human would mate with a chimpanzee, right? They’d probably get pretty badly bitten if they tried, I would imagine. But the advances in reproductive technology—IVF, okay, are such that in principle it would be feasible to do, in principle. And it’s clear that humans and chimps are certainly no more different at the DNA level than horses and donkeys are, and a cross with them would make a mule. So in principle, in principle, I say, it’s possible that you might be able to generate by IVF and implanting the fertilized egg presumably into a female chimpanzee, you might possibly be able to get an intermediary creature of some kind. But I mean I hope in practice that would be entirely unacceptable. I don’t think anybody would dream of doing that.

Blake: You mean for ethical reasons?

Steven: Yes.

Blake: Okay. What kind of a lab would you have to have?

Steven: Nothing particular—in the present context, probably nothing particularly sophisticated, I don’t think. There are so many assisted reproduction labs in the world now that in principle, in principle, I suppose it might be feasible, but as I say, as far as I know nobody’s ever tried. It’s highly unlikely anybody ever will.

Ben: That brings up an interesting question, because as you may know, some of the popular explanations for some of the so-called monsters out there, such as the Chupacabra and others, are that it is a creation of a basically mad scientist in genetics gone wrong.

Steven: Yeah, that’s what we geneticists call bullshit, actually.

Ben: Is that bullshit?

Blake: [Laughing]

Steven: Yeah.

Ben: Well, what do you think explains the fear among many people about genetics and science and that sort of thing?

Steven: Well, I start my Introductory Genetics lectures in the first year, class, by telling students, I am a geneticist, and my job is to make sex boring, okay? And after about a dozen lectures they kind of agree with me, okay? And that’s a problem with genetics. It seems to—and I emphasize, it seems to go to the heart of many of our deepest interests. Sex, obviously being one, age being another one, death being another one, original sin, are you born good or evil, or is your environment important, being yet another one, membership of a particular tribe or group being another one which you can test by looking at DNA. Racial differences, you can look at those using DNA. Difference between ourselves and chimpanzee, as you said, you can study those using genetics. So it seems to go straight to the base, to the basics of some of our most fundamental questions about our place in nature. And those questions have often been asked before. I mean the Old Testament is really the first genetics textbook of all, and in some ways it’s not bad. I mean it asks some very sensible questions—it doesn’t necessarily get the right answers, but it gets the right questions. So in one sense I can see why people are frightened of genetics. But in the end, genetics is only a science. It doesn’t tell you anything about morals, it doesn’t tell you anything about religion, it might tell you something about your individual health, but medicine has been doing that for years and people don’t really worry about that. So I think, both the hopes of genetics and the fears of genetics have always been greatly overstated. You can do less than it claims, and it threatens less than its enemies claim.

Ben: So, how do you feel when you see depictions, for example, of Dr. Moreau or Dr. Frankenstein and other things like that, that really demonize scientists and geneticists, whereas you don’t see the good parts?

Steven: Well, this may be news to you, but both those things are fiction, all right? You might just as much say when you see Star Trek, doesn’t that demonize people who design aircraft engines? It’s what we can do and what we do do that’s the difference between the two. Now Frankenstein is a fantastically good book which says something about what does it mean to be human. I think it’s a wonderful piece of writing. The Island of Dr. Moreau is not such a good piece of writing but it asks the same kind of questions. But geneticists can’t do these things, at least with humans, they can do surprising things with animals, but they can’t do it with us. And even it were to do it with us—and it can’t do very much with human manipulation, there’s been a little bit of gene therapy that’s been successful, not very much, I think people simply in time would accept it. I have an infinite trust in the public’s capacity to get bored, okay? If genetics could do some of the things people claim that it could do, like life-extension and the like, we simply can’t, then people would very quickly accept it. So I’m much less concerned about these kinds of things than perhaps the public is. You know, there’s a thing called the F-word in genetics, and that’s the Frankenstein word. If we ever hear the word ‘Frankenstein’ we just roll our eyes and think, “Not again.” You know, that was a piece of fiction and remains a piece of fiction, and we can’t do it, and we’re unlikely ever to do it.

Ben: Well, even though it’s a piece of fiction, I mean you still have people, for example, you know, in some cases thousands of people who are protesting genetically-modified food. So, for a lot of people it’s very real, it’s not just fiction.

