Imagine walking into an art exhibition, where instead of just seeing things, you're encouraged to smell, touch, and even taste. You approach a vibrant painting, its rich hues and delicate lines reflecting the plumpness of a ripe peach. Your eyes trace the artist's work, your fingers yearn to touch the velvety surface, you can even smell flavors infused into the artwork, and your taste buds tingle at the prospect of the sweet, juicy bite that the image vividly suggests. Standing next to the image, a microbiologist explains how the flavor we experience in a peach is the culmination of millions of years of evolution and interaction with microbes. It would be a creative fusion of art, science, and gastronomy, tantalizing your senses, where elegant ecological systems meet the sensual experience of flavor. I don't know if such an exhibit exists anywhere, but if one were to build it, the scientist to do it – and likely in a way far superior to what I just conjured up – would be Rob Dunn.
Dr. Rob Dunn is the Senior Vice Provost of University Interdisciplinary Programs and a Reynolds Professor in Applied Ecology at North Carolina State University. As Senior Vice Provost he oversees efforts to spur interdisciplinary scholarship, education, and public engagement at NC State. As a scholar, he studies the ecology and evolution of societies and the species with which they interact. This has included projects on the global ecology of sourdough bread, the evolution of sour taste, and the origin of yogurt microbes, among many others. Rob has published more than two hundred peer-reviewed articles and more than a hundred magazine and newspaper articles. He has published seven books, including, most recently, A Natural History of the Future and, with Monica Sanchez, Delicious, the Evolution of Flavor and How it Made Us Human.
I consider Rob an inspiring example of the sort of thinker who breaks the rigid boundaries that we've drawn across disciplines, and who can build and learn from new collaborations across fields.
In my recent interview with him, Rob explained the role of elegance as a key aesthetic principle in ecology. Rob is also an active proponent of art-science collaboration. We talk, for instance, about his work with artist Joana Ricou in facilitating conversations about microbiomes that even years of scientific work could not. We also talked about his recent books, including what the mega-plate experiment can tell us about the resilience of nature, and the role of pleasurable flavor in evolution, culture transmission, and in making us human.
We discuss all this and more in the latest episode of Beauty at Work. You can listen to the episode on your favorite podcast platform or watch it on our YouTube site. An unedited transcript will follow.
Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts: iOS | Android | Spotify | RSS | Amazon | Stitcher | Podvine
Brandon: Rob, I'm so thrilled to have you. Thanks for joining us.
Rob: Great to talk to you. Always glad to talk about aesthetics and beauty, and where it interfaces with science and the rest.
Brandon: Fantastic. Well, were you drawn to biology as a child? What drew you to become a scientist in the first place?
Rob: I mean, I was a kid who spent lots of time outside. I didn't know biology existed as a field. I caught snakes. My arms are peppered with little scars from snake bites as a kid. I caught lots of fish.
Brandon: Where were you growing up?
Rob: In Michigan.
Rob: But it wasn't a job. I grew up in a small town. I didn't know it was a thing. And so I went to college thinking I'd be an economist. It was a knowable thing. I liked the rules of economics, especially macroeconomics. It made sense. It was intriguing. But I got to college, and I met these people. There was a building of people with cages and nets and bones. I didn't know who they were but I knew that somehow, they represented an adult life that reconciled with my childhood.
Rob: And so I got started moving to biology and art. As an undergrad, I did lots of art. I thought a lot about art. And so that was pretty much it.
Brandon: Were you able to integrate those as you went through your grad school and your further training, or did you have to cast your artistic side aside?
Rob: It's a good question. I would say it's sort of episodic. When I was a graduate student, they were separate but embodied by the same person. They would have these interfaces. At that time, a lot of my art was writing. I wrote a lot of poetry. I would write that on the lab computer, and it would come out at the lab printer. But it was separate. I became part of that community at the university. I would submit things to the English department. I ended up going to dinners with the English department there. They were contemporaneous. I don't know what the two sides thought about each other, other than that they existed and my advisor gave me space for it.
Brandon: Okay. Great.
Rob: They weren't concretely informing each other. Then at one point — I'll turn it to the short version of the story. I studied ecology of ants as a graduate student. In my building, I knew there used to be a guy who studied army ants. Army ants don't make a nest of structures. It's a nest of their bodies. There are all these hundreds of species that live with them and move with them. And so this guy, Karl Rettenmaier, studied those species that lived with the army ants. He was dead, but I was still in the department that he had been in. Then one day, I'm walking down the hall. The door opens, and there he is. And so I've got to process that somehow he's not dead. It turned out it was just emeritus. He invited me to go with him to Costa Rica to study this beetle that only lives on one species of ant, that he'd only seen once before 1965. Nobody knew if the ants or beetles still existed. And so I was a grad student. I would go anywhere with somebody who's willing to pay. And so I went. Long story short. We'd go for two weeks looking for this and don't find it. We'd get home and realized we actually collected it and hadn't realized we'd seen it.
