Interview

Interview

With DAVID SUZUKI

March 8 1976
Interview

Interview

With DAVID SUZUKI

March 8 1976

Interview

With DAVID SUZUKI

In a University of British Columbia dormitory, in 1968, David Suzuki was talking with a group of his students about the moral implications of cloning—creating exact copies of plants, animals and people from a single cell. One student argued that Suzuki’s own genetic research had an equally dangerous potential. Suzuki began to worry. For a year, he examined his work and his conscience, eventually concluding that the fault lay not in science but in himself—and, by implication, all other scientists. So he set out to change this, first by making himself available to local television and ultimately by launching himself as Canada’s voice of science. He is presently the host of two CBC programs, Science Magazine, a halfhour television show on Sundays at 5 p.m., and Quirks And Quarks, an hourlong radio show on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. Jim Murray, the executive producer of the television program, says: “Suzuki has been an influence on the CBC itself by emphasizing the importance of this type of program and convincing the higher-ups that science programming should be done.” A great deal of Suzuki’s success in popularizing science comes from his own appeal. He’s an oddity, complete with blue jeans, long frizzy hair, myopia and an infectious enthusiasm—which is part of the reason a great many of his fellow scientists tend to dismiss him almost out of hand. What’s worse, he is a critic— he threatens other scientists who see him as being on some kind of ego trip. Still, as he explained to free-lance journalist Constance Mungall in a recent interview, he is getting a lot more support and a lot less criticism from scientists these days, because research money is so tight they’ll accept help from any quarter.

Maclean’s: What kind of response have you had from your work in popularizing science?

Suzuki: The public response has been very encouraging. People are willing to accept that they’re very ignorant about science, but they’re hungry for information, and they want scientists to talk to them in English. I think the stereotype of a scientist is a guy who immediately lapses into jargon, so any person who attempts to make it simple and explain it in English is gratefully received. I see, on the other hand, a very dangerous attitude, a very strong anti-scientific backlash. There’s a simplistic tendency to blame scientists and science for a lot of the problems we’re in today. There’s a consequent rejection of not only the science that’s going on now but of the

basic scientific approach, which I think is still valid. So you see kids going into the occult, the mystical, extrasensory stuff, communication with plants, the Bermuda triangle, Chariots of the Gods... It’s fine to entertain these far-out ideas, but if at the same time you throw out the scientific ability to criticize something, then I think

THE GREATEST DANGER IN GENETIC RESEARCH IS THE MILITARY GETTING HOLD OF IT

you re lost.

Maclean’s: But if people can do it the easy way, and read The Chariots Of The Gods, they’ll do it, rather than read your book on the social implications of genetics.

Suzuki: One of the hard parts about being a responsible citizen is that there is a certain amount of information and methodology that one has to learn. Ultimately science will be used in the best interests of the public at large only when the lay person becomes responsible; the lay public has been irresponsible in not going out and demanding that scientists tell them what it’s all about. The other side of the coin is that scientists for all kinds of reasons—insecurity, ambition, whatever—have their own hang-

ups, and they’ve tended to mystify their area rather than consider education of the public a responsibility. We’ve said: “Give us the money because we’re scientists, and we’re doing it for your benefit, and if you don’t give us the money we won’t help cure cancer, we won’t get to the moon,” and so on. We’ve become an autonomous group that hasn’t even cared about the taxpayer. Now that’s changing because money is getting tight. But the scientific profession must take a tremendous knock for having been negligent of its responsibility to educate the public.

Maclean’s: What kind of response have you got from scientists when they see you on TV?

Suzuki: I’d have to be a psychiatrist to really give you an answer. A lot have been extremely cooperative and have supported the idea of popularizing science, but they are still a minority. A lot of scientists who have supported popularizing science see it as a way of selling science,'as a way of getting more money, which I really detest— that’s not what I’m about. There is a lot of resentment about what I’m doing, and I suspect a lot of it has to do with me as a person: I think scientists would be happier if it was a different kind of image being projected. I’ve had a few people ask me why don’t I cut my hair, and who the hell do I think I am? I suspect it’s more widespread than just my contacts tell me. Maclean’s: This year you are not only working on television and radio, you are writing a book on your science. What approach are you taking in it?

