Parrots, the Universe and Everything

This is one of the last public appearances of Douglas Adams in which he talks about his book, Last Chance to See, coauthored with Mark Carwardine. The talk was given at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and recorded about a month before his death. Here you can find the video (provided by UCSB), and the full transcript of the talk.



Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.

It’s a very interesting, and unusual, and weird experience for me to be talking in my home town. Which is … (Laughter.)

Now, amongst the books that Constance mentioned when she’s introducing me, The Hitchhiker’s Guide, Dirk Gently and so on, it was not my favourite book. And my favourite book (Last Chance to See) is what I’m here to talk about tonight. Virtually every author I know, their own favourite book is the one that sold the least. It’s somehow the runt of the litter, it’s the one you’ve always just loved the most. And I want to tell you about how this came about.

[edit]The Aye-aye

Sometime in about the mid 1980s, the phone rang. (Laughter.)

And the voice said, “We want you to go to Madagascar. We want you to look for a very rare form of lemur, called the Aye-aye. The plane leaves in two weeks, we would like you to be on it.” Now I—assuming they’ve got the wrong number—said “yes!” before they could discover their mistake. (Laughter.) But in fact it turned out that they decided, “Well, here is somebody who doesn’t know anything about lemurs, anything about the Aye-aye, anything about Madagascar, let’s send him.” (Laughter.) So I started to try and find out something about it, and it turns out it’s very interesting.

Lemurs used to be the dominant primate in all the world. And they were very, very gentle, pleasant creatures. They were a little bit like sort of cat size, and they used to hang around in the trees having a nice time. And then, Gondwanaland split up. It always sounds like some sort of 70’s rock group going their own way for reasons of musical differences. But as you probably remember Gondwanaland was that vast continental landmass that consisted of what then became South America, Africa, India, Southeast Asia, Australasia—uh, no—Australia, Australia and not—and this will turn out to be significant later—not New Zealand which turns out to be just a lot of gunk that came out from under the ocean. (Laughter.)

And as I say, lemurs were the dominant primate around the world, and when all these landmasses split up, and Madagascar was one of them, Madagascar kind of sailed off into the middle of what then suddenly became the Indian Ocean. And took with it a representative sample of the livestock of the period, which included a lot of lemurs. And they basically sort of sat there for millions and millions of years in glorious isolation. While, in the rest of the world, a new creature emerged. A new creature arrived that was much more intelligent than the lemurs—according to it—, (Laughter) much more competitive, much more aggressive, and incredibly interested in all of things you could do with twigs. (Laughter.)

Twigs were absolutely wonderful. There is so much you can do with twigs—you can dig in the ground for things with twigs, you can burrow under the bark of trees for grubs, you can hit each other with twigs. If there had been copies of TwigUser Magazine around on those days, these creatures would have been lining up for it. And these creatures—which, as you have probably guessed, are called the monkeys—, because they were more competitive and more aggressive, and they lived in the same habitat as the lemurs, they successfully supplanted the lemurs everywhere in the world other than Madagascar. Because Madagascar was right out in the middle of the Indian Ocean and they couldn’t get there.

They couldn’t get there until about 1500 years ago, when due to startling advances in twig technology (laughter) they were able to get there in boats, and eventually planes. And suddenly the lemurs, that have had this place for themselves for millions and millions and millions of years, were suddenly facing their old enemy: the monkey. So, this is Madagascar, and it turns out that the rarest of the lemurs—and when I say the rarest of the lemurs, at this particular point in the mid 80’s they were thought to be the rarest of the lemurs; we’ve now discovered and even rarer lemur called the Golden Bamboo Lemur, which went straight to the number one of endangered lemurs—but the Aye-aye is a very very peculiar animal. It looks like the agglomeration of all sorts of other different animals. So, for instance, it has a sort of foxy ears, and it has a little sort of bitty rabbit’s teeth, and it has a kind of ostrich [feathered?] tail, and it has very weird eyes, actually it has Marty Feldman’s eyes. (Laughter.) The kind of sort of looking slightly beyond you into a sort of other dimension just over your left shoulder. But it also has one very very very peculiar characteristic, which is its middle finger on both hands is skeletally thin and very very long. (Laughter.)

And it turns out there is only one other animal in the entire world that has this feature. And this is called—I love zoologists; they have such vivid imaginations—it’s called the Long-Fingered Possum. (Laughter.) And this is a creature that lives in New Guinea, and in fact it is its fourth finger that is skeletally thin and elongated. And this is the thing that tells us that there is no relationship between these animals, it’s pure convergent evolution, because the common factor between Madagascar and the Aye-aye, and New Guinea and the Long-Fingered Possum is that in both habitats there are no woodpeckers. (Laughter.) And you see, the thing is—life is very very opportunistic, and it will take advantage of any food source it finds around the place. And if there are no woodpeckers looking under the bark of trees for grubs, then, in this case, it will be the mammals that grow the skeletally thin long finger to burrow under the bark of the tree, and get to this source of food which is the grubs under the bark.

So, the Aye-aye is this very very very strange creature. And at this time it was thought there were only about fifteen of them left. And they lived actually not on Madagascar itself, but on a tiny little rainforest island just off the coast of Madagascar, called Nosy Mangabe, and it’s just off the northwest tip of Madagascar. And now to get there, what you have to do, is you have to fly in a 747 to Madagascar. And then in a terrible old jalopy of an airplane from Madagascar up to the northwest port. And from there you have to go in a kind of decreasingly excellent series of carts and trucks and so on, (Laughter) to a little port where there was going to be a boat that was going to take us to Nosy Mangabe. So we arrived there, and arrived at the port, and we were looking around for the boat that was going to take us to Nosy Mangabe, and we couldn’t see it. And we kept in turn asking people–you know–“where is this boat?”, and they would say “it’s there! it’s there!”, and we couldn’t see what they were pointing at because there was this terrible rotting old hulk in the way. (Laughter.)

Well as you guessed, this is the terrible rotting old hulk in which we have to go to Nosy Mangabe. And it didn’t fulfill what to my mind was the sort of basic criteria of a boat, in that it was basically full of ocean. (Laughter.) And it seemed to me that the whole point of a boat was to keep the ocean on the outside. (Laughter.) Anyway, so we crossed to Nosy Mangabe. And it’s this tiny little, very very beautiful little rainforest island. And we hit a major problem which of course is that this animal not only lives in trees—nobody has seen it for years and years and years—lives in trees but it’s also a nocturnal animal. And the quality of batteries in Madagascar is very very poor. So, we spent night after night after night, traipsing through the rainforest, in what can only be described as: the rain. (Laughter.)