Rob: And so we hadn't filmed it, which was the whole goal of the thing — to film this rare yeti ant. For me, this was a story I knew how to tell. This was a story about how nature overcomes humans. I grew up listening to stories about the Mississippi River. And so I wrote it down. It was creative nonfiction I know in retrospect. I didn't know what it was called then. I sent it to an editor at the Natural History magazine. They took pity on me and helped me with the story. But it was a key moment for me because it was a recognition that these two worlds had this connection point through creative nonfiction. That started to connect these two worlds. Then they would come back together and then distance themselves. Then the visual art, I wouldn't reconnect with for a long time. That would mostly be through working with artists, which I didn't realize was a possibility until much later.
Brandon: Okay. I want to ask you about the art-science collaboration work. But before that, could you tell me where in your work you encounter beauty? Your work as a biologist, where does that word resonate with your experience?
Rob: As an ecologist and an evolutionary biologist, maybe there are two versions of that question. Like, where do I hear it and then where does it resonate for me? But the way ecologists and evolutionary biologists talk about beauty is to talk about elegance. It's one of the places. When they say that, they typically mean that a concept is elegant. For a concept to be elegant, it can explain a lot of things in a simple way. Math can be elegant, but that elegance is really a currency for us. And so if you look at what's funded, elegant work is really valued very highly.
In some ways, it doesn't matter if it's elegant. It needs to be true, but it doesn't have to be the most true thing. An example would be: there's a beautiful study by Tiffany Knight, where she showed that if you change the density of fish in a pond, that it changes the number of dragonfly larvae. If you add fish, fewer dragonfly larvae. Fewer dragonfly larvae, fewer adult dragonflies. Fewer adult dragonflies that eat fewer bees. If there are more bees, there's more pollination. That's a pretty famous study. It's famous because it is an intricate but elegant example of a concept, which is the trophic cascade.
And so, my people, if I bring up this example, there's a response. It's almost like the response you might get to a painting. There's something sublime in that elegance. That's very common currency in my world, but we don't ever talk about it that way. We never talk about the fact that, well, is that good? Is that good for finding truth? Is that good for how we think about the world?
One of the interesting places that that's attention is that the problems that intersect with human challenges are almost never elegant. If you look at the history of ecology as a field, there was a conscious attempt in the '40s, '50s and '60s to remove humans. It was conscious because the sense was like, that was going to make it too complex. It was going to ruin the elegance of the work we could do. It's pretty juicy stuff right at the middle. I'm in my building right now. If I walk down the hallway and talk about that Tiffany Knights' study, people will go, "Ooh." But then if I said, "Let's talk about beauty," they would go, "Oh." We're not quite comfortable with what we're doing.
Brandon: What is the source of the discomfort? I mean, is it that the word elegance is acceptable but the beauty isn't, or is there something else there?
Rob: Elegance connects us to mathematics. And so math can be elegant but also sophisticated. Beauty connects us to culture. It connects us to emotional responses. It connects us to pleasure. We don't like that.
Brandon: But it drives you, right? I mean, it's the passion and the emotion certainly.
Rob: Yeah, for sure. Then the other part I would say, at least historically, for ecologist, most were motivated by some interest in the natural world. And so there's also a relationship to maybe beauty but also sublimity, that there is a grandeur in the living world that is more than what we're measuring. That can be terrible and wonderful. That's something I don't see in a building. I only see it if I go into the field with people.
Brandon: Right. Not in the lab.
Rob: Well, there's a version in the lab. It's a different version.
Brandon: We've heard scientists talk about just watching a particular mechanism or process unfold under a microscope, sort of seeing that as evoking the sense of the sublime, that "Oh, my God. It actually works."
Rob: Yeah, for sure.
Brandon: Could you talk about the art-science collaboration work? I'm really intrigued by the work your lab is doing. What is that work? How did it come to be? Why do you see it as important?
Rob: How does it come to be? I'm going to have to think about while I talk, because I'm trying to remember where it started. My lab has worked with the public a lot. And so, in that context, we spent a lot of time thinking about how do you most usefully engage the public, and what do you want to trigger? What is the response you want? For many years, we really failed at that. Because, I would say, most work that involves the public and science, there's not a concrete goal. It's like, well, the public — there's a goal at some big sense of education.
We did a lot of work on skin microbes where we engage people with their skin microbes. This probably isn't an origin story. But never trust a writer. When we're talking to people about their skin microbes, my sense, three years into that work, is that instead of convincing people of the importance of those microbes and the importance of nurturing them in different ways, that I began to suspect we were triggering people to do the opposite — to be more likely to engage in behaviors that would destroy their microbiomes in ways that we're to our collective detriment, that we were alarming them.