Steven: That’s true, and I think, you know, everybody has got the right to eat what they want, and if they don’t want to eat G-M foods, that’s just fine. And I can see, if you wanted to twist my arm, you can make some kind of non-biological argument against the use of G-M foods, for example, in this famous Terminix technology, where farmers, they can buy G-M seeds at some expense from a seed company, but then its further manipulated so they can’t plant the seeds in the next generation, they have to go back and buy more, okay? And that just puts them into thrall into the seed companies. So all of this is reasonable social and ethical discussion. And it’s not as if actually that G-M foods are being—but it’s more regular—very few foodstuffs eaten directly by humans that are G-M. The Flavr Savr Tomato didn’t succeed, particularly, okay? G-M potatoes haven’t particularly succeeded. Some crop plants have, and soybeans are being successful, and cotton is being successful, but these aren’t eaten by people. So I think in the end, in my view, G-M food is just food. I would be very, very surprised—if we ever generated a commercially successful G-M plant to eat—I would be astonished if it turned out to be sold if it were dangerous. I would much rather be a vegetarian on a G-M diet than to eat the modern Western European and North American junk-food diet, which is genuinely lethal, there’s no question of that. And we know it’s lethal. If you eat cheeseburgers every day, you’re going to be in big trouble. You know, people accept that, but they worry about a little tiny piece of DNA going into a potato plant, which beats me.

Blake: Yeah, there’s a risk evaluation problem with humans, I think.

Steven: Well, there is a perception problem with humans. I mean, people tend to be—to have exaggerated fears of certain things and then, you know, no fears of others. I mean, I don’t smoke, so I’m very aware of the dangers of tobacco. I do drink, therefore I minimize the real dangers of alcohol. So, you gotta stand back and look at the problem, and I think the answer is we’re not very good at understanding that.

Blake: So, genetics does actually have the ability to transfer material from species to species.

Steven: Sure, yeah sure.

Blake: How does that work in real life?

Steven: Well, in two ways. One of which is [garbled] but very important, and that is to cross different species together by manipulating their reproduction, just you know, putting them together in places where perhaps they normally wouldn’t mate, and making hybrids. And that’s been tremendously important—and still is tremendously important—in improving plant production. People often think the twentieth century burst into economic life because of the internal combustion engine, say, or because of jet planes, or whatever you like. That’s not true. The biggest economic breakthrough, probably in the twentieth century, was some work done in the United States in the 1930s when geneticists started improving—scientifically improving—maize, Indian corn, [garbled] maize plants as I call them. And the productivity of corn, or maize, has now gone up by about fifteen times in the last seventy-five to eighty years. And a lot of that has come from going out and looking at wild maize plants growing in South and Central America, and going to those wild plants and crossing them with agricultural varieties, and taking from those wild plants, some of which are described as being from different species, taking from those wild plants genes to resist drought, to produce more protein, and all that kind of stuff. And that’s been an extraordinary success, and that’s why food effectively has now become free. For the first time in history, the rich are thin and the poor are fat. That’s a complete reversal from what it’s been throughout human history. And that’s because of genetics, and that’s because of taking crosses between plant species. It’s more difficult to do it with animals, but it does look, for example, as if—let me think of an example—as if cattle, species of cattle, modern cattle, have actually emerged in the dim and distant past from two different species which have gotten together and been hybridized. So you can do it that way.

But you can also do it by taking genes from particular species and injecting it using technology to insert it into another one. You can put human genes into mice, that’s regularly done. You can put bacterial genes into plants, that’s regularly done, too. So I think the prospects are pretty amazing.

Karen: Can I ask, what are epigenetics?

Steven: You know, [Laughing] the guy who invented the word ‘epigenetics’ was one of the people who taught me genetics forty years ago—more than forty years ago, to my depression—a guy called C. H. Waddington, who was the Professor of Genetics at Edinburgh University, where I went. And I remember they opened in the sixties a building next to the Genetics Department called the Epigenetics Building and I remember the day it opened. Standing outside was a bunch of my colleagues, and we were all asking each other, “What the hell is ‘Epigenetics’? What does it mean?” And people are still asking that, right? It’s one of those words that means almost nothing to me. It’s everything in between the DNA, okay, and DNA is just chemistry, really, okay, and it’s kind of simple chemistry, the truth be told. Everything in between the DNA, and the living organism, the way it behaves. So ‘epigenetics’ is basically biology, and what we’ve begun to realize is that actually, when it comes to studying DNA, that is just the first baby step towards understanding biology. You know, in the end, DNA, as I said, is just chemistry, and how you get from this simple chemical to the amazing complexity of a fruit fly, say, let alone a human being, is the field of epigenetics, and we’ve got a long way to go yet.