Getting rather ratty, and basically we’ve just spent night after night sort of huddled under tarpaulins, looking at us, saying “stop raining.” And every now and then we would sort of, “gah, I’ve been trying to find this damn animal.” Actually, this is wonderful, we found this hut that used to be this sort of game warden’s—not game warden—a ranger’s hut. And it’s a tiny little hut. And it was actually full of wild life. (Laughter.) What happened, you see, is you would open the door, and you hear all this noise (makes chomping noises) and you turn on the light and it would all stop. (Laughter.) And you would see these little giant spiders around the wall, each with a sort of half-eaten bug in their mouth! (Laughter.) And say, “yes?” (Laughter.) And you turn the light out and (makes chomping noises).

So this is our shelter, you know, we were having a great time. But one night, one night, we were all sort of—as I said—huddled under our tarpaulins, and I sort of got out, and wandered around, and suddenly, suddenly, I looked up and at a branch at about that high above my head (looks up and jumps to indicate height), this creature came out. This creature came out along the branch, looked down on me, and I looked at it, and as it looked to me—it obviously didn’t at all like to look at what it saw—it turned around and went away again. (Laughter.) Whole encounter about ten seconds. And that’s what we’ve come for.

I had actually seen, we all saw—just managed to get a quick photograph of it when it appeared—but I suddenly realised we’ve seen an Aye-aye. Now, I was absolutely transfixed by that moment, for reasons that I couldn’t entirely explain to myself immediately. Because a month earlier I’ve never even heard of this animal and now here I was, staring at it, thinking that something extraordinary happening here. So I began to sort of think about it a little bit, and the thought I put together was this. In traveling here, in traveling on a 747 to Tananarive, which is the capital of Madagascar, and this terrible old jalopy of an airplane that took us out to the northwest corner, and then in the decreasingly excellent series of carts and trucks, and then in the rotting old hulk that took us to the rainforest where we basically walked through the rainforest night after night, it was as if we were taking a kind of time journey—a time travel journey—back through the history of twig technology. (Laughter.)

And what this encounter had been, what this encounter had been was: I was a monkey looking at a lemur. And you suddenly think, there is a huge amount of history to this moment that we don’t think—we don’t realise—we carry around with us. Our roots in this planet go back an awfully awfully awfully long way, and we don’t tend to think about that very much. And it takes a confrontation like this to suddenly realise how sort of broad and deep your family goes. So I thought, well this is terribly interesting. And I talked to the guy who had been kind of my guide out there, who was a zoologist who had been sent along to make sure I didn’t sort of fall out of the trees and so on. And his name was Mark Carwardine, and I said to him, “I would love it if we could …, do you fancy the idea of sort of going around the world and looking for other rare and endangered species of animals, maybe doing a book about this?” He said, “well, that’s what I do for a living!” (Laughter.) “So yeah, OK.” (Laughter.)

[edit]The Komodo Dragon Lizard

And so we did. Now, there was a pause at that moment because I had a couple of novels I’ve just been contracted to write. So I wrote Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, and then it was time to go. (Laughter.)

And the first place we went, we went to look for a particular animal which is the Komodo Dragon Lizard. Now you know what lizards are like, don’t you? I mean they’re sort of (makes mime with hands to suggest a size of about 12 inches). The Komodo Dragon Lizard is a little bit bigger than that. The biggest one we saw actually it was about 13 feet long, and its head came out to about here (makes mime with hands to suggest a height to about his hip), fucking huge I think is the technical term. (Laughter.) It’s thought to be the origin of the chinese dragon myth—because they are well huge, giant giant lizards, they’re scaly, they’re man eaters, literally they’re man eaters, and they don’t actually breathe fire, but they do have the worst breath of any creature known to man.

And they live on this island called Komodo. Now, it’s not enough—it turns out—that this island has fifteen hundred, fifteen hundred man-eating dragons on it. (Laughter.) It turns our that actually that the most endangered animal on the island is anything other than the dragons. (Laughter.) In fact—as I said—they’re man eaters. They don’t actually eat you sort of straight out, they don’t sort of lunge at you and just gobble you up. They sort of sneak around and they come and give you a bit of a bite. Because their saliva is so virulent that your wound would not heal and after a while you will die. And so one of the dragons will get to eat you—it doesn’t matter if it’s the same one that bit you—they just have a strategy of having as many dead and dying creatures lying around the island (laughter) as they can manage and that kind of keeps them going.

But it turns out it’s not enough that the island has fifteen hundred man-eating dragons on it. Just to make it a little bit more interesting, it also has more poisonous snakes on it—per square meter of land—than any equivalent area of land anywhere on earth. So, we approach Komodo—I have to say—slightly nervously, and in a slightly roundabout way. In fact we approached in such a roundabout way that went by Melbourne in Australia. (Laughter.) And the reason we went by Melbourne was somebody who we wanted to go and see there, a man called Dr. Struan Sutherland. Actually I want to read you a little bit about him, he was a great expert in snake venom.

I should apologise before I read this, actually, for the fact that my australian accent isn’t very good. But then, what the hell, you’re all americans you ain’t know the difference anyway. (Laughter.)

There is in Melbourne a man who probably knows more about poisonous snakes than anyone else on earth. His name is Dr. Struan Sutherland, and he has devoted his entire life to a study of venom.

“And I’m bored at talking about it,” he said when we went along to see him the next morning laden with tape recorders and notebooks. “Can’t stand all these poisonous creatures, all these snakes and insects and fish and things. Wretched things, biting everybody. And then people expect me to tell them what to do about it. I’ll tell them what to do. Don’t get bitten in the first place. (Laughter.) That’s the answer. I’ve had enough of telling people all the time. Hydroponics, now that’s interesting. (Laughter.) Talk to you all you like about hydroponics. Fascinating stuff, growing plants artificially in water, very interesting technique. We’ll need to know all about it if we’re going to go to Mars and places. Where did you say you were going?”


“Well don’t get bitten, that’s all I can say. (Laughter.) And don’t come running to me if you do because you won’t get here in time, (laughter) and anyway I’ve got enough on my plate. Look at this office, full of poisonous animals all over the place. See this tank, it’s full of fire ants. Venomous little creatures. What are we going to do about them? Anyway, I got some little fairy cakes in case you were hungry. Would you like some little cakes? I can’t remember where I put them. There’s some tea but it’s not very good. Anyway, sit down for heaven’s sake.

“So, you’re going to Komodo. Well, I don’t know why you want to do that but I suppose you have your reasons. There are fifteen different types of snake on Komodo, and half of them are poisonous. The only potentially deadly ones are the Russell’s Viper, the Bamboo Viper and the Indian Cobra.

“The Indian cobra is the fifteenth deadliest snake in the world, and all the other fourteen are here in Australia. (Laughter.) That’s why it’s so hard for me to find time to get on with my hydroponics, with all these snakes all over the place.

“And spiders. The most poisonous spider is the Sydney funnel-web, we get about five hundred people a year bitten by spiders. A lot of them used to die, so I had to develop an antidote to stop people bothering me with it all the time. (Laughter.) Took us years. Then we developed this snake bite detector kit. Not that you need a kit to tell you when you’ve been bitten by a snake, (laughter) you usually know, but the kit is something that will detect what type you’ve been bitten by so you can treat it properly.