About that same time, we began working with the artist Joana Ricou. She partnered with us to do the same sampling we were doing, but to do an intervention where — she also does visual art in the context of this work — the intervention was key. The intervention was: she would have people sample their belly button microbes. They would take a swab and sample them. We'd done this 1,000 times. But then she would ask them to talk to those microbes. What would they say to the microbes? It invited this conversation that, in two minutes, triggered a more productive conversation about microbiomes than we had triggered in years of work.
It was this unusual intervention — this conversation as intervention which Joana went on to do, visual art in response to it too — that allowed us into a whole different world of work. And so we had a number of interactions like that with artists in the lab, where I was like, well, if something different is opening up through this art, it is allowing us to do something that we have been trying to do but where we had proven incompetent. Our whole field was, in essence, being incompetent. The artists opened up a new way of thinking and a new way of doing. The artists were universally. We worked with Joana. We worked with Miella Green early on. We worked with artists thinking about time. We're working with Jonathon Keats right now. One of the recurring features is that the artists can disrupt things in ways that we don't have a social permission to do.
Brandon: Can you give an example?
Rob: Well, so in that belly button case, I can convince people to swab their belly button. It's a little bit disruptive. I'm carrying out the science, right? I'm aware that I'm doing something that has a slight taboo to it. But it's easy to see how it's science. And so I'm working within the bounds of my field.
Brandon: Sure. Yeah, you can't tell people to talk to their microbes.
Rob: No, not on my own. But Joana allows me that. Or, we worked with a pair of artists called Baum & Leahy recently. One of the things we've realized with microbiomes is that, well, in general, we have a conscious relationship to microbes. If I ask you to tell me about your microbes, you have a conscious understanding of some parts of them. But we also have a subconscious or unconscious relationship with them. The unconscious relationship is actually far richer. Your immune system is interacting with your gut microbes right now. It is feeding some; it is not feeding others. In your armpit, there are these glands that are feeding microbes right now, so our armpits stink. Our olfactory system learns the smells of particular microbes whether in food or on our body. It learns to like some and dislike others. Those are all these unconscious or subconscious relationships to these species.
We've never had a good scientific way to engage people in thinking about them. But we worked with Baum & Leahy to do this dinner performance. In essence, they created this dinner that featured the flavors of foods where the smells of the food were from microbes, and typically human microbes. It allowed us a way to actually connect science and the subconscious. In our collaboration, we wouldn't quite describe it that way. But on the science side, there's that disruption where I can't quite do that. Even if I were to try to do it, there's a boundary where I get uncomfortable. But they allowed that discomfort. They gave it a space. Then they can push the far end of it in a way I can't quite do.
Brandon: So what's the goal there? Because initially, you said you had this vague goal of education. So it's not that, right? You're not just teaching them science. So what is it that you're trying to bring about together?
Rob: In those collaborations, each of us would have a different goal. For me, it's changing the conversation so we can start to do new kinds of work. For the scientist in me, it is that. It's like, can we use this as a provocation to change what it is we're talking about? Does this provocation allow me to talk with the people who do olfaction in a new way? Does the provocation trigger new conversations in the public sphere? The junior scientists who are involved in this work almost always still want to do that education piece. I would say the artists really pushed back on that. There's an aesthetic challenge. There is an emotional challenge. Can we push the sublime? And so when it's working, I'm familiar with their goals and they're familiar with mine. But we're not necessarily agreeing. We're just knowing that there is a sweet spot, and we're probably going to be one side of that sweet spot a little bit. But that's okay.
Brandon: Sure. So what does success versus failure look like in those collaborations?
Rob: I mean, the most obvious failure is it's boring. There's a role for design, right? But if it feels like design, for me, that's a failure. Design is interesting, but I want it to also provoke something new. Failure can be, on my side, we make somebody really mad.
Brandon: You had also mentioned the counterproductive aspect of the belly button thing initially. So if the reaction is that they're sort of withdrawing from the world or trying to sort of destroy their microbiome or something like that, then that's—
Rob: Yeah, that would be a failure too. That would be a failure too.
Brandon: Yeah, wow. So what's next in that arena? Where do you see that going?
Rob: That particular collaboration, I think they're going to be more iterations of it. It's inviting us to explore what else can we do in that space. Neuroscientists now know that for individual smells of these individual foods, there's a particular map on the olfactory part of the brain for each one of those. It looks like a constellation. So is there some space for thinking about how we make the subconscious more apparent? Is there something fun in there that we'll keep talking through?