Suzuki: I’m writing it with my wife. It’s called Human Heredity And Evolution, and it’s for non-science students. It’s to put the work going on now in genetic engineering into perspective. We make the point that human awareness of heredity and the possibilities of using laws of inheritance go a long way back, probably about 10,000 years at least. Today we have fancy molecular techniques. Molecular biologists are learning today how to recombine genes. They will some day actually cut into our genetic material and lift out genes and replace them with other genes, perhaps from other species. Theoretically they will be able to create new human beings. But the kinds of issues raised now with fancy molecular techniques are no more profound than when Plato with his Republic was talking about how to make a new breed of man.

Maclean’s: The fact we have more sophisticated technology doesn’t change the whole character of the problem?

Suzuki: This is where I differ from a lot of people. There’s no doubt that the excitement of molecular genetics has been a revolution in terms of biology, but I personally think the fundamental problems, the human implications of genetics, are not going to come out of genetic engineering. I really think they’re going to come out of the same crude understanding we’ve had for more than 2,000 years—that is, the basic laws of plant and animal breeding. You take an organism that has certain characteristics, you breed it with another organism that has the same characteristics, the chances are their offspring will have the same characteristics. That’s what’s led us to better breeds of dogs and cattle and grain. I personally think the real dangers are not from DNA surgery, but more from Jenner and Shockley in the United States, and Eysenck in Britain. They say certain groups of people are genetically disadvantaged in terms of IQ, and this has tremendous implications for our society. A few years ago, the president of the Canadian Medical Association said that poor people were outbreeding the wealthy in Canada, and his recommendation, cited in the newspapers, was that we should sterilize people before they could receive a welfare cheque. That kind of mentality is dangerous. It seems to be setting a tone that will allow bigots to say: “Well, you know, blacks have certain qualities, Indians have others, Japanese have others.” And that’s the danger in my view.

Maclean’s: The new techniques of recombinant DNA seem to magnify these possibilities.

Suzuki: To me the great danger of joint hybrid molecules and genetic surgery is the fact that the industry and the military are going to get their hands on it.

Maclean’s* What about the public health hazard of the experiments in making new combinations of genetic material, the risk of scientists creating new bugs that we have no defenses against, and of their escape? Suzuki: It’s there, but I’m not as worried about it as the possibility the military will say, “Gee, you might be able to construct a bacterium that would selectively kill certain racial groups, pick out certain individuals for destruction, or even whole populations.” That’s something you see few scientists considering, because they are a self-interested group. The scientific profession is simply an arm of the industrial-military complex. This is particularly strong in the United States. For a scientist to deny that he is being directed by the granting agencies, which are government agencies, that his work is contributing primarily to industry, is completely blind.

Maclean’s: Even pure science?

Suzuki: There is no such thing as pure science. You could be. doing work with no obvious immediate application, studying mutations in Drosophila (flies used in scientific research) for instance, and still be feeding the industrial-military complex. The other thing that scientists must work

against is secrecy. So long as a large segment of scientific research is stamped SECRET and CLASSIFIED, and those documents are viewed primarily by the military and industry, I can’t see any way of getting out of the evils that are being perpetuated by people concerned primarily with money and power. If scientists would refuse to publish anything unless it is worldwide, in the international literature, that would go a long way.

Maclean’s: Would that one change make such a difference?

Suzuki: I don’t know what’s hidden in the classified information, so I don’t know. But as new information comes out, it must be translated into English for the public. Maclean's: But is public education—your

SCIENTISTS WHO DENY BEING DIRECTED BY GOVERNMENT ARE JUST

KIDDING THEMSELVES

own efforts on television, for exampleworking?

Suzuki: It depends what mood I’m in. I can feel good and say the awareness about nuclear possibilities has led to a greater sensitivity and responsibility on the part of the public. On the other hand I can be very pessimistic. We seem to be spending a lot of energy on issues that seem to be important but in the long run are really trivial. There’s been millions of dollars spent on saving 32—or whatever it is—whooping cranes. Now I think it would be a tragic loss, in an abstract philosophical sense, for the whooping cranes to die out. At the same time whether or not they survive is not going to affect in a profound

way the society in which we live. Maclean’s: I’ve never talked to a scientist before who thought that the human race was more important than anything else, including his own science.

