Wednesday, August 18, 2010

What I Should Have Said on BTV

I was a bit dazed when I picked up the call to my mobile on Tuesday evening. It was barely 24 hours since I got back from Banff and so I was falling asleep even though it was just after 8 PM. The voice on the other end claimed to be a BTV reporter and a friend of Chen XL’s. The reporter, Xiao Zhao, wanted to know what I thought of Hawking’s prediction of the earth facing certain destruction within 200 years. I had not heard of this, but a quick search on baidu (say,  霍金 200 ”, came up with all sorts of dire predictions. I had to look on to see for myself what Hawking actually “said”. (Even bigthink went with the sensational headline, “Abandon Earth --- Or Face Extinction”!)

Anyway, as soon as I hung up, after first agreeing to being interviewed, I regretted it immediately! The reporter Xiao Zhao was most interested in Hawking’s comment on “the selfish and aggressive instincts that were of survival advantages in the past” ( An issue I wanted to avoid in China where people think that selfish human instincts justifies almost everything.

Xiao Zhao and his crew (2 others) came at 3 PM the next day. I had to borrow a lab coat for my interview. The crew spent over 45 minutes in my office, and another 15 minutes in the wetlab.

I had not really planned on watching myself on BTV, but I was at JM’s place the following day when 8 PM rolled around and couldn’t resist and asked JM to tune to the BTV Youth Channel (BTV 青少), whose daily 8 PM slots is “Beijing Youth” (北京青年).

They distilled over 30 minutes of footage to less than 2 minutes. I shared the five-minute-long segment on Hawking’s predictions with 2 other professors, who mainly said meaningless fluff. My portion came in 2 pieces, bookending the entire segment. In the first part, I “answered” the question about “selfish instincts and genes.” I told Xiao Zhao how correlations are established between genes and behavior, say, via knockouts. While I was explaining, a small inset showed a video of my dean’s work in fruitfly aggression. (The video can be downloaded from, if you have a subscription to the journal Nature.) In the second segment, I pointed out that just about every single Chinese headline grossly misrepresented of what Hawking actually “said.” With a red pen, I highlighted two sentences. First, the opening sentence “I believe that the long-term future of the human race must be in space.” And second (to debunk “Earth’s destruction in 200 years”), “If we can avoid disaster for the next two centuries, our species should be safe, as we spread into space.”

I wished that I had actually explained the “selfish and aggressive gene” a little better. After all, complex behaviors cannot be fully explained by a gene or even a set of genes. All we are able to establish now are but correlations. We are just beginning to understanding human behavior in all its complexity.

FYI, you can find “Beijing Youth” episodes at , but I don’t know when they will post the Aug 12, 2010 episode. The shot of my nameplate and me opening my office door for Xiao Zhao were done after the actual interview. As were the exterior shots of the New College of Life Science Building.