We're working with Jonathon Keats. He's an artist who focuses a lot on time. We have a collaboration in the food space there where we can take each city on Earth — with Matt Fitzpatrick and other scientists — we can say what existing city, the future climate of that city is going to be like. For Raleigh in 2100, in cities like Central Florida or the sort of Caribbean coast of Mexico. Scientifically, that's the science part. We've done it. But making a meaning of that in a broader way, we have to think about culture and psychology and these other places. The art comes in there. Jonathon is really leading us to think about, what does this mean about the hybrid foods of the future? What can grow around Raleigh in 2100, and what cultures are those foods associated with? How do we confront our current food ways with these hybrid ways that are coming?
We then get into these interesting spaces between the academic and the art, where there's something that appeals to my aesthetic. In this case, the high food version appeals to me. What's the high food, the cuisine that we could do? On the artist side, Jonathon's really clear that, no, if we want to provoke a broader conversation, it's way more hotdogs or barbecue. It is these foods that are so tightly connected to culture that the provocation is bolder. It means something different. That's useful to me too to be reminded when I'm retreating to my aesthetic, to my disciplinary aesthetic.
At the institutional level, we're trying to think about what does it look like to support these kinds of partnerships in a broader way. I don't know yet. Because they take a special kind of artist, and then they take a scientific comfort with uncomfortable things. They take a comfort with the recognition that the science on its own might not be doing what the world needs. And so I think if we try to do it institutionally and just this very structural way, I'm not sure it'll work. So how do we bring scientists to the table who are willing to be part of this conversation with artists who are also willing? I'm very interested in that question. I don't know that I have an answer to it yet.
Brandon: How is the response from the scientific community, if there's any sort of response to this?
Rob: I think there's a response we're supposed to have, which is that — well, I think it's different. In the US, let's say, people feel compelled to say that art is over here and that they're scientists, and they're supposed to do science. Very often, my writing life, I find that when I go give a talk at a university, there's a group of people that come up and tell me about their secret novels at the end of the day. I've never been to a university where that isn't true. It's almost always really filthy romance novel. I think, in the same way, there are lots of scientists who are really interested in art. It's there, but it's not part of their work world. And so they've not connected those two elements. I think in parts of Europe, it's quite different.
Brandon: Right. Okay. What is it? What would you see is a good model for integrating this? I mean, what are the exemplars? If you could wave a magic wand and change things here, what could that healthy integration look like?
Rob: I'll give you an example. I don't know the answer to that in a big way. I hope you can find it for me. But an example was: we had a bunch of scientists. We've pushed scientists here to think about the farther future. Not just 5 years, but 10, 20, 50. One of the things we see is that what scientists are most comfortable with is the technological future embodied in their discipline. They're comfortable talking about that, but they're not comfortable talking about where that sits in society. And so I think that might be a really healthy way for us to think structurally about some partnerships. What does it look like to get the scientists to think 10, 20, 30, 40 years in the future, and then to bring the artists in the conversation to think about how do we think about this? I think that's one model.
The other is: I'm working with speculative fiction writers. It's usefully awkward. We haven't figured how to work together yet. But one of the things I see on the science side is that we have the climate change scenarios that we talk about all the time. Those are futures grounded in models, but they're alternate futures in the same way that speculative fiction writers would think of alternate futures. But there's no humanity in them. They are futures that are entirely about emission scenarios. And so people can't relate to them, right? They don't remember which one is which. It's like, well, how does RCP 4.5 relate to the society we're going to have?
We've had a bunch of conversations to think about how do we bring writers into this. I think that the way to make it work and come back in a year is to start with the writers and to have a group of writers partner with the scientists. The writer's task is to imagine different better futures — not utopian necessarily, but we need to help with the better — but to have the scientist inform the possible. We had a conversation a couple of weeks ago. We're pushing our geneticists to do genetic engineering, to tell me what does the possible look like. There's a lot of a latent possible that they don't get asked to talk about.
One of the things that came up is: one of our very successful, really impressive scientists was like, "Well, I wake up all the time worried about the reality. That within 10 years, we'll be able to extend human telomeres, and in doing so will allow people to live 200 or 300 years. It really worries me who are we going to allow to live that long." We're not talking about that. We're having no conversations about that. The speculative fiction writers aren't really writing about it. And so, can I create a structural way to pair the writers with these futures that are — I don't know the right word, Brandon — implied by the technology.
Brandon: Afforded, I suppose.
Rob: Yeah, afforded is the right word. Afforded by the technology.
Brandon: Yeah, wow.
Rob: I think it's going to be like, people won't know how to work together. But my hope is we can try enough versions of that, that we can start to find a way.
Rob: But I don't know. What do you think? What do you think the ideal would look like?