Blake: I know that epigenetics has been in the news a lot lately because of Jack Horner’s work with—well, maybe not his in particular—but the work with chicken embryos that can produce hen’s teeth—

Steven: Yeah.

Blake: —his book about maybe reverse engineering sort of a little dinosaur. Do you know—has anybody brought any of those embryos to term? If they’re manipulated in their embryo state, would they grow up to be adults that would carry those traits forward, or does that only happen in one generation?

Steven: No, no, I mean—just thinking on my feet here, no, my guess is the DNA would stay the same, so it wouldn’t necessarily be transmitted from generation to generation. But this work has only just begun, I mean, you might end up possibly with a chicken with teeth, but so what? [garbled] chicken with teeth, I mean, come on, get real here. The idea that you can regenerate dinosaurs seems to me foolish, I mean I just don’t think that would happen.

Ben: What did you think about the—I was just thinking about this recently because of the whole Balloon Boy hoax, which I’m sure made it over to the island over there—

Steven: Yeah.

Ben: —what did you think about the RaÎlians cloning hoax in 2004 where they claimed to have—

Steven: Oh, pathetic. [Laughing]

Ben: Well, apparently it alarmed quite a few of the public, and of course Bush immediately issued a proclamation condemning it, but did anybody take it seriously at all?

Steven: No, I don’t think so. I think it’s just silly. You know, it’s easy to say these things, it’s much harder to do them. I mean, when it comes to cloning humans, at the moment it looks impossible, because it looks—for every mammal—for a mammal, you need two parents, a male and a female to develop properly. I mean, there’s—Dolly the sheep is, I think, one success out of whatever it was, 172 experiments was it? And I think the success rate has gone down since then, so you can’t imagine doing that with humans, but having 172 failed clones in order to get one. You have, incidentally, already got cloned humans. I am actually the son of a cloned human, in that my mother was an identical twin. Identical twins are clones of each other, right? They’re copies of the same set of genetic material. So we’re familiar with the idea, but I don’t think it will happen in the future. It’s kind of hard to know why they want it to happen, I can’t see any reason to do it, particularly. Strangely enough, it turns out identical twins as you know share all their DNA in common. Non-identical twins arise from two eggs being fertilized by two sperm, so they only share half the DNA in common, like brothers and sisters do. And there’s been a huge amount of research on the apparently uncanny similarity of identical twins compared to non-identicals. But it turns out, actually—although I suppose if we’d thought about it, it would have been more obvious—that actually being an identical twin is not a good idea, because humans evolve, generally speaking, to have one baby at a time. If you have two babies at a time, particularly identical twins, then there tend to be all kinds of problems because often they’re within the same set of membranes within the pregnant mother. And both of them have a very rough time before birth. So you often find that the health of identical twins as a group is considerably worse than the health of singletons as a group, and that’s one of the reasons why twins tend to be very similar to each other, and that’s an environmental effect, a genetic effect. So I think—I mean, I don’t think in general that identical twins have got much to worry about—but it’s a reminder that human reproduction is kind of a delicate thing, which is hard to interfere with.

Blake: What are the common ethical issues that come up the most in genetics work?

Steven: I think fundamentally, they are the same as the ethical issues that come up in medicine, okay? And genetics is becoming more important in medicine, it’s slowly becoming more important in medicine. And it transpires—I mean, one of the problems in medicine is when you identify a disease state before the symptoms really become severe, do you tell the patient? Now the answer is always yes, I think—in the old days, no, but now the answer is always yes. When do you begin treatment? In the American system, which I have—the healthcare, which I have to tell you does not work, what do you do about the insurance issue? And that’s, in the American context, that’s an important ethical issue in genetics, because if it transpires that you have a disease with a genetic component to it, and most diseases do have some genetic component, and you have a DNA test, and you discover that you carry a gene that predisposes, letís say, you to diabetes or cancer or what-have-you, is that a pre-existing condition? And of course, health insurance companies generally will not cover pre-existing conditions. So you run into all kinds of problems, and I know there’s been a recent act, called the Americans with Genetic Disabilities Act, I believe it’s called, but that only puts the plaster on the problem. The problem is that now you’re going to be able to diagnose people’s probable late-life health really quite early in life. And the only way you can deal with that is to do away with the picking them off one-by-one with the insurance system, and just have a universal system of health insurance, either private or public, doesn’t matter which, which covers everybody, because everybody in the end is at risk of different things. So you just can’t pick out the cherries in insuring the healthiest people. So I think that’s an ethical issue in genetics. But all that genetics does in that particular case is to focus your attention on the problem. The problem was there before genetics; genetics just makes it worse.