“Would you like to see a kit? I’ve got a couple here in the venom fridge. Let’s have a look. Ah look, the cakes are in here too. (Laughter.) Quick, have one while they’re still fresh. Fairy cakes, I baked ’em myself”

He handed round the snake venom detection kits and these home baked fairy cakes and retreated back to his desk, where he beamed at us cheerfully from behind his curly beard and bow tie. We admired the kits which were small efficient boxes neatly packed with tiny bottles, a pipette, a syringe, and a complicated set of instructions that I wouldn’t want to have to read for the first time in a panic. And then we asked him how many of the snakes he had been bitten by himself.

“None of ’em,” he said. “Another area of expertise I’ve developed is that of getting other people to handle the dangerous animals. (Laughter.) Won’t do it myself. Don’t want to get bitten, do I? (Laughter.) You know what it says on my book jackets? ‘Hobbies: gardening, with gloves; (laughter) fishing, with boots; travelling, with care.’ That’s the answer. What else? Well in addition to the boots wear thick baggy trousers. And preferably have half a dozen people trampling along in front of you making as much noise as possible. (Laughter.) The snakes pick up the vibrations and get out of your way. Unless it’s a Death Adder, otherwise known as the Deaf Adder, (laughter) which just lies there. People can walk right past it and over it and nothing happens. I’ve heard of twelve people in a line walking over a Death Adder and the twelfth person accidentally trod on it and got bitten. Normally it’s quite safe to get twelve in line. You’re not eating your cakes. Come on, get them down you, there’s plenty more in the venom fridge.” (Laughter.)

We asked, tentatively, if we could perhaps take a snake bite detector kit with us to Komodo.

“Course you can, course you can. Take as many as you like. Won’t do you a blind bit of good because they’re only for Australian snakes.” (Laughter.)

“So what do we do if we get bitten by something deadly, then?” I asked.

He blinked at me as if I were stupid. (Laughter.)

“Well what do you think you do?” he said. “You die of course. That’s what deadly means.” (Laughter.)

“But what about cutting open the wound and sucking out the poison?” I asked.

“Rather you than me,” he said. (Laughter.) “I wouldn’t want a mouthful of poison. Shouldn’t do you any harm, though, snake toxins are of high molecular weight so they wont penetrate the blood vessels in the mouth the way that alcohol or some drugs do. And then the poison gets destroyed by the acids in your stomach. But it’s not necessarily going to do much good either. I mean, you’re not likely to be able to get much of the poison out, but you’re probably going to make the wound a lot worse trying. And in a place like Komodo it means you’d quickly have a seriously infected wound to contend with well as a leg full of poison. Septicaemia, gangrene, you name it, it’ll kill you.”

“What about a tourniquet?” I asked.

“Well, fine if you don’t mind having your leg cut off afterwards. You’d have to because if you cut off the blood supply to it completely it will just die. And if you can find anyone in that part of Indonesia who you’d trust to take your leg off then you’re a braver man than me. (Laughter.) No, I’ll tell you, the only thing you can do is apply a pressure bandage direct to the wound and wrap the whole leg up tightly, but not too tightly. Slow the blood flow but don’t cut it off or you’ll lose the leg. Hold your leg, or whatever bit you’ve been bitten in, lower than your heart and your head. Keep very, very still, breathe slowly and get to a doctor immediately. (Laughter.) If you’re on Komodo that means a couple of days, by which time you’ll be well dead. (Laughter.)

“Now, the only answer, and I mean this quite seriously, is don’t get bitten. There’s no reason why you should. Any of the snakes there will get out of your way well before you even see them. You don’t really need to worry about the snakes if you’re careful. No, the things you really need to worry about are the marine creatures.”

“What?” (Laughter.)

Scorpion fish, stonefish, sea snakes. Much more poisonous than anything on land. Get stung by a stonefish and the pain alone will kill you. People drown themselves just to stop the pain.” (Laughter.)

“Where are all these things?”

“Oh, just in the sea. Tons of them. I wouldn’t go near it if I were you. Full of poisonous animals. Hate them.” (Laughter.)

“Is there anything you do like?”

“Yes. Hydroponics.” (Laughter.)

“No”, I said, “I mean are there any poisonous creatures you’re particularly fond of?”

He looked out of the window for a moment.

“There was,” he said, “but she left me.” (Laughter.) (Applause.)

[edit]The Kakapo

Anyway, in fact my favourite of all the animals we went to see, my favourite, was an animal called the Kakapo. And the Kakapo is a kind of parrot. It lives in New Zealand. It’s a flightless parrot, it has forgotten how to fly. Sadly, it has also forgotten that it has forgotten how to fly. (Laughter.) So a seriously worried Kakapo has been known to run up a tree and jump out of it. (Laughter.) Opinion divides as to what next happens: (laughter) some people said it has developed a kind of rudimentary parachuting ability, (laughter) other people says it flies a bit like a brick. (Laughter.)

But the thing is—I might talk about a seriously worried Kakapo—the fact is you’re not likely to find a seriously worried Kakapo because Kakapos have not learned to worry. (Laughter.) It seems an extraordinary thing to say because worrying is something we’re all so terribly good at, and which comes so absolutely naturally to us, we think it must be as natural as breathing. But it turns out that worrying is simply an acquired habit like anything else. It’s something you’re genetically disposed to do or not to do. And the thing is that the Kakapo grew up in New Zealand which was, until man arrived, a country which had no predators. And it’s predators that, over a series of generations, will teach you to worry. (Laughter.) And if you don’t have predators then the need to worry will never occur to you.

Now I said earlier, that New Zealand turns out to be just a load of gunk that came out from under the ocean. And this is why, when it emerged, it didn’t have any life on it at all—maybe a few dead fish. (Laughter.) So the only animals that inhabited New Zealand were the animals that could fly there, i.e. birds. There were are also a couple of species of bats which are mammals, but you get the point. So it was only birds that lived on New Zealand. And, in an absence of predators, there was nothing for them to worry about. Now it’s very very peculiar for us to try and understand this because we have never ever encountered an environment with no predators in it. Why not? Because we are predators and because, therefore, if we are in that environment it is a predated environment. For the europeans who originally arrived in New Zealand, … sorry, that was an extraordinary thing to say. Of course the Māoris before them and before then the Morioris, the Māoris ate the Morioris (laughter) and then the europeans came along. But before all of that happened—as I said—the island had no predators, and the birds basically lived a worry-free life.

Now you can actually see another example of this if you go to Galápagos, there is a type of animal, there is a bird on the Galápagos Islands called the Blue-footed Booby. And the Blue-footed Booby is so called—I believe—for two reasons: one of which has to be with the colour of his feet, (laughter) and the other has to do with this piece of behaviour I’m about to describe. Because, apparently you can walk up to a Blue-footed Booby—it will be sitting there on the beach or on a branch—and you can walk up and you can sort of pick him up. (Laughter.) And what the Booby will be thinking is that once you finish with him you’ll put him back. (Laughter.) And if you haven’t lived through generation after generation of people trying to eat you, it’s very easy to come to that conclusion. (Laughter.)