Brandon: No, I have no idea. I was just punting it to you. I've been really curious as to how to overcome this two-cultures problem that C.P. Snow talked about — the humanities and the sciences being in their own silos, which I think figuring out ways to have these kinds of conversations where people work on things together in some way seems to be the right way to do it. Institutionally, I haven't seen any good models. I think it's one thing to have initiatives like your lab. It's something else to have more conversation in academic institution or across fields where there is this sort of, there's value to this. I don't know what the incentive structure would be, what the funding structure would be either. But I think you're raising some really crucial issues. To imagine the future, you need to know both the science and to have the artistic ability to do that.
I want to pivot a bit and ask you about "A Natural History of the Future". I was really struck by the incredible resilience that it's showing in the book, the adaptability of nature. I think at the outset, you have the "mega-plate" experiment, which I wouldn't call beautiful in its implications anyway. But perhaps it's a good fit for purpose. It's beautiful in that sense but certainly a very grotesque, horrifying kind of example. Could you talk about the example why you started with that and what it means for the argument you're making?
Rob: Yeah, I'll say that I think the aesthetic component of that experiment — I mean, it is a science experiment. But the aesthetic is really an important feature of it, and so I'll describe it visually. It looks a little bit like a Rothko painting, right? It's a giant petri dish. It's like a meter, I guess. It's filled with agar, so bacteria can grow on it. The agar is in columns. At the end, the agar is just bacteria food in the house. Nothing else in it. As you go toward the center, these Rothko-painted columns have more and more antibiotic in them. Until you get to the middle, it's like a super-toxic apocalyptic concentration of antibiotic.
The experiment is about how fast the bacteria evolve resistance to the antibiotic. The bacteria are introduced in the end columns, and they can go toward the middle. In the beginning, they have no ability to move through those additional columns because they're not resistant to the antibiotic. And so the only way for them to move through is to evolve resistance. What you see unfold in real-time over 12 days, if memory serves, then you can fast forward to watch it sped up, is the bacteria very quickly go from that first column that's free of antibiotic to the second moment a low concentration of antibiotics. Many different individual little clumps of bacteria do it reflecting that, in many times, independently, they're evolving the ability to move across into that next column. Then they fill that next column. Not very long after, they move into the column after that. Until very quickly, the bacteria have evolved the ability to live in this toxic soup of antibiotics right in the middle.
For me, the aesthetic there is what makes that work — I would call it sublime. I think it's the terrible sublime. It is the same sucking sound as the universe, that there's something. But if it was a petri dish this big, visually, you could show the same thing. But it's the awareness that this is a scale that's about the size of a human body that I think changes it. I think visually, being able to see a process that we think of as being from deep time, that's an aesthetic change. It's a change of a timeframe. In retrospect, they talk about a little bit the aesthetic features of this. They were inspired by an advertisement designed to do this. But I think they were aware that what they were doing was partially about the science and partially about the aesthetics and the art. To me, it's actually a really intriguing case because there's not an artist involved. It is a provocation. If I show it in a slide deck to an audience, it triggers a really strong emotional response. In that way, it happens to be science but it is also, in its power, art, I think. I don't know. To you, did it strike you as art? Did it strike you as science?
Brandon: Yeah, I think both certainly. I think I was more struck by the sense in which we're trying to eliminate bacteria. We think we can do what we can't. That's the kind of just being struck by how indomitable nature is. I think we have this conceit that we're not part of nature, that we think we're something outside of it. There is our ability to transcend it to some degree. But I think so much of our technology and even just the way in which we live our lives is premised on that conceit that we are above and not part of nature.
Rob: Yeah, for me, Elon Musk, his gut microbiome came from his mom's body during birth, right? His bacteria on his skin are an active evolutionary war with the viruses that attack those bacteria. His immune system is interacting with all the species around him every day, even if he pays no attention to them. And so there's a way in which consciousness here is part of what distances us, all this stuff that we think of as sitting in our head. Meanwhile, the rest of our body is just disconnected. That disconnect is really fascinating to me. The body knows where it is. The body knows what it's missing in some level, and that our conscious brains are like, "No, I'm in a room alone. There's nobody. There's no other species here. And if I draw a future, I'm going to draw fancy buildings and technology. As long as we got enough engineers, we're cool."
Brandon: Yeah, exactly.
Rob: It turns out that's problematic.
Brandon: That's not even who we are. Yeah, that was incredible. I think, again, discovering the microbiome and realizing we are actually more than just solitary individuals has been groundbreaking for a lot of people.
Rob: Just a bit about it, Brandon. We've discovered it twice. We knew about it in 1909. People who study termites picked it up from people who studied humans. In 1909, we knew that babies were acquiring gut microbes from their moms during birth, and they needed them. We just ignored it for humans. My hypothesis would be: it's so at odds with this western sensibility of the lonely human out on their own. John Wayne and the microbiome don't interact well.