Karen: How legally- and ethically-constrained are geneticists who work on human genetics?

Steven: Oh, quite heavily so. I mean, in particular, those who work on embryology, fertilization, that kind of stuff. There’s a system of laws in Britain set up by, I think, called the Human Embryology and Fertilization Authority, which really licenses clinics, controls what they can do, and that’s been reasonably effective. Ironically in the U.S., with all the absurd fuss about stem cells under George W. Bush, a lot of work was stopped because they couldn’t get federal funding, but of course the states had their own individual rules on it, which meant that California actually was much more liberal in what it allowed than Britain does, than Britain is. So there are quite strong ethical constraints around genetics, that’s for sure.

Ben: Sort of following up on that, what role do you think that genetics should play in law enforcement, for example, with the DNA testing? Should DNA be the final arbiter of truth?

Steven: Well, again, the law is never absolute in terms of truth, and DNA is never absolute in terms of truth. However it’s clearly the case that the development of the DNA fingerprint—lets bear in mind it was only, it’s only fifteen years old, amazingly, roughly speaking—has revolutionized large parts of law enforcement in terms of rape, for example. The incidence of rape worldwide has gone down quite strikingly because of the almost certainty of a much greater chance that the rapist would be caught. And famously, as of course you know, there have been a number of death penalty cases in the U.S. where it’s transpired that somebody who was under a death sentence could not have committed the crime. So all I think that DNA is in that context is a very powerful technique for law, for detection, in the same way that fingerprints were, okay? So I don’t think in principle that DNA technology raises any more ethical issues than fingerprint technology does. However, in Britain we have a system which is absurd which is not going to stand up in front of European law, which is that the police have the right to keep the DNA of anyone who they investigate for a crime, not somebody who’s found guilty of a crime. I can see the logic of keeping their DNA if you’re found guilty of an existing crime; you lose some of your rights, I mean that’s understandable. But if I was arrested for a crime which I was found not guilty of, the police still have a right to keep my DNA. And that strikes me as a complete outrage, and it’s caused a great fuss here. It’s going to the European Court of Human Rights and will probably be struck down.

Ben: Interesting.

Steven: But again, the same happens with fingerprints. The police do not have the right to take everybody’s fingerprints, and they would not gain that right, so I think, again the principles are the same as things we’re familiar with.

Blake: You sound like an extremely well-grounded in reality type person, so I appreciate you coming on a show called MonsterTalk to talk with us about [Laughing] genetics and monsters. But I’m going to have to ask this question because its one we hear a lot about in the U.S. and I assume you don’t get it as much in the U.K. but maybe you do. We in the U.S. are constantly hearing about grey aliens abducting people and conducting experiments to try to build alien-human hybrids. How implausible or plausible is it that an alien with some sort of genetic material would be able to insert it into Earth DNA?

Steven: [Laughing] I think the word is ‘implausible.’ First of all, there would have to be aliens, and that’s not, you know, if you count the number of planets and all this other stuff, this crap that goes on all the time, there are an infinite—not an infinite but a gigantic number of planets, and a gigantic number of that gigantic number of planets which potentially could support what we might recognize as life—whether that would be carbon-based life is another question, whether it would be DNA-based life is yet another question, whether it would be conscious, whether it would get here, when having got here whether it would want to have anything to do with the slimy little creatures that live on this planet, are all so spectacularly unlikely that I doubt very much that it will ever happen.

Blake: Good enough.

Karen: What would be the possibility that creatures like the mastodon or thylacine could be reconstructed from genetic material?