So the Kakapo, as I say, had grown up in an environment without predators. And because they were all birds, and because nature has a way—as I say—very opportunistic and life will flow into any niche where it’s possible to make a living, so—if I can be very naughty and anthropomorphise for a moment—it’s as if some of the birds figured out, “Well, this flying stuff is very very expensive. It takes a lot of energy, you have to eat a bit, fly a bit, eat a bit, fly a bit, because every time you eat something—you know—you weight down and it’s heavier to fly, so eat a bit, fly a bit—I mean—there are other ways of life available.” And so it’s as if some of the birds said, “Well, actually what we could do is we could settle in for a rather larger meal, and go for a waddle afterwards!” (Laughter.)

And so gradually over many many generations a lot of the birds lost the ability to fly, they took up life on the ground. The Kiwi, the most famous bird—I guess—of New Zealand, and the Weka, and the old night parrot—as it was called—the Kakapo. Which is this sort of big, fat, soft, fluffy, lugubrious bird. (Laughter.) And because it has never learned to worry, when man arrived and brought with him his deadly menagerie of dogs, and cats, and stoats, and the most destructive of all animals–other than man—which is Rattus rattus, the ship’s rat. Suddenly, suddenly these birds were waddling for their lives. (Laughter.) Except in fact they didn’t know how to do that because they were confronted with an animal which was a predator, they didn’t know what to do, they didn’t know what the social form was, they just waited for the other animal to make the next move, and of course—as usually—a fairly swift and deadly one. (Laughter.)

So, suddenly from there being a population of—we don’t know exactly of how many—probably not as many as a million, but hundreds of thousands of these birds, their population plunged at an incredible rate down into the low forties. Which is roughly where it is at the moment. And, so there are groups of people who dedicated their entire lives to try to save these animals, trying to conserve them. And one of the problems they’ve come across is that it’s all very well just to protect them—from predators—which is very very very hard to do. But the next problem they come across is the mating habits of the Kakapo. Because it turns out that the mating habits of the Kakapo are incredibly long drawn-out, fantastically complicated, and almost entirely ineffective. (Laughter.)

Some people would tell you that the mating call of the male Kakapo actively repels the female Kakapo, (laughter) which is the sort of behaviour you would otherwise only find really in discotheques. The people who’ve heard the mating call of the male Kakapo will tell you, you can hardly even hear it, it’s like a sort of … I’ll tell you what they do. This animal every—for about a hundred nights of the year—it goes through its mating ritual.

And what it does is it finds some great rocky outcrop looking out over the great rolling valleys of New Zealand, because acoustics are very important for what it’s about to happen. (Laughter.) It carves out this kind of bowl that it sits in. And it sits there, and it puffs out this great sort of air-sacks around his chest. And it sits there—and these are reverberation chambers, this is a kind of reverberation chamber—and it sits there and for night after night after night for a hundred nights of the year, for eight hours of the night, it performs the opening bars of The Dark Side of the Moon.1 (Laughter.) Now, I see some grey hairs here so you’ll know the album I’m referring to. (Laughter.) Which as you remember starts with this great sort of boom, boom, boom, it’s a heartbeat sound. And this is the noise, that the Kakapo makes. But it’s so, it’s so deep, that you more kind of feel it like a wobble in the pit of your stomach. You can only just sort of tune your hearing in to it. Now I never managed to get to hear it, but those who do say they feel it’s a very eerie sound because you don’t really hear it, you more kind of feel it.

And, it’s bass sound. It’s very very deep bass sound, just below our level of our hearing. Now it turns out that bass sound has two important characteristics to it. One of which is that these great long waves, these great long sound waves travel great distances, and they fill these great valleys of the south island of New Zealand. And that’s good. That’s good. But there is another characteristic of bass sounds, which you may be familiar with, if you’ve got this kind of—you know—the kind of stereo speakers you can get. Where you have two tiny little ones that give you your treble sound, and you have to put them very carefully in the room, because they’re going to define the stereo image. And then you have what’s known as a subwoofer which is the bass box, and that’s going to produce just the bass sound and you can put that anywhere in the room you like. You can put it behind the sofa if you like, because the other characteristic of bass sound—and remember we’re talking about the mating call of the male Kakapo—is that you can’t tell where it’s coming from! (Laughter.)

So just imagine if you will, this male Kakapo sitting up here, making all this booming noise which, if there’s a female out there—which there probably isn’t—and if she likes the sound of this booming—which she probably doesn’t—then she can’t find the person who’s making it! (Laughter.) But supposing she does, supposing she’s out there—but she probably isn’t—she likes the sound of this booming—she probably doesn’t—supposing that she can find him—which she probably can’t—she will then only consent to mate if the Podocarpus tree is in fruit! (Laughter.)

Now we’ve all had relationships like that … (Laughter.) (Applause.)

But supposing they get through all those obstacles, supposing she manages to find him, she will then lay one egg every two or three years which will promptly get eaten by a stoat or rat. (Laughter.) And you think, well so far—before trying to sort of save them and conserve them—how on earth has it managed to survive for this long!

And the answer is terribly interesting, which is this: it seems like absurd behaviour to us, but it’s only because its environment has changed in one particular and dramatic way that is completely invisible to us. And its behaviour is perfectly attuned to the environment it developed in, and completely out of tune with the environment it now finds itself in. Because in an environment when nothing is trying to predate you, you don’t want to reproduce too fast. And it turns out you can actually sort of graph this in a computer. That if you take a given reproduction rate, and you take the ability of any given environment to sustain any particular level of population. And you start say with a fairly low reproduction rate, and you just plot it over several generations and you find that the population goes up and up and up and then sort of steadies out and achieves a nice plateau. Tweak the reproduction rate up a bit, and it goes up a little bit higher, and then maybe settles down, and levels out. Tweak the reproduction rate a little bit higher yet, and it goes up, and it goes too high, and it drops down, it goes too low, goes up, too high, and settles into an oscillating sine wave. Tweak it a bit more, and it starts to oscillate between four different values. Tweak it more and more and more and you suddenly hit this terribly fashionable condition called chaos. (Laughter.) Where the population of the animal just swings wildly from one year to another, and will just hit zero at one point just out of the sheer mathematics of the situation. And once you’ve hit zero, there is kind of no coming back. (Laughter.)