Suzuki: Wait a minute now. You’ve just said something I don’t think I said. I feel that human beings are different from any other organism on this planet. We have an incredible brain. We have art. We have poetry. We have music. We have literature. We have science. These activities are uniquely human, and they are fantastic. But coming out of that same creative force also is a quality that makes man unique in a different way, and that is that he will use his ability to destroy, to enslave. That duality is what makes it so difficult to glory in being human.

Maclean’s: Whether you said it or not, this interest in or value of humanity does seem to be unusual, linked with the scientific approach. I’m asking how you got that way. Suzuki: I don’t know. Let me state my position. If the earth loses all living organisms, in a cosmic sense I don’t think that’s a tragedy at all. If mankind disappears from this planet, I don’t think, again, that’s any great tragedy. The loss of all living systems is no great tragedy; I’m sure there’s life elsewhere. Thank God I’m a human being: I wouldn’t want to be a fruit fly or a mouse, but I don’t have the hubris to think that because we are—in my view—the most important thing on the planet we have the right to go out and totally despoil the planet. It’s suicidal, but it also demeans me. The loss of whooping cranes or whales, for me, is tragic, because it is demeaning to me that my species would consider it necessary to totally ravage another species ... issues of whooping cranes, whales, all of the endangered species, are not scientific issues. The solution to these problems are not going to come through science and technology. They are social and political. I just attended a meeting in Ottawa concerned with chemicals in the environment, cancer, mutations. It struck me it’s all very nice to have international groups of scientists discussing screening for vinyl chloride, for DES and so on. But the basic question is why the hell did we need any of these chemicals in the first place, and why are we faced with having to deal with them now that they’re on the market? Why wasn’t industry absolutely responsible for making absolute guarantees that it was harmless before it was marketed? Instead the burden seems to be all on us. We as consumers have to prove to government and to industry that they are dangerous before they’re removed. Changes are not going to come through any more science, they’re going to come through the public taking certain responsibilities and demanding certain responsibilities of others. I don’t see the major social issues of the day being solved by science, not at all.

Maclean’s: And yet people seem more and more to ask for technological solutions. Suzuki: Right. This is what you’d expect of

North Americans. We want a short-term benefit, and if we have some difficulty we want a short-term remedy, and a technological cure will never be developed that is free of problems in itself. You can’t rely on technology to cure technological ills, because it will itself generate more problems.

Maclean’s: But to change this tendency means a tremendous change in the thinking of all of us.

Suzuki: That’s true.

Maclean’s: Do you think it’s possible? Suzuki: Quite frankly, I’ve had this argument with a number of environmentalists who are entirely pessimistic, full of doom and gloom. I think if you use your mind and look at it completely rationally, there just doesn’t seem to be any way out. Maclean’s: And yet you seem fairly optimistic!

Suzuki: I believe that in the end it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if human beings survive. I’m not going to be around in 100 years. It’s not a gut issue with me. Maclean’s: But you’ve got children ... Suzuki: Of course I have. And I cry for what they’re going to miss. But I think in the end all you can do is say: “Certain things matter to me. I as a human being, in order to maintain my dignity, must constantly achieve those things.”

Maclean’s: Has this sanguinity come recently? I had the impression you didn’tfeel this way a few years ago.

Suzuki: I guess when I started the whole television game I had the idea I would help to raise the level of consciousness, make profound changes. It was, I realize in retrospect, an incredibly egotistical ideal. Now, while I think that I must try to be responsible in educating the public, I have no illusions about what the impact will be. And in the end I don’t think it matters. The important thing is, that I tried.

Maclean’s: And what led you to this feeling?