Steven: I mean, that’s slightly more feasible. I mean, both mastodon DNA and mammoth DNA is now widely available. But the trouble is, you know, because there are all these frozen things in the Siberian tundra. I think thylacine DNA is less so because it’s just bones, generally speaking, and it’s not frozen. The trouble with ancient DNA, in particularly bone DNA, is that it’s completely smashed to pieces. There’s DNA there, but it’s just broken up into lots and lots of little pieces, and you can never, at the moment, put it all together again, and lots of it is always missing, too. The frozen stuff? Well, maybe. The stuff that’s been looked at in mammoths—and I have a colleague who does this kind of stuff—is still pretty badly damaged, but it’s conceivable that you could recon—at least parts of it—and you could insert it into an elephant egg, okay, replace the elephant DNA with—at least partially replace it—with mammoth DNA. But what would you get? You’d get a hairy elephant. You know there are hairy elephants, what more do you want? So I think, potentially in the future, at least for mammoths, and they’re kind of an extreme example because they’re frozen, it’s potentially possible, but the word is ‘potentially.’

Blake: You know, they’re building out the genome for mastodons, or mammoths rather. What good does it do? I mean, even if you could reconstruct the genome, how would you actually take that material and actually build a whole strand of DNA to be?

Steven: Well, I mean, that’s a good question. I mean, the technology is pretty impressive. I mean, bear in mind that you can take DNA from a human and inject it into a mouse egg, and the human DNA will incorporate itself into the mouse genome with a little bit of manipulation. So in principle you could do that with a mammoth, which you could put into an elephant’s egg. And so technology is not as challenging as you might think. I mean the various bits are there, of the technology. What’s missing is the raw material, which is enough undamaged DNA to do the job.

Blake: So even, I mean, the chunks of DNA from a dead mammoth, would they be recreated by code, or would it literally be pieces of DNA from a dead mammoth you would need—

Steven: My guess is you’d recreate them by code. You might be able to do it with pieces. I think either approach would probably work, actually. My guess is—I’m guessing now—my guess is you would find lots and lots of different mammoths all smashed up in different ways, and try and get what’s called a consensus sequence. In other words, see if you can reconstitute what the whole lot looked like from a lot of different mammoths, and then generate that, which you could do with a machine, and then use that. But we’re not—we’re a long way from being able to do that yet.

Blake: Wow.

Ben: I wanted to follow up with something that we were talking about earlier, about the hybrids. Why exactly is it that some hybrids such as donkeys are sterile?

Steven: Well, it’s a good question. More than many hybrids are sterile; it’s kind of the standard thing. And it’s basically because that’s what species are. The boundaries between species are barriers, a kind of customs barriers to the trading of genes. I often think—people often describe species as republics of genes, they’re closed communities which you can trade genes within the republic, but you can’t get through the customs barrier to the next species, right? And so when you do get through the customs barrier, which occasionally happens if you hybridize species, you know, when humans force them to hybridize, it turns out that the mixture contains so many incompatible genes that they can’t mix sperm and egg in the next generation. So the barrier’s actually there, even if you get through it in the one generation, the barrier still doesn’t allow you to get any further.

Ben: So it doesn’t stop the creation of the primary individual but it does for its offspring.

Steven: Well, it’s very different—it differs from species to species. What you often find is if you take the hybrid, the hybrids if you cross them together are infertile. But if you take the hybrid and do what we call a back cross, back to one of the parental species—you mate it with its mother, say, or if it’s a male—then sometimes they are fertile, so you can actually get genes across the species barrier that way, in the lab that is, yeah.

Blake: Do you have a problem in the U.K. with Creationism?

Steven: Yes, increasingly. I mean, it’s not as much of a problem as it is in the U.S. And until fifteen years ago it wasn’t a problem at all, there were just a few cranks out there. But the reasons I genuinely do not understand, I really do not understand it. It seems to have become a much bigger issue, less so than in the States, but it’s still here as an issue. All the problem is—it’s difficult to pin down the facts and figures of how many there are, because the people who have come out with these figures tend to be very biased sources. There’s a group called the Theos Think-tank—you know, with a name like that, you can tell where they’re coming from, they’re a religious group. And they surveyed the British population, and they said that half of them didn’t believe in Evolution. Well I thought, that’s impossible. So I looked at their questionnaire—I think there were about six questions—and if you picked any one of five you were counted as an anti-Evolutionist, and one of them was, Do you think that the Theory of Evolution is firmly established to such a degree that it could never be disproved? Now if you asked me that question, I would say No, because no scientific theory is so firmly established that it could never be disproved. I mean, that’s the nature of science, you can always in principle disprove something. So if you ticked that box you’d be counted as an anti-Evolutionist, as a Creationist. So if you didn’t tick that box you can’t be counted as a Creationist. So I’m dubious about the detailed figures, but the effect—the numbers are certainly far greater than they were ten years ago.