And so, because because nature tends to be very parsimonious and is not going to expend energy and resources on something for which there is no return. So the reproduction rate of an animal in an environment with no predators will tune itself to an appropriate level of reproduction. Now, if there is nothing trying to eat you—particularly—then that reproduction rate will be very low. And that is the rate at which the Kakapo used to reproduce, and continues to reproduce despite the fact that it’s being predated, because it doesn’t know any better. Because nothing has managed to teach it anything different along the way, because the change that occurred happened so suddenly, that there is no kind of slope, there is no slope of gradual evolutionary pressure, which is the thing that tends to bring about change. If you have a sudden dramatic change then there is no direction to go and you just have disaster.

So, again if I can anthropomorphise for a moment, what seems to have happened is that the animal suddenly reaching a crisis in his population thinks, “Whoa, whoa! I better just do, do, what I do fantastically well, do what is my main thing, which is I reproduce really really slowly!” (Laughter.) And its population goes down. “Well, I’d better really do what I do, and reproduce really really really really slowly!” And it seems absurd to us because we can see a larger picture than they can. But if that is the type of behaviour that you’ve evolved successfully to produce, then to do anything else would be against kakapo-nature, would be an inkakapo thing to do. And it has nothing to teach it any other than to just do what it’s always done, to follow its successful strategy, and because times have changed around it, it’s no longer a successful strategy, and the animal is in terrible trouble.

[edit]The Yangtze River Dolphin

There is another animal we went to find, it is in even worse trouble now. And this is the Baiji, the Yangtze River Dolphin, which is an almost blind river dolphin. The reason it’s almost blind, is that there is nothing to see in the Yangtze River. (Laughter.)

Thousands and thousands of years of agriculture along the banks of the Yangtze River have washed so much mud and silt and so on into it, that the river has become completely turbid. Which is a word I didn’t even know the meaning of until I saw the Yangtze River, and basically you can’t see anything in it. So these animals, dolphins as I said, gradually they abandoned the use of sight. Now—as we all know—marine mammals also have this other faculty available to them, which they can develop, which is that of sound. And so what the Yangtze River Dolphins did was over thousands of years, as their eye sight deteriorated, so their sonar abilities became more and more and more sophisticated, and more powerful and more complex.

And it’s very interesting, you can actually watch—if you feel like it—the development of a Baiji foetus, and you’ll see that right at—as you may or may not know—there is a certain amount of truth in the idea that the development of the foetus recapitulates stages in the evolutionary development of an animal. And you see, right at the beginning of the development of the foetus, its eyes are in the normal dolphin position, which are kind of relatively far down on the side of the head. And gradually, as the generations have gone by, its eyes have kind of migrated up the side of the head, and you see this happening as the foetus develops. Because gradually, over the generations, its only light is coming directly from up above and there is no ambient light and then, as that too dies out, so the eyes gradually atrophied. And, instead, the sonar abilities take over. And these animals developed incredibly sensitive, and incredibly precise abilities to navigate themselves around in the water just using sonar. And all is well and good.

Until the twentieth century when man invents the diesel engine. And suddenly all hell breaks loose beneath the surface of the Yangtze, because it’s suddenly full of noise. And so, suddenly these animals find themselves trapped by something that they—that nobody had any means of foreseeing—that the thing they now rely on has been completely overwhelmed by the noise pollution that we put in the oceans. So suddenly these animals that used to be so sophisticated in their ability to find their way around, are sort of bumping into things, bumping into boats, bumping into ships’ propellers, finding themselves ensnared in fishermen’s nets and so on, because we basically screwed up the next of their faculties. And it’s a very curious feeling, I remember sort of sitting on a boat on the Yangtze River and looking, well trying to look into—you couldn’t look into cause it’s turbid and you remember what turbid means—and realising that all this noise down there means that … It’s very curious to think that there may have been a dolphin somewhere near me—I didn’t know, I mean by this stage, this was ten years ago, there were only two hundred left in a structure of water of about two hundred miles long, so you had no idea if there was one anywhere near you—but it’s curious because you think if you and another person, another creature, are kind of in the same world, then you must be feeling roughly similar. But one of the things you begin to realise when you look at different animals is that because of their evolutionary history, and because of the forms they have developed into, and the ways they have developed of perceiving the world, they may be inhabiting the same world but actually a completely different universe. But actually a completely different universe because you create your only own universe from what you do with the sensory data coming in. So, you realise that you’re here, and there is a dolphin there, and you’re comfortable, and the dolphin may be actually in a species of hell. But has no means of communicating that with you because we’ve kind of taken charge, and there is no way of kind of communicating with the management, there’s a problem. (Laughter.)

So, I suddenly became very interested in what it must actually sound like in the Yangtze River. Now, we’ve gone to record some BBC Radio programmes while we are there, so as well as Mark Carwardine the zoologist, we also had a sound recordist from the BBC. So I said to him, “Could we actually drop a microphone into the Yangtze so that we can see what it actually sounds like in the river?” And he said, “Well you should have said that before we left London.” (Laughter.) And I said, “Why?” And he said, “Well, cause I just could have checked out a waterproof microphone but, you know, you didn’t mention anything about recording under water.” And I said, “No, I didn’t. Is there anything we could do about it?” And he said, “Well there is, there is actually one technique they teach us at the BBC for recording under water in an emergency. (Laughter.) Do either of you have condoms with you?”

And we didn’t. Wasn’t that kind of trip. (Laughter.) But we decided we’d better go and buy some. And so we went into the streets of Shanghai trying to buy some condoms, and I just want to read you a little passage about this. (Laughter.)

The Friendship Store seemed like a promising place to buy condoms, (laughter) but we had a certain amount of difficulty in getting the idea across. We passed from one counter to another in the large open-plan department store, which consists of many different individual booths, stalls and counters, but no one was able to help us.

We first started at the stalls which looked as if they sold medical supplies, but had no luck. By the time we had got to the stalls which sold bookends and chopsticks we knew we were on to a loser, but at least we found a young shop assistant who spoke English.

We tried to explain to her what it was we wanted, (laughter) but seemed to reach the limit of her vocabulary pretty quickly. So, I got out my notebook and drew a condom very carefully, (laughter) including the little extra balloon on the end.

She frowned at it, but still didn’t get the idea. She brought us a wooden spoon, (laughter) a candle, a sort of paper knife and, surprisingly enough, a small porcelain model of the Eiffel Tower (laughter) and then at last lapsed into a posture of defeat.

Some other girls from the stall gathered round to help, but they were also defeated by our picture. At last I plucked up the bravado to perform a delicate little mime, (laughter) and at last the penny dropped. (Laughter.)

“Ah!” the first girl said, suddenly wreathed in smiles. “Ah yes!”

They all beamed delightedly at us as they got the idea.

“You do understand?” l asked.

“Yes! Yes, I understand.”

“Do you have any?”

“No,” she said. “Not have.”


“But, but, but …”


“I say you where you go, OK?”

“Thank you, thank you very much. Yes.”

“You go 616 Nanjing Road. OK. They have there. You ask ‘rubberover’. OK?”


“Rubberover. You ask. They have. OK. Have nice day.” (Laughter.)

She giggled happily about this with her hand over her mouth.

