“Human Errors: What Our Quirks Tell Us about Our Past.” — An Interview with Nathan Lents

Susan Gerbic

Nathan Lents is a professor of biology at John Jay College, a prolific science writer, and a speaker at this year’s CSICon. He will be presenting on Saturday October 19 at 9:30am. His talk is titled “Human Errors: What Our Quirks Tell Us about Our Past.”


Susan Gerbic: Hello, Nathan. Very nice to meet you. You have a pretty extensive and interesting background: forensic science, human biology, vitamin D and its possible use in cancer treatments, maggots, and so much more. Can you tell readers more about yourself?

Nathan Lents: Well, as you noticed, I have very eclectic research interests, but there are actually two common threads that aren’t always obvious on the outside. First, the direction of my research is heavily influenced by students’ interests and ideas. I pride myself on running a laboratory where students are given the freedom and resources to pursue the questions that drive them, and I’m privileged to have enough institutional support to fund my research projects, supplemented with external grants as needed. Working with young scientists-in-training as they make their first original discoveries is the greatest joy of my professional life. Secondly, all of my research involves the analysis and interpretation of DNA sequences. Whether from soybeans, nematodes, bacteria, mice, Chinese hamsters, household plants, or the strangest organism of all—humans—I am fascinated by how DNA encodes life. I can get excited about pretty much anything in that realm.

Gerbic: Your two books Not so Different and Human Errors are newly released and have great reviews from people on Amazon. One person said that he was thinking that your Human Error book would be a depressing look at the human body, but he was surprised how funny the book was and how it led to great conversations with his friends. I’m really looking forward to reading them and learning more.

Lents: Thanks so much! Yes, far from being depressing, both books are actually uplifting. In Human Errors, I explore many of our bodies’ failings, yes, but the “reveal” of the book is that our bodies became so limited because we began to solve the challenges of life with our brains and our sociality, rather than just our bodies and physical abilities. Because of tools and inventions, as well as extensive cooperation and division of labor, we don’t really have to rely on the skill and power of our bodies anymore. I, for one, am happy that my body doesn’t have to be perfect in order to survive and thrive! In Not So Different, I look at the human experience from the opposite direction and emphasize our behavioral continuity with other animals. As Darwin noted, “there is grandeur in this view of life,” and by exploring why animals behave as they do, we learn a lot about ourselves. The book pretends to be about animals, but it’s really about us.

Gerbic: You are known as a science communicator not only for your books and articles but also your blog The Human Evolution Blog, which is you and your students discussing human evolution origins.

Lents: My efforts in science communication began humbly enough. I really enjoy helping students pursue their ideas through writing, analyzing and communicating evidence, building arguments, and presenting a coherent thesis that stands on evidence. But I always felt unfilled at the end of the semester when some of the truly excellent papers that my students had written simply get shelved in a file cabinet. So I started my blog as a way to present some of my students’ ideas as well as my own. Then I tried my hand at publishing some of them as opinion pieces or pop articles, and things just sort of took off from there. Public interest in blogs is now fading, so I have moved to podcasting (along with everyone else, it seems) and this year I will be bringing students into that effort as well. My podcast is called This World of Humans, and we explore biology and social science that directly explores or affects the human experience.

Gerbic: You seem to have had a love of science and the mystery (maybe puzzle is a better word) of the human body from a young age. You wrote that it was after eighth grade when the class focused on the human body that you realized that might be the area you wanted to specialize in. And throughout your writings I felt that you have a real connection with people, especially empathy with children.  You were inspired by your teachers; what do you think we need to be doing better to inspire the next generations to become scientists?

Lents: That’s another great question. Almost every scientist I know was first inspired to love and pursue science by a teacher, and that’s telling us something important. It’s also why I chose to be a scientist specifically at a primarily undergraduate campus rather than a big medical center or in industry. I love science and discovery, but I love it most when it is in the context of learning and nurturing the interest of future scientists. I honestly can’t tell you what the secret sauce is for STEM education except to say that genuine enthusiasm is powerfully contagious. The best compliment I receive on my teaching is when students say that my excitement for science makes them excited too, some for the first time. Although teaching is partly performance art, this is not an act. I am generally exhilarated about scientific discoveries, and I am utterly confused by those who aren’t. What could be more fun than unlocking the secrets of the human genome?

If I have learned one thing that other teachers can put into practice it is to move away from textbooks and “knowledge dumps” and instead try to pursue real research and discovery with your students. If you want them to know something, don’t tell them about it; instead, give them the papers that describe when it was first discovered, or maybe a more recent paper when an important new insight was announced. They will love it, and you will love it, and they will actually learn more deeply in the process.

Gerbic: At CSICon this year, I’m organizing a scholarship for STEM students in the Las Vegas area to attend Saturday. What do you hope they take away from your talk?

Lents: I think the big takeaway from my talk is that learning about our past, the way we once lived, and the forces that shaped us, offers real value for better living in the present. Understanding the twists and turns of our evolutionary journey is not a subject of idle curiosity. It can provide profound insights into how we can make the most of the life we have now and the society we would like to live in. Tucked neatly inside some of the quirks of our bodies and minds hide some of the echoes of our past. By understanding those quirks better, we can live in better health and harmony with our bodies and even make better choices as a society, a nation, and a people. Studying human evolution is important! And what could possibly be more exciting?!

Gerbic: I was really moved by your article about the death of Oliver Sacks. You started with the movie Awakenings when you were twelve and then moved to The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and on to everything else written by Sacks. You write that he inspired your whole career and how different your life would have been if you hadn’t known of him. Also, you wrote “I wondered with teary eyes if my personal life would have been as painful as his had been, had I been born in his era instead of my own.” I also am a big fan of Sacks’s writings, though I found them much later in life.

Lents: He really was a treasure, wasn’t he? I think what is most incredible about the inspiration I derive from him is that it is in no way special. He has inspired literally millions of future scientists, physicians, and other healthcare providers. He saw illness as a mystery to be solved and he had the cunning mind of a scientist, but he also connected deeply with his patients because he truly cared about them. I don’t expect there’ll ever again be someone like Oliver Sacks.

Gerbic: So this will be your first CSICon, but I’m sure you have attended and spoken at many conferences. I wrote the article CSICon 101 for people experiencing their first scientific skeptic conference. For many new attendees, this will be their very first time hanging out with like-minded people in real life. Do you have any tips to add? What lectures are you most looking forward to at CSICon?

Lents: The advice I always give students as they prepare to attend their first conference is to do a bit of planning and reading in advance, especially about the talks you’re most interested in. You will get a lot more out of a presentation if you’ve done some brushing up on the basics and the current thinking in the field. I would say the things I am most looking forward to are meeting Julia Sweeney—I’ve been a fan since I was a kid watching SNL in the 1980s—and Richard Dawkins, whose work has been life-changing for me, both in terms of my scientific research and my popular science writing. Like Dawkins, I aspire to contribute in both settings and so it will be an honor to meet him for the first time. In terms of lectures, I will definitely be attending Elizabeth Loftus’s lecture, as I have written about memory errors and have a passing interest in that topic, especially in regards to how it affects criminal justice. And lastly, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’m pretty stoked to see Banachek in action. I’ll see you all in Vegas soon. Can’t wait! 

Gerbic: Nathan, it has been great getting to know you. Don’t forget to pack your 1950s attire for the Saturday night Halloween party. See you soon!

Susan Gerbic

Affectionately called the Wikipediatrician, Susan Gerbic is the cofounder of Monterey County Skeptics and a self-proclaimed skeptical junkie. Susan is also founder of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project. She is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and writes for her column, Guerilla Skepticism, often. You can contact her through her website.