Bang! talks to… Roger Highfield, Interview

We caught up with the former Oxford chemist, Daily Telegraph science editor, and current editor of New Scientist at the Oxford Literary Festival
You have recently published a collaborative book with Professor Martin Nowak, how did this collaboration come about? Martin’s team at Harvard models evolution mathematically, but […]

You have recently published a collaborative book with Professor Martin Nowak, how did this collaboration come about?

Martin’s team at Harvard models evolution mathematically, but I first encountered him in the early 90s when he was at Oxford, working on AIDS, and I was at The Daily Telegraph. Over the years I found myself writing about his work on language evolution and the origins of life. I found his research incredibly interesting so I spoke to him and suggested we could write a book together; Supercooperators is the result.

What is Supercooperators about?

We are trying to challenge the traditional view of Darwinian evolution—that it is simply a case of survival of the fittest and competition. We can see there is a significant amount of cooperation in nature. This is something that Darwin himself realised but never fully explained. Martin does, with the help of mathematics.

Is the book a challenge to Darwin’s theory?

Most people think of evolution as a combination of mutation and selection, but we see cooperation as another factor in evolution. So we think it is a natural extension to the theory to say that it’s not just about the struggle for existence. For example, the origin of language—the second information revolution (after genetic material)—could not have happened without cooperation. Given the extent to which we are exploiting our natural resources today, I think we need to start cooperating to a greater degree.

Do you think the examples of cooperation in nature are truly selfless?

There is always a cost but even so, cooperation is always beneficial to the individual to some extent.

Science communication is becoming more internet-based, what are your feelings about this?

It’s very tough in print journalism at the moment. When I commuted into London 20 years ago, the carriage would be a sea of newspapers and magazines. Today it’s all phones and tablets. Everything is changing so rapidly that when I’m asked to give advice about pursuing a career in science journalism, I hesitate to suggest whether the word ‘career’ applies at all.

Having said that, there’s still something wonderful about print—the design is far more sophisticated than what is found online. Another issue is that with blogs and Facebook, the normal rules of journalism don’t always apply. It’s so hard to predict what science journalism will be like in five years. I just hope I’m still part of it!

Do you think it is important to make science fun?

Yes and no— it should be made fun if possible, but equally people do have a natural curiosity and a much higher tolerance for complex science than we give them credit for, so long as the idea you are explaining is interesting. I think people get fed up with it always being dumbed down for them because they sometimes want to get a sense of what is really happening in science.
Who has been the most influential scientist on your life or career?

For me Barry Blumberg has been a source of great inspiration. I first met him when studying at Oxford where he was Master at Balliol, and quickly realised what a truly extraordinary individual he was. In his career as a researcher he developed the world’s first successful anti-cancer vaccine, one to treat Hepatitis B, and won the Nobel prize for his work. He saved millions of lives and remained a warm and unpretentious person. Sadly he died a few weeks ago; truly a great man who will be sorely missed.

Roger Highfield and Professor Nowak’s book Supercooperators: Evolution, Altruism and Human Behaviour or, Why We Need Each Other to Succeed is available now.

Artwork by Rebekah Pawley

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