We thanked them again, profusely, and left with much waving and smiling. The news seemed to have spread very quickly around the store, (laughter) and everybody waved at us. (Laughter.) They seemed terribly pleased to have been asked.

When we reached 616 Nanjing Road, which turned out to be another, smaller department store, and not a knocking shop as we had been half-suspecting, our pronunciation of ‘rubberover’ seemed to let us down and produce another wave of baffled incomprehension.

This time I went straight for the mime that had served us so well before, ((laughter) and it seemed to do the trick at once. The shop assistant, a slightly more middle-aged lady with severe hair, marched straight to a cabinet of drawers, brought us back a packet and placed it triumphantly on the counter in front of us.

Success, we thought, opened the packet and found it to contain a bubble sheet of pills.

“Right idea,” said Mark, with a sigh. “Wrong method.” (Laughter.)

We were quickly floundering again as we tried to explain to the now slightly affronted lady that it wasn’t precisely what we were after. By this time a crowd of about fifteen onlookers had gathered round us, some of whom, I was convinced, had followed us all the way from the Friendship Store. (Laughter.) One of the things that you quickly discover in China, is that we are all at the zoo. If you stand still for a moment, people will gather round and stare at you. (Laughter.) The unnerving thing is that they don’t stare intently or inquisitively, they just stand there, often right in front of you, and watch you as blankly as if you were a dog food commercial. (Laughter.)

At last one young and pasty-faced man with glasses pushed through the crowd and said he spoke a little English and could he help?

We thanked him and said, yes, we wanted to buy some condoms, some rubberovers, and we would be very grateful if he could explain that for us.

He looked puzzled, picked up the rejected packet lying on the counter in front of the affronted shop assistant and said, “Not want rubberover. This better.” (Laughter.)

“No,” Mark said. “We definitely want rubberover, not pills.”

“Why want rubberover? Pill better.” (Laughter.)

“You tell him,” said Mark. (Laughter.)

“It’s to record dolphins,” I said. (Laughter.) “Or not the actual dolphins in fact. What we want to record is the noise in the Yangtze that … it’s to go over the microphone, you see, and …”

“Oh, just tell him you want to fuck someone,” said the sound recordist. (Laughter.) “And you can’t wait.” (Laughter.)

But by now the young man was edging nervously away from us, suddenly realising that we were dangerously insane, (laughter) and should simply be humoured and escaped from. He said something hurriedly to the shop assistant and backed away into the crowd.

The shop assistant shrugged, scooped up the pills, opened another drawer and pulled out a packet of condoms.

We bought nine, just to be safe. (Laughter.) (Applause.)

So a couple of days later we were standing on the banks of the Yangtze, on a very [desperate?] drizzly grey day. And we put the microphone in this little sort of pink thing, (laughter) and dropped it into the water. And, I don’t usually do impressions but I’m going to do for you an impression of what it sounds like under the surface of the Yangtze River. And it’s something like this “pfffffffffff”. The Yangtze River ladies and gentleman. (Laughter.) (Applause.)

And, I suddenly realized what an appalling thing we’ve inflicted on these poor animals, that live in a world of super sensitive sound and hearing. And this was why these animals were now desperately endangered because having removed one way of life from them we were now removing a second. The problem is we’re about to remove a third, I said that when I was there it was ten years ago, there were two hundred of these left, today there are twenty. And because the Chinese are building these giant dams to dam the Yangtze at one of the most beautiful and most spectacular sites in all world, the Three Gorges, and they’re damming it there which means that the Yangtze Dolphin will at that point definitely go extinct.2

And it’s terribly sad. The peculiar thing about dams is that we keep on building them and none of them ever do any good. It’s not quite true, because unfortunately there are—in the history of dam-making—two that did work, one is the Hoover and the other is the one up in the pacific northwest, the Coulee Dam. And every other one doesn’t work. And for some reason we never manage to be able to quite stop us … we always think we just build one more. I think must have some sort of beaver genes deep in our … (Laughter.) But the sad thing as I say is that the Yangtze River dolphin is definitely and without doubt bound for extinction.

[edit]The Human

And, it’s very peculiar to me that we are living at the moment in an extraordinary age, an extraordinary renaissance, because we’ve got to the point when we suddenly understand the value of information, as we never have before. We call the age we live in that of information. And we’ve discovered that information is the most valuable resource we have. And as you’d know we’ve just spent billions of dollars—quite rightly—in trying to understand the human genome, and that’s just one species, that’s just us. And we’ve come to understand and realize how incredibly valuable this information is.

And we’ve never understood kind of how it all worked together before, because before we had … let me put it this way. In the past we’ve done science by taking things apart to see how they work. And it’s led to extraordinary discoveries, extraordinary degrees of understanding, but the problem with taking things apart to see how they work is even though it gets you down to the sort of fundamental particles, the fundamental principles, the fundamental forces at work, we still don’t really understand how they work until we see them in motion.

One of the things that came about as a result of our understanding of these fundamental principles, is that we came to invent this thing called the computer. And the great thing about the computer is that, unlike every previous analytical tool—and there are a bit … it’s funny how many of these have to do with glass, when we first came across glass, which is a form of sand, and we invented lenses, and we looked up into the sky, and by studying the sky we began to discover fundamental things about gravity, and we also discovered that the universe seems to consist—terrifyingly enough—almost entirely of nothing. The next thing we did with glass was we put them in microscopes, and we looked down into this very very very solid world around us, and we see the fundamental particles there, the atoms—made up of protons and neutrons with electrons spinning around them—and we also discover that they seem to consist frighteningly almost entirely of nothing. And that even when you do find something it turns out that it isn’t actually there, it isn’t actually a thing there, merely the possibility that there may be something there. (Laughing.) It kind of doesn’t feel as real as this (hits podium with his hand). (Laughing.)

So the next thing we do with sand was silicon, as we create the computer. And this finally enables us to start putting things together to see how they work. And it allows us to see actual processes at work, and we begin to see how very very simple things lead inexorably—by iteration after iteration—to enormously complex processes emerging and blossoming. And to my mind one of the most extraordinary things of our age—I mean those of us who were around will remember, you know, seeing man walking on the moon for the first time—but I think the most dramatic and extraordinary thing that we have seen in our time is being able to see, on computer screens, the process by which enormously simple primitive things, processes, instructions, repeated many many times over, very very fast, and iterated over generations of instructions, produce enormously complex results. So that we can suddenly start to create, just out of fundamentally simple primitive instructions, we can create the way in which wind behaves in a wind tunnel, a turbulence of wind, we can see how light might dance in an imaginary dinosaur’s eye. And we do it all out of fundamentally simple instructions. And as a result of that we have finally come to an understanding of the way in which life has actually emerged. Now, there are an awful lot of things we don’t know about life. But any life scientist will tell you that, although there is an awful lot we don’t know, there is no longer a deep mystery. There is no longer a deep mystery because we have actually seen with our own eyes the way in which simplicity gives rise to complexity.

