By turns entertaining and educating, evolutionary biologist Olivia Judson regaled a crowd at Sweet Briar College on Nov. 3. The bestselling author of “Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation” and New York Times online columnist offered a glimpse into a new book she is researching, and urged her listeners to consider the planet with a new appreciation.
There is increasing evidence, Judson said, that life on Earth has shaped the planet’s geology and chemistry — which in turn shapes life — to a much greater extent than we had imagined. The planet we live on is so beautiful and so interesting because of 4.5 billion years of life evolving on its surface, she said.
Following the lecture, one questioner noted that Judson had addressed the wonder of life and “given all of us a sense of excitement just thinking about evolution.” And Judson had alluded to the evolutionary pressures humans place on the planet with the development of drugs and pesticides, but she hadn’t revealed her own concerns about what humans are doing to Earth.
Judson replied that she prefers to let people draw their own conclusions.
“My hope is that in reminding people of what an amazing place we live on we may begin to take better care of it,” she said. “I think that environmentalism is often a rather depressing, sort of scolding atmosphere.”
But we do live in an amazing place, she said, and getting even a few people to think about it is a victory.
As for her belief in the supremacy of humans over other species, Judson’s view is nuanced there, too.
“I do like to emphasize that we’re all part of a pageant and if we think that we can live here without many of these other organisms, we’re wrong,” she said. “And so it’s not so much that humans are just another species as I think we tend to underestimate how important and how spectacular many of those other species are.”
The applause that followed might have been the loudest of the evening.