Suzuki: I was profoundly affected a few years ago at a panel on genetic engineering that I was on. One of the participants was a minister. After an hour discussing all the fancy engineering techniques, this minister got up and said: “Look, in the end, what does it matter whether you’re aiming at a totalitarian dictator who lays down the law, or whether you’re looking for a utopia, an ideal democracy? All these visions don’t matter a damn. It’s how you go about trying to get there that’s important.” It’s just a rephrasing of “The ends never justify the means.” The means are everything. That’s what it’s all about. It’s how you go about doing it.

Maclean’s: Do you look back on your activities in the civil rights movement in that light?

Suzuki: I look back and say I don’t regret it. But I couldn’t do a lot of the things I did then. No, I shouldn’t say that. I would do it, but with a very different attitude. I was very involved in civil rights when I lived in the States, and participated in a lot of sit-

rough time for you both personally and in your work. Your first marriage broke down, and you withdrew from your work for a while. And then when you went back to work you added the extra load of trying to communicate about science.

Suzuki: I wouldn’t say I’m serene now. Sure my life has been like a roller coaster but that’s not much different from anyone else. We all have our ups and downs. Hopefully when we hit low periods we learn from them and become perhaps a little wiser, a little more mature. Maclean’s: Do you see it as a roller coaster from now too?

Suzuki: I’m sure there’ll be ups and downs. Having married a woman who is

ins. I was involved in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People when I was studying in Tennessee, and finally I left the United States because I couldn’t stand the racial policies of the government. But my whole life at that time was spent in constant agony, despair, hatred at the situation and the fact I couldn’t work to cause some great change. Now I feel I can’t in any way accept bigotry or oppression by any other group, but I have a little perspective to recognize this has been going on a very long time and, while one must work one’s ass off, to expect miracles overnight is just not realistic. I think I’ve just grown a little older.

Maclean’s: You’ve really had ups and downs in your life. The late Sixties was a

IF MANKIND WERE TO DISAPPEAR FROM THE PLANET, IT WOULD BE NO GREAT TRAGEDY

just an incredible person has had a very profound effect on my life. Her name is Tara Cullis-she retained her maiden name when we were married, and was rejected for Canadian citizenship because of that. But she fought it through.

Maclean’s: Did you support her in that stand?

Suzuki: Yes. I know I have been a male chauvinist all my life, because of my own cultural background. Being a Japanese in Canada is the most important factor in what I am today. The culture I came from was one that accepted the male dominant role and all the things that go with that, and I don’t pretend to be out of it by any means. But the goddamned roles we’ve been taught to play ever since I was a kid—the whole machismo thing—is a very hard role for most of us to live up to.

Maclean’s: Is release from that requirement part of your new contentment? Suzuki: I don’t know. I think the main thing is the realization that each has his or her own worth, but no greater worth or importance than anyone else. One must establish one’s own values and not have great aspirations beyond that. It doesn’t matter. That’s a big thing. It takes the edge off the need to prove anything. It certainly takes the edge off having power, or publishing or fame. Fame doesn’t mean a goddamn. Maclean’s: You’ve got some of it.

Suzuki: Some people would consider it fame. It’s a very ephemeral thing, a very short-lived thing. It’s certainly not exhilarating, it’s nothing. I’ve seen the people who get carried away by being recognized, or having this incredible power of going into the homes of a million people at one go. It’s very intoxicating and one must have some sense of self to handle that. Maclean’s: You obviously have.

Suzuki: I don’t know. There’s probably a lot of people who’d say I’m a son of a bitch, and I’m sure I am. There’ll always be people who are going to respond to you positively and others negatively, and that’s their problem. They’ll have to work that out for themselves. I’m trying, and I’m nowhere near being enlightened. But I realize now that life is a constant struggle. And that struggle is what defines me. Maclean’s: You’re not bitter about some of the things that happened in the past, like the internment of your family during the war. Suzuki: What happened to me is, in a historical sense, so trivial. I’ve met people who carry tattoo marks on their arms from concentration camps in Germany. To try to compare that experience with mine is to debase their experience. But the problems of being a Canadian who happened to be Asian, and being labeled an enemy, were very real to me and very painful. Something I had to work out. My wife is English, and now a Canadian, and I think has been incredibly patient and generous and helped me—and my parents too—through a lot of this bitterness. She’s only 26, but she makes me fee) like a baby. She’s an amazing woman,