Brandon: I want to ask again about that sort of solitary, the illusion that we have. One thing we learned from the scientists we talked to is that most of them see science as essentially the pursuit of what we're calling the beauty of understanding. So grasping, behind patterns and appearances, the hidden order or inner logic of things, that's really the business of science for most of them. And yet there are others who argue that, well, that's kind of a naive way to depict it. Science is really about violence. It's about conquest. Even though scientists light up when they talk about discovery, there is the project of Western science. People would argue, it's a violent project of conquest — man over nature sort of thing. I wonder what your reaction is to that. To what extent is science about violence or conquest? Particularly, in relation to what you're arguing in your book, how should science proceed if that's really been the trajectory?
Rob: I think it's a yes and a situation. It would be interesting to imagine if we could create a system of scholarship at a national or global level that would work really differently. What would it work like? That's an interesting thought experiment. Clearly, we need a system for making more sense of the world in order to act in the world. We've got a 10-billion-person experiment going on that requires us to be able to control a huge proportion of earth's resources for our benefit. I don't know another way to do that. I would also say on the — positive and negative is too simple. For lack of a better frame, on the positive side, it is also the science that allows us to see our place, to be reminded of that humility if we're willing to be reminded.
To me, Western science is one of the most powerful reminders of how small we are in the context of the rest of the living world, but it is also a structure that reinforces our inability to notice that. Formally, it's science that has told us there might be a trillion bacteria species, even though we only know 30,000. Right now, you're breathing in. Most of the species, you're breathing in no one has ever named or studied. That is a humble moment before the universe. There's no structural element in western science for humility. Humility is individual, not part of the system. And so I think that's an interesting feature.
Then Western science sits atop this history of conquest, its history of religion. Scientists aren't terribly comfortable talking about the colonial parts of science. They are really uncomfortable talking about the fact that the reemergence of Western science in the Renaissance context emerges in a religious context. Even the names we have for parts of the university like the provost, they're actually the religious names for these entities. The whole scholarly endeavor is connected to that religious endeavor. To me, there are lots of parts of this that should invite constant revision, but revision in light of how do we take where we are and what we need to do collectively globally, and imagine a system that has better features? Because I think late at night, I can embrace some of the wholesale critique of what we're doing. But in the morning, I've still got to make a plan. And so reconciling those elements.
There's an amazing — I forget her name right now — science and technology scholar at the University of Michigan. Her first name is Shobita. I forgot Shobita's last name, unfortunately. She has done a great work thinking about how would you reimagine the funding system to make the benefits of science more just. And so I think that's the other thing we can be doing. It's that science is not divorceable from the system, from the architecture of funding, from the architecture of who we value and why. We can change that architecture. We can change our funding systems. What would it look like to fund science in a way that made more sense? I think that can be with regard to justice, with regard to equity. But it can also be with regard to being better at making discoveries. I think there's room for all those kinds of intervention. I don't think there's a simple answer to that frame. But I think it's useful to be reminded that the same thing can be in search of beauty and connected to horror.
Brandon: Yeah, that's helpful. I want to switch again and talk about your other book "Delicious". I was really thrilled to come across it, because I've been also interested in exploring the role of beauty in food and hospitality. What drew you to write this book?
Rob: My wife is an anthropologist. Maybe the first layer of what drew us to — well, Monica Sanchez is my co-author and also my wife. We were talking about when we meet with scientists at dinner, they always talk about their science, or anthropologist their scholarship and food. They connect at dinner all the time, or drinks. But it's secret. It doesn't seep into the daily life. And so it first started as just a way of telling these stories of what comes up at dinner when you talk to a primatologist about food. Then as we started to write it, and so it was like the secret world. Let's share this pretty fun secret. We spent luxurious years traveling the world, meeting with clever people who want to talk about chimpanzees and food or these kinds of things.
But then it became clear. When we started talking to people about the book, there was a disconnection between pleasure and deliciousness and how people study humans and nonhumans and food. It was weird. It was an opening. On the one hand, lots of ecologists and evolutionary biologists’ study, for example, hummingbirds and the choices they make, or Vervet monkeys and the choices they make. But they talk about optimization. The implication is that those animals are robots. They have some way of perfectly making choices of what they need and that that's just caloric. That was interesting. There was something there. Then the other part was anthropologists who work with hunter gatherers would do the same thing, but for different reasons. They would attribute to hunter gatherers this sort of perfect ability to make choices, but they wouldn't allow them pleasure.
The book really emerges as a way of saying, well, if we recenter pleasure and deliciousness, does this do some work in allowing us to understand the human story? Then it turned out that, yeah, it was actually a useful way to look at all of these moments in human history and evolution. But it was also interesting how uncomfortable people were talking about it.
