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22 January 2023

George McGavin Q&A: “All species live on the knife-edge of survival”

The entomologist on lush prehistoric forests and inescapable doom.

By New Statesman

George McGavin was born in Glasgow in 1954. He is an entomologist – a zoologist with expertise in insects – and TV presenter. He has several species of insect named after him.

What’s your earliest memory?

I had a nursery school teacher who threatened to cut off wagging tongues and glue children’s bottoms to seats.

Who are your heroes?

Carl Linnaeus, whose taxonomic system brought order out of chaos, and Charles Darwin, who showed us how to make sense of the world, stand out.

What book last changed your thinking?

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive by Jared Diamond and A Guide to the End of the World: Everything You Never Wanted to Know by Bill McGuire. Between these two you get a pretty good idea of what’s coming our way. I find it oddly comforting.

What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

Entomology of course, but it’s an absolutely huge subject and the risk of being publicly humiliated is rather great.

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Who would paint your portrait?

I have suffered from depression during my life so I’d like someone who could capture the darkness and the light. Caravaggio?

[See also: New Year promises won’t resolve our meat problem]

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I’d like to visit the lush forests of the late Carboniferous, where I could marvel at the biggest flying insects that have ever lived.

What TV show could you not live without?

Not a single show but a type of programme: documentaries. Epic series such as Cosmos by Carl Sagan or The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski are masterpieces of the genre.

What’s your theme tune?

I never get tired of the sound of waves or the hum of insects in a flower-rich meadow. But these are not really tunes, so Claude Debussy’s “Syrinx” for solo flute will do nicely.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

I can’t say I got much advice over the years and what I did get I’ve never paid much heed to.

What’s currently bugging you?

Quite a long list, I’m afraid, but I’ll start with greed, ignorance, lying, meanness, wastage, cruelty to animals and littering.

What single thing would make your life better?

Not having a stammer. Although it’s not nearly as bad as it was when I was growing up, it’s part and parcel of who I am and without it I might get too cocky. Considering what you’re about to say can be rather a good thing.

When were you happiest?

Despite my enormous anxiety about what the human species is doing to the rest of life on Earth, I’m pretty happy right now. Science saved me from malignant skin cancer three years ago and I’m not going to waste what time remains.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I wouldn’t mind being an archaeologist, surgeon, artist, actor or opera singer.

Are we all doomed?

Yes, of course we are. All species live on the knife-edge of survival. If just one very large volcano was to erupt (and there are several of these monsters waiting to pop), food chains would collapse and many species would die out. The interesting question is: which species would survive? It’s not doomism; it’s an inescapable reality.

“The Hidden World: How Insects Sustain Our Life on Earth Today and Will Shape Our Lives Tomorrow” by George McGavin is published by Welbeck

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This article appears in the 25 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why Germany doesn’t do it better