When I say there is no mystery it is rather as if you imagine taking a detective from the 19th century, teaming him up with a detective from the late 20th century, and giving them this problem to work on: that a suspect in a crime was seen one day to be walking down the street in the middle of London, and the next day was seen somewhere out in the desert in the middle of New Mexico. Now the 19th century detective will say, “Well, I haven’t the faintest idea. I mean it must be some species of magic has happened.” And he would have no idea about how to begin to solve what has happened here. For the 20th century detective, now he may never know whether the guy went on British Airways or United or American or where he hired his car from, or all that kind of stuff, he may never find those details, but there wont be any fundamental mystery about what has happened.

So for us there is no longer a fundamental mystery about life. It is all the process of extraordinary eruptions of information. And is information that gives us this fantastically rich complex world in which we live. But at the same time that we’ve discovered that, we are destroying it at a rate that has no precedent in history, unless you go back to the point that we’re hit by an asteroid.

So there is a kind of terrible irony that at the point that we are best able to understand, and appreciate, and value the richness of life around us, we are destroying it at a higher rate that it has even been destroyed before. And we are losing species after species after species, day after day, just because we’re burning the stuff down for firewood. And this is a kind of terrible indictment of our understanding. But, you see, we make another mistake, because we think somehow, this is all right in some fundamental kind of way, because we think that this is all sort of “meant to happen.”

Now let me explain how we get into that kind of mindset, because it’s exactly the same kind of mindset that the Kakapo gets trapped in. Because, what has been a very successful strategy for the Kakapo over generation after generation for thousands and thousands of years, suddenly is the wrong strategy, and he has no means of knowing because he is just doing what has been successful up till then. And we have always been, because we’re toolmakers, because we take from our environment the stuff that we need to do what we want to do and it’s always been very successful for us …

I’ll tell you what’s happened. It’s as if we’ve actually kind of put the sort of “pause” button on our own process of evolution, because we have put a buffer around us, which consists of—you know—medicine and education and buildings, and all these kinds of things that protect us from the normal environmental pressures. And, it’s our ability to make tools that enables us to do this. Now, generally speaking, what drives speciation, is that a small group of animals gets separated out from the main body by population pressure, some geographical upheaval or whatever. So imagine, a small bunch suddenly finds itself stranded in a slightly colder environment. Then you know, over a small number of generations that those genes that favour a thicker coat will come to the fore and you come back a few generations later, and the animal’s got a thicker coat. Man, because we are able to make tools, we arrive in a new environment where it’s much colder, and we don’t have to wait for that process. Because we see an animal that’s already got a thicker coat and we say we’ll have it off him. (Laughter.) And so we’ve kind of taken control of our environment, and that’s all very well, but we need to be able to sort of rise above that process. We have to rise above that vision and see a higher vision—and understand the effect we’re actually having.

Now imagine—if you will—an early man, and let’s just sort of see how this mindset comes about. He’s standing, surveying his world at the end of the day. And he looks at it and thinks, “This is a very wonderful world that I find myself in. This is pretty good. I mean, look, here I am, behind me is the mountains, and the mountains are great because there are caves in the mountains where I can shelter, either from the weather or from bears that occasionally come and try to attack me. And I can shelter there, so that’s great. And in front of me there is the forest, and the forest is full of nuts and berries and trees, and they feed me, and they’re delicious and they sort of keep me going. And here’s a stream going through which has got fish running through it, and the water is delicious, and I drink the water, and everything’s fantastic.

“And there’s my cousin Ug. And Ug has caught a mammoth! Yay!! (claps). Ug has caught a mammoth! Mammoths are terrific! There’s nothing greater than a mammoth, because a mammoth, basically you can wrap yourself in the fur from the mammoth, you can eat the meat of the mammoth, and you can use the bones of the mammoth, to catch other mammoths! (Laughter.)

“Now this world is a fantastically good world for me.” And, part of how we come to take command of our world, to take command of our environment, to make these tools that are actually able to do this, is we ask ourselves questions about it the whole time. So this man starts to ask himself questions. “This world,” he says, “well, who … so, so who made it?” Now, of course he thinks that, because he makes things himself, so he’s looking for someone who will have made this world. He says, “So, who would have made this world? Well, it must be something a little bit like me. Obviously much much bigger, (laughing) and necessarily invisible, (laughter) but he would have made it. Now, why did he make it?”

Now, we always ask ourselves “why” because we look for intention around us, because we always do something with intention. You know, we boil an egg in order to eat it. So, we look at the rocks and we look at the trees, and we wonder what intention is here, even though it doesn’t have intention. So we think, what did this person who made this world intend it for. And this is the point where you think, “Well, it fits me very well. (Laughter.) You know, the caves and the forests, and the stream, and the mammoths. He must have made it for me! I mean, there’s no other conclusion you can come to.”

And it’s rather like a puddle waking up one morning—I know they don’t normally do this, but allow me, I’m a science fiction writer. (Laughter.) A puddle wakes up one morning and thinks, “This is a very interesting world I find myself in. It fits me very neatly. In fact, it fits me so neatly, I mean, really precise, isn’t it? (Laughter.) It must have been made to have me in it!” And the sun rises, and he’s continuing to narrate the story about this hole being made to have him in it. And the sun rises, and gradually the puddle is shrinking and shrinking and shrinking, and by the time the puddle ceases to exist, it’s still thinking, it’s still trapped in this idea, that the hole was there for it. And if we think that the world is here for us, we will continue to destroy it in the way that we’ve been destroying it, because we think we can do no harm.

There’s an awful lot of speculation one way or another at the moment, about whether there’s life on other planets or not. Carl Sagan, as you know, was very keen on the idea that there must be. The sheer numbers dictate, because there are billions and billions and billions (laughter)—as he famously did not say, in fact—of worlds out there, so the chance must be that there’s other intelligent life out there. There are other voices at the moment you’ll hear saying, well actually if you look at the set of circumstances here on Earth, they are so extraordinarily specific that the chances of there being something like this out there, are actually pretty remote. Now, in a way it doesn’t matter. Because think of this—I mean Carl Sagan, I think, himself, said this. There are two possibilities: either there is life out there on other planets, or there is no life out there on other planets. They are both utterly extraordinary ideas! (Laughter.) But, there is a strong possibility that there isn’t anything out there remotely like this. And we are behaving as if this planet, this extraordinary, utterly, utterly extraordinary little ball of life, is something we can just screw about with any way we like.

And maybe we can’t. Maybe we should be looking after it just a little bit better. Not for the world’s sake—we talk rather grandly about “saving the world.” We don’t have to save the world–the world’s fine! The world has been through five periods of mass extinction. Sixty-five million years ago when, as it seems, a comet hit the Earth at the same time that there were vast volcanic eruptions in India, which saw off the dinosaurs, and something like 90% of the life on the planet at the time. Go back another, I think is 150 million years earlier than that, to the Permian-Triassic boundary, another giant, giant, giant extinction. The world has been through it many many times before. And what tends to happen, what happens invariably after each mass extinction, is that there’s a huge amount of space available, for new forms of life suddenly to emerge and flourish into. Just as the extinction of the dinosaurs made way for us. Without that extinction, we would not be here.