Brandon: What is the source of the discomfort there, do you think? Is it because it's typically dismissed as this is just a sort of banal type of pleasure? It doesn't really sound particularly meaningful. We can do without this. I mean, where's the discomfort coming from?
Rob: I don't know. I'll speculate that pleasure seems frivolous. Pleasure is a bougie part of the world, to take a bougie part of the world and attribute it to a hummingbird. It's also that the people who study the different parts of it are not the same people. The people who studied hummingbirds in the field are not the ones who studies taste receptors or olfaction. They don't know each other. They've never met. The field people, on some level, they know that the hummingbird is making a choice, and it must use senses to make a choice. If you push them, they would say, "Well, of course, it's choosing the thing it prefers." Well, what does the preference means? It means it's pleased by that thing. That's better than the language. But they don't know the science, and so they don't have a way in. Then the science behind pleasure has also advanced a lot in recent years. That may be is a piece of it.
As an example, we started, in writing the book, to study sour taste. It turned out there was not a single paper that tried to explain the evolution of sour taste at all, like zero. I mean, three sentences in a paper here, two sentences there. That was a pretty concrete example of what we're missing. All vertebrates have sour taste. And we've not even started to try to explain its existence.
Brandon: Wow. It's just super fascinating. I think I've been really interested in the relationship between flavor, and taste, and memory. Culturally, that's critical for even works of literature like Proust. Those are central moments where you have that kind of connection between a smell and certainly the memory.
What did you learn in your book? I imagine your household conversation would be super fascinating between a scientist and an anthropologist. But how does this relationship between the evolution of our taste relate to the development of cultures and societies? Because there's also the rituals that evolve around the preparation of food, and then the way in which food — what foods go together? What foods need to be kept separate? How is that related to our sense of taste?
Rob: Yes, good question. I've got a partial answer. Imagine a time before language, before which chimpanzees are not exact replica but they are a proxy of some elements. One of the fun things about a book like this — like your podcast is the same kind of thing — you get to connect people who don't know each other. You get to draw these threads across.
What chimpanzee people know is that — people who study chimpanzees know is that chimps have culture and that that culture is almost all attached to food. There are very few cultural phenomena associated with chimps that are not related to food, and that they're arbitrarily different. And so chimps in two populations eat different things not because there are different things there, but because that's their culture. We know that in some cases, that's persisted for thousands of years because there are chimp archaeological sites. There's at least one that records. The archaeological site includes a stone that the chimp was using to smash a nut on another stone. If I remember right, it's 2,000 years old. At that same site, the chimps still do that. And so that's a really persistent culture.
What the primatologists have struggled with is, how did the chimps pass that culture on without words? They have word-like utterances which do for some things, like this fruit is delicious. It works for that. But it's not good for, like, well, you break the stick here and then you stick it in. What the primatologist didn't seem to know is that in the olfactory world, it's been known for a while that olfactory learning starts in utero. And so if your mom eats something, you're born liking the smell of that thing. You're learning a noun in essence, and you're learning a preference or a distaste for that noun. And so it's Proust's madeleine, but it's in utero version. I'm remembering that my mother liked madeleines. There's a good art piece. Because I think the artists are also not aware of that. What do you do with that in literature would be interesting. But it then allows the chimps a way to pass on a preference without ever saying anything.
And so if you like to eat this ant species, your baby likes to eat it without you ever showing the baby the ant species. Then when the baby watches you get that ant, it already prefers it. And so I think a first layer of this is that connection between culture and olfaction and the learning part of olfaction. Just to put two words on the table. Taste, I think of as the taste receptors on the tongue. They're dumb. They're just positive or negative. Most of it is not learned. The flavor is all the olfactory things and the mouth feel and the taste. That has tons of learning associated with it. Then fast forward from that pre-verbal world to a world in which we're still moving around the world, we're learning new places. But we can also use stories and language to reinforce some of these things and to pass them on in new ways. Then you get the possibility for elaboration and infinitely beautiful in different ways set atop these ancient pieces. But there's almost nothing written about that.
Brandon: Right. Wow. Well, I'm really glad you've embarked on this. I was also struck by the way in which you talk about the evolution of spices, the use of spices and the kind of — was it benign masochism in reference to the use of, say, chili peppers? I mean, I'm of Indian origin. My wife is a white American. We've struggled around the use of chilies and spicy food in our household and training children to eat chilies. She's my wife, so it was always sort of surprises as to how would anyone even begin to start consuming this kind of food. It seems as though there are other ways in which our pursuit of beauty leads us to tolerate discomfort or pain, like bodily piercing, stilettos. There's all sorts of things that we—
Rob: Scary movies, right?
Brandon: Yeah, is it the same mechanism then for the preference for spicy food? Is what's driving that the development of that kind of taste which is pleasurable but requires enduring pain the same, you think, across other kinds of adaptations like this?