Blake: Wow. So, I’m reading The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins—

Steven: Yeah, my book’s better than his, but that’s a different issue. Well, I wrote a book which is—I mean, Dawkins’s book is a good book, don’t get me wrong here—

Blake: [Laughter]

Steven: —but I wrote several years ago a book called in the U.S., Darwin’s Ghost, which is an attempt to update Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species as if he was writing it today. In other words, how would he write this book today, given the astonishing breadth of knowledge we have of biology, which he didn’t have. And so that was my take on it, which I like to think was a success, but I leave that to potential readers to decide.

Blake: To the best of my knowledge, we don’t have any animal that’s been discovered that either has no DNA or has an unrelated DNA to the existing strains of DNA that we’ve found, is that right?

Steven: Any animal? That’s effectively true, yeah that’s true. I mean, all animals—the thing which is remarkable is with very few exceptions all creatures on Earth run on the same kind of machinery, which is DNA machinery. Some viruses run on a different kind of molecule called RNA. And what that suggests very strongly is that either life only originated once, or if it originated several times only one form of coding has survived. You know, in principle there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have half a dozen ways of making life, but we seem to have basically only one.

Karen: Ah, I was going to ask that follow-up question to Creationism. Why do you think so many people don’t believe in Evolution?

Steven: I honestly don’t know. I mean, I think in some ways they’re very Victorian concerns. When The Origins of Species came out, which is exactly 150 years ago four weeks from today, actually, November 24th it came out, when it came out there was a huge uproar, because people thought that we were being, you know—although The Origin says almost nothing like human evolution, it simply says, “Light may be cast upon man and his origins,” people immediately saw that this would apply to us. And the immediate assumption was that this dragged us down to the level of the apes, okay? And if you’re dragged down to the level of the apes, why shouldn’t you just behave like an ape, okay? Ironically, if you look at, not 1859 but 2009, there’s an exactly parallel set of beliefs, which says that we share 98.8 percent of DNA with chimpanzees—or back as I said, a bit less than that, but it’s an awful lot of DNA—which means that chimpanzees, these people say, should have some—they’re almost human, they should have some version of human rights. In particular, they should not be experimented on by scientists. And that argument has had such power that in some countries, such as Spain, there are laws that say you cannot work on chimpanzees because they are, in effect, almost human. So this is exactly the same argument as the Victorian argument—they’ve been dragged up to our level by the Theory of Evolution, or so these people say. Well, I’m fundamentally opposed to both of those arguments. What strikes me about the gene sharing between humans and chimps, or for that matter the gene sharing between humans and mice or humans and bananas, which is certainly there, is that the more you learn about human biology, the more unique we seem as a species. We are not like chimps in any interesting way. We have language, we have a feeling for the future, we have an understanding of history, we have religions, we have ethics. Chimps don’t have any of these things and neither does any other animal. And the irony of it is, the more you understand about Evolution, the more unique you seem to be as a human being, the more different and special human beings seem to be. So then if you are religious, which I am not at all, you can use that to say, Actually this is God’s plan to make us so different that we’ve evolved to be entirely special, entirely unique. But I think that’s too complicated for the average dimbulb Creationist.

Ben: Well put.

Steven: Yeah.

Blake: [Laughing] Yeah. Are you aware of any non-religiously-themed Evolution deniers?

Steven: Not really. There are plenty of Evolution deniers, but if you scratch them you’ll find they’ve got some religious basis, generally speaking. I can’t think of—there are various so-called Intelligent Design people, some of whom claim not to be religious. Of course they are. I mean, as Mark Twain didn’t say, I mean, Intelligent Design is just Creationism with a [garbled] education, all right? What they do is they say that something is so complicated that it couldn’t possibly have evolved, it must have been designed. And if it was designed, who was it designed by? Guess who—that man with a big white beard above the clouds. But that’s just, you know, silly stuff, really. I don’t think anybody takes it seriously. So I think they’re all basically religiously based.

Blake: That Argument from Ignorance comes up in virtually every aspect of skepticism, I think, so …

Steven: Yeah.

Blake: So … Do you have anything that you want to tell the world about genetics that they may not know?

