What are some words that you’ve “plagiarised” that resonate with you?
Well, eat food, mostly plants, not too much. I got that from Michael Pollan’s book In Defence of Food. That’s incredibly deep.
In fact, I actually made up something deep the other day myself in response to the Federal Government’s move on education. I might have stolen it accidentally. But the phrase, which I claim ownership of is, “Education is an investment in the future, not a short-term cost.” I mean, it’s fucking obvious. But the successive governments in Australia haven’t treated education as an investment in the future. It’s more expensive to keep somebody in jail on a yearly basis for 15 years than it is to put them up in a hotel and give them a university education. It’s about $70,000 a year. If we educate the people, we’ve got a chance of keeping them out of jail.
I think education is the most important thing to be putting our funds towards as a society. And I think the thing that education does to people is incredible. It brings them closer to themselves and closer to other people.
And it gives them the potential to break out of where they are. You might have somebody who’s in a family where the single parent grew up in dire poverty, and then had them, and then they grew up in dire poverty, and yet education gives them a chance to have a better life. We’re just not giving out the education to where it should be going.
Besides the funding element, do you think that the way that we teach in schools and universities is as good as it could be?
No. I learned this saying in Texas: “If you give a cat $100, it’s not a lion. It’s still a cat.” So if you just go to a random teacher and increase their pay, they’re not a better teacher.
What do you think makes a really great teacher?
What drives Dumbo Feather? Passion…
I like that. I think I’ll steal that accidentally!
Oh, it’s all yours!
Passion and purpose. Because if you have passion, you’re just spinning your wheels. You’ve got to have a purpose so you can know the direction in which to drive that passion. Some of my daughter’s teachers have actually said to her, “Don’t ask questions.” That’s the exact opposite of what a teacher should be doing.
Do you get a lot of joy out of education?
I love it. I was coming through Melbourne Airport two weeks ago and this 12-year-old girl started chasing me and dragged me back to her parents to be photographed. She’d read one of my previous books, Brain Food, which was not really a commercial success. In fact, it was a failure. It lost money. But I loved writing it because it was about food and our gut and the recent discovery that 90 per cent of the cells in your body don’t have your DNA. They’re bacteria that have invaded you. For me this was just astonishing. This girl made me happy because even though that book—which I love to pieces— was a financial failure, she loved it. She said it just changed her attitude to biology. She wants to go into some sort of life science.
And how does that feel?
Oh, it’s terrific! I feel wonderful! To get random praise all the time from strangers—that’s what I like about going on a book tour. People come up, they tell you how wonderful you are, and they give you a small amount of money, and then they go away to be replaced by another person.
Do you need that praise?
Possibly I’m shallow enough to need that praise. You are probably mature enough that when you were in kindergarten and the teacher said, ‘Daniel, you’ve done a really good job of colouring in that star within the lines, good job Daniel,’ that was probably all the praise you needed for your whole life…
No, I need that praise too. I need to be told all the time. I liked it when they said I coloured in well. I want people to keep telling me.
Yeah, well I get it all the time. And I’m very lucky that I get it. But then I worry that makes me even more shallow than I am. I should be more mature.
Are you philosophical?
Yeah, I do get philosophical. Unfortunately the big one for me is tied to human suffering, which then ties into climate change. In The Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker, he says—and he could be wrong—that this is the most peaceful time in history ever. That we are killing and murdering and doing bad things to our fellow humans on a lesser scale than we ever have. We’re being nicer. That fills me with great happiness. But when times are bad, when war comes, when people are displaced, the worse sides of their nature come out. I think this is going to come with regard to global warming. The effects it’s going to have with refugees.
I feel so sad about how we’re treating these poor old refugees trying to come out of various war-torn countries to Australia, and risking everything to go on a boat. The only reason they can’t fly to Australia is that they don’t have a passport. If they had a passport, all they’d have to do would be to buy a return business class ticket to Australia (this is what they’re paying anyway). Buy themselves fancy clothes, and then just swagger their way through customs, go into Australia and just vanish somewhere.
One last question. If you called up Dr Lark on the radio…
L-R-A-K. “Karl” backwards.
He’s the only radio scientist that knows more than you. What would you ask him?
Anything about the brain. The brain is so complicated. Why do some people get allergies and some people not? Why am I terrified of spiders but you’re not? At no stage in my childhood did my parents say, ‘Look out for the spiders, they’ll kill you.’ Instead it was, ‘Don’t stick metal in that power point, be careful when you’re crossing the road.’ I’m not scared of power points, I’m not scared of crossing the road, but I am scared of spiders. And we still don’t know why the moon is bigger on the horizon. Why?