So, the world is fine. We don’t have to save the world—the world is big enough to look after itself. What we have to be concerned about, is whether or not the world we live in, will be capable of sustaining us in it. That’s what we need to think about. Thank you very much ladies and gentlemen. (Applause.)

[edit]Questions and answers

And now if anybody has any questions, I’m very happy to take questions, and there are microphones down here at the front so I suggest you use them.

Yeah, hi.

Questioner 1: Thank you. Wonderful talk. You say we should take care to not destroy the planet. There is one suggestion that has been made is that, the reason why we destroy the planet is that we don’t pay the true cost of things when we consume them. The price of gasoline has been falling in real dollars and the vehicles get bigger and bigger, we have the Selfish Useless Vehicles—I think they’re called—the SUV’s. (Laughter.) (Applause.)

You know, I have to say as a brit, you know we sit and think, “the americans are complaining again because their gas prices have reached now nearly a quarter of what we pay.” (Laughter.)

Questioner 1: So, I just wonder whether you think that a good solution is that if we would pay the true cost of things, if we would pay the ten dollars a gallon or whatever it really costs in terms of the impact on the environment, that that might make a difference?

Umm. It may be …, I …, it … (Laughter.)

There is a problem I’m very very conscious of here. Which is that, even though I’m talking from a conservationist point of view, very very strongly, you’d look back over the history of what we and the conservation movement have said in the last ten years, and the previous ten years, and previous ten years of that. And most of what we’ve said we have to do about it, or the way to have gone about it, have actually turned out to be wrong. So, it’s very hard for me to pretend I can stand up and say we have to do this, and we have to do that. Because they may not be the right solution. I’m terribly aware of this as far as, I mean just going back again, I mean thinking about sort of protection of animals in Africa, for instance. That time after time, we’ve gone about it the wrong way. And, yeah, the conservation efforts of once every ten years will be as much as anything else, undoing the problems caused by the last ten years. So it is a question of constant sort of self-education, trying to assimilate the information, trying to see what the consequences of what we’ve done so far has been, what we can learn from that. Now it may well be that if we say we’re going to multiply the cost of gas by ten times or whatever, that may have effects that we would put into … they would be the lure of unintended consequences, which comes into play. I think the best thing we can do is continually inform ourselves, be as aware as possible of what is actually happening, how if that kind of feedback loop saying now we’re going to make the true cost of the damage we’re causing be part of what you have to pay, then that may be very well be a very good answer; but I’m also worried that it may not be the answer. Which is a complicated way of saying “I don’t know.” (Laughter.) (Applause.)

Questioner 2: Two questions. First. D’you know where your towel is? (Laughter.)

No. (Laughter.)

Questioner 2: (Laughs.) OK.

That was always my problem. It’s very funny the thing about the towel because, … I’ll tell you where it came from. I was on a holiday with a bunch of people, and we were on a Villa in Corfu. And every day we would set out to the beach, and just as we were setting out for the beach there would a problem, and the problem would be that Douglas could not find his towel! (Laughter.) Where was my towel? Was it under the bed? Was it on the end of bed? Was it in the bed? Was it the bathroom? Was it hanging on the line outside? Was it in the washing …? Was it …? I had no idea, day after day, where the fuck my towel was. (Laughter.) And after I while I just began to think this must be symptomatic of somebody who is so sort of deeply chaotic. But I then … I don’t even know whether I even came up with it first, or somebody on the hold of it came with the idea that somebody who was rather more together than I, would be someone who would really know where their towel was. (Laughter.)

And so then, when I was writing the Hitchhiker, I sort of put … You very often put things in because you know what they mean. And it’s really kind of a flag to yourself that in the next draft through you would put something in that means to everybody else what this thing means to you. (Laughter.) You know. And then it kind of stays there, and it turns out that it does mean something to everybody else as well.

Does that answer your question?

Questioner 2: OK. And also, do we behave like people descended from stick-using monkeys or people descended from telephone cleaners.

I think we have both lots there in our genes, I’m afraid. (Applause.)

Questioner 3: I’m absolutely going to kill myself if I get out of here without asking this. This question occurred to me when my friend bodily forced me to pick up the first book in The Hitchhiker’s Guide and I read the very first sentences on the very first paragraph, “What on God’s green earth does this man has against digital watches!?” (Laughter.)

Well I have to admit they’ve improved since (laughter) I actually wrote that bit. But if you think about it, I mean the first digital watches which were …, you look at a regular watch with hands and you got a pie chart. Remember the time when were used to get very excited about pie charts being the thing that computer did for us? (waves in exaggeration) “Uhhh! Pie charts!” (Laughter.) But at the same time when we were getting terribly excited about pie charts and what they could do for our understanding of the world, we were saying, “We don’t want pie charts on our wrists. That’s old fashioned technology. No what we want is not something you just glance at and see what the time is. We want something that you’ve got to go into a dark corner and put down your suitcase and press a button in order to read, ‘Oh it’s 11:43, now what is …? uhm …? How long is that before twelve o’clock?’ ” And this was progress. (Laughter.)

But you see, I mean the great thing about human beings, I mean—while we make fun of it—is not only that we invent stuff that’s new, and better, and does things better. But even stuff that works perfectly well we can’t leave well enough alone, and it’s really the most sort of charming and delightful aspect of human beings, that we keep on inventing things that we’ve already got right once. (Laughter.) I mean like bathroom faucets, I mean it’s very very simple, you turn it on the water comes out, you turn it off the water stops. And we kind of got the hang of that. That works. But it’s amazing you go into, you know, a hotel lobby or an airport, and you approach the basin with a certain amount of sort of anxiety, you know. (Laughter.) “What do I do? Do I turn something? Do I push something? Do I pull something? Do I knee it!? (Laughter.) Do I just have to sort of be in near it?” (Laughter.)

And once the water started to flow because it has picked up some sort of brainwave energy from me or whatever. (Laughter.) “So, now how do I stop it? Is it my job to stop it? (Laughter.) Would it stop itself?” I mean, I think we’ve got the faucet down OK. But, I just think it’s wonderful we just sort of keep on inventing it even though it works, because it’s the way of getting ourselves off local maximums isn’t it?

I think that’s all I have to say there. Thanks. (Laughter.) (Applause.)

© Copyright 2001. Regents of the University of California. All Rights Reserved.


1. ^ For those curious, there is a YouTube video of the song and the particular sound that Douglas is referring to.

2. ^ According to Wikipedia, the Yangtze River Dolphin was indeed declared as functionally extinct as of 2006.


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