Steven: I discovered the other day—I tell you what, the thing which I often get asked when I talk to schools and the like is, is modern technology, medical technology, genetic technology, is it going to change our evolution in the future? Are we going to be in thrall to all our technology in such a way that we have to live a completely artificial life from now on? And my response is, Yes, certainly, but that happened long ago, probably long before even humans—modern humans—evolved. And the example I take is cooking. If you have a diet of entirely raw food—it doesn’t matter what it is, it can be raw meat, it can be raw fish, it be can be all the raw vegetables you can eat, as much as you feel like, you can stuff yourself—in the end, in a few months, you’ll starve to death, okay? Humans cannot live on raw food. And what that tells us is that cooking, which is a technology, right? began long ago. In fact, cooking may indeed have made us what we are. But we’ve become so much in thrall to it, so much dependent upon it, that we would die if we didn’t have fire, deep-fat fryers, barbecues and that kind of stuff. And that happened probably two hundred thousand years or more ago, before modern humans evolved. Now if we can cope with that, we can cope with the technology of today and the future. So I’m fundamentally optimistic.

Blake: That makes me feel better about my fajita addiction, that’s good. [Laughing]

Steven: Ah, that’s good.

Blake: Wow, well thank you so much for talking with us today.

Steven: Okay, my pleasure.

[Voiceover: MonsterTalk!]

Blake: Today on MonsterTalk we’ve been discussing monstrous hybrids. It turns out that while it may be genetically feasible to create a chimp-human hybrid, no modern lab is likely to undertake the project. Also, the resultant creatures, even if they could live to adulthood, would not be able to reproduce by themselves. It turns out that the newspaper story about Joseph Stalin’s Gorilla-Human hybrid army was a mistaken interpretation of reports of actual failed experiments by Ilya Ivanov. Ivanov did work on hybridization, but his experiments were failures, and there’s no plausible evidence of any Stalin-ordered Gorilla-hybrid army project, a project that would have been doomed to failure based on modern genetic information. And the chimp Oliver, despite his eerie upright gait, turned out to be just a chimp. There are no unusual genetic markers uncovered in testing. You can learn much more about genetics from the books of Dr. Steven Jones, links to which are in the show notes.

Once again, on behalf of myself, Ben Radford, and Dr. Karen Stollznow, and the fine people of Skeptic magazine, thanks for listening. Music for today’s episode was provided by Peach Stealing Monkeys, Steve Doctor, and Chimpy, used by permission.

[Outro]

Ben: It was a beast that many would come to call … The Chupacabra! I did that for dramatic effect.

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Detecting Baloney

Baloney Detection Kit Sandwich (Infographic) by Deanna and Skylar (High Tech High Media Arts, San Diego, CA)

The Baloney Detection Kit Sandwich (Infographic)

For a class project, a pair of 11th grade physics students created the infographic shown below, inspired by Michael Shermer’s Baloney Detection Kit: a 16-page booklet designed to hone your critical thinking skills.

FREE Video Series

Science Based Medicine vs. Alternative Medicine

Science Based Medicine vs. Alternative Medicine

Understanding the difference could save your life! In this superb 10-part video lecture series, Harriet Hall, M.D., contrasts science-based medicine with so-called “complementary and alternative” methods. The lectures each range from 32 to 45 minutes.

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Top 10 Myths of Terrorism

Is Terrorism an Existential Threat?

This free booklet reveals 10 myths that explain why terrorism is not a threat to our way of life or our survival.

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The Top 10 Weirdest Things

The Top Ten Strangest Beliefs

Michael Shermer has compiled a list of the top 10 strangest beliefs that he has encountered in his quarter century as a professional skeptic.

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Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future (paperback cover)

Who believes them? Why? How can you tell if they’re true?

What is a conspiracy theory, why do people believe in them, and why do they tend to proliferate? Why does belief in one conspiracy correlate to belief in others? What are the triggers of belief, and how does group identity factor into it? How can one tell the difference between a true conspiracy and a false one?

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The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts

The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts

Do you know someone who has had a mind altering experience? If so, you know how compelling they can be. They are one of the foundations of widespread belief in the paranormal. But as skeptics are well aware, accepting them as reality can be dangerous…

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Top 10 Myths About Evolution

Top 10 Myths About Evolution (and how we know it really happened)

If humans came from apes, why aren’t apes evolving into humans? Find out in this pamphlet!

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Learn to be a Psychic in 10 Easy Lessons

Learn to do Psychic “Cold Reading” in 10
Easy Lessons

Psychic readings and fortunetelling are an ancient art — a combination of acting and psychological manipulation.

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