Rob: You mean beyond the pain?
Brandon: Of taste, yeah. Is our preference for spicy food like our willingness to get tattooed or wear stilettos or something like that?
Rob: Yeah, I think psychologists would argue that they're related and that they build on the need to know that the danger is not real, or that it's modest. The few cases where non-human animals engage these dangerous things, like for the subset for whom the spicy peppers are spicy, if they trust the individual giving them the food, they react differently to it than if they don't. In some way, that trust seems to encapsulate a knowledge that this is not actually dangerous. And so you're courting the danger. Then there are these really heightened versions of it, where maybe there's actually a little bit more danger, like fugu. That culture can push in a really accentuated way, but I think it's built on that same framework.
I think often, in culture, you get these overlaps. There's a culture-meets-psychology piece, but it might overlap with a culturally adaptive piece. And so with spicy foods, if you're being pleased by that danger but it also is helping to preserve the food, you've got this connected benefit. And so you have two levels of reinforcement. I mean, it's fascinating to me the ways in which we culturally figured out to trick our really simple ancient brains, but without being aware of what we're doing. We're all complicit in these full dangerous things but not very conscious of what you are actually doing with that. You like the idea of running from a leopard without actually having to run from a leopard. And if you can get a little bit of that in this very domesticated way. But in our everyday context, we're not even thinking about why is this part of what we're doing.
Brandon: Yeah, and then the meanings we build around it are really interesting, right? I remember there's an occasion when I had one of my relatives. This was in Kuwait a few years ago. We went to visit them. They had served us, I think, goat or something. It was very heavily spiced. They'd asked my wife, "How would your family prepare something like this?" She would talk about, "Well, we'll just grill it on the grill?" He's like, "With no spices? I mean, that means you would have to taste the meat. Why would anyone want to taste the meat?" I guess you want it to be saturated with flavor, it was the argument. How does it make us human? I mean, that's the subtitle of your book.
Rob: Yeah, so if we think about the big evolutionary changes in our history, one goes back to our common ancestors with chimps when culture is evolving. It's clear. All the evidence we see of culture in non-human primates is around food and flavor. It's about eating delicious things, and so there's not another argument for why those cultural things evolve. You might say, well, it's to get calories, which is also true. But the proximate reason the chimps are doing it is because it tastes good. They eat plenty of things that just taste good and don't give them anything they need.
I think there's an argument for culture emerging, in the first place, in the context of flavor and deliciousness. If you look at — there's a big evolutionary transition — 1.9 million years ago, when our ancestors have all bigger brains, smaller teeth, shorter guts, it's a huge transition. It's a key moment in our pre-history. The paleo-anthropologists will fight brutally, passive aggressively over what the cause was. But they all agree it was somehow processing a new food. Everybody — Monica and I talked, too — also agreed, well, yeah, the new food will be tastier. And so taste was bound up in that transition. If it was about cooking, well, the reason you cook is not because you think, "Oh, I'm optimizing my caloric intake by releasing more—" Preverbal ancestors, it's because it tastes delicious. And so it's just adding that back into this story, to recognize that there was a choice in that moment. As you go through our ability to make sense of new landscapes was in the context of our sensory preferences and our pleasures and our displeasures.
What we try to reconstruct in the book is that for most of these key moments in human evolution, pleasure was featured. It wasn't the whole story, but it was this really proximate piece of that decision-making. And so it's to also lift it up provocatively. Maybe we're wrong in some of these cases, and somebody can push back. But it's not even something we're talking about. And so I'm happy for that. We talked a lot about cheese. Maybe the cheese story is wrong, but maybe not. We'll see.
Brandon: That's fantastic. There's so much more I'd love to talk to you about, but I want to be mindful of your time. Where can we send our viewers and listeners to, to learn more about the work you're doing?
Rob: Just go to the Rob Dunn Lab. So if you just type that in, you'll get us. But I'll also say to your viewers and listeners, I'm really keen to continue to think about what it means to think about esthetics and science, what it means to partner with artists. One of the luxurious parts of my job is that we get to look for big, bold ideas and think about how we implement them. I'd love to hear big, bold ideas about what a reimagined interface between art and science looks like. We're working hard on it. But per my response to your question, we don't know exactly how to do it yet. And so if people have ideas, I'm really receptive to what a different future might look like.
Brandon: Yeah, amazing. I think it's super crucial. I'm so glad you're doing this work. Thank you again for joining us today.
Rob: Well, thanks so much for this series and the work you're doing. It's hidden, this interface. But it's so important. Thanks, Brandon.
Brandon: Great. Thank you.
If you found this post valuable, please share it. Also please consider supporting this project as a paid subscriber to support the costs associated with this work. You'll receive early access to content and exclusive members-only posts.