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  1. Culture
9 July 2023

David Scheel Q&A: “I studied octopuses from a yellow submarine”

The marine biologist on the Beatles, eliminating single-use plastic, and animal self-awareness.

By New Statesman

David Scheel was born in New York State in 1962 and is a professor of marine biology. An expert on octopuses, he featured in the BBC documentary The Octopus in My House.

What’s your earliest memory?

Finding a garter snake in the yard and picking it up by the tail. It then curled around and bit me. I knew snakes were poisonous, and I thought maybe I was going to die. My dad laughed and said no, North American garter snake bites wouldn’t kill me.

Who are your heroes?

I’ve never understood the culture of heroes or celebrities. But there are quiet people in my life whom I admire for particular capacities or skills.

What book last changed your thinking?

Derek Denton’s The Primordial Emotions was an influential read. The book relates fascinating stories of elephants in Kenya whose cravings for salt led them to excavate a cave into a cliff side over generations, mining a salt vein with their tusks. Denton points out the role of such intentional behaviour in understanding self-awareness in animals and in ourselves.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Anyone who encourages compromise, diplomacy and help for those in need of it, over conflict, moral superiority and party politics.

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What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

Animal behaviour and ecology. 

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

I’ve always wanted to see North America before the arrival of humans. The large animals of the Great Plains and the richness of the coastal seas must have been spectacular.

What TV show could you not live without?

Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom probably influenced me more than any other. And I like sitcoms: Get Smart, Scrubs and The Big Bang Theory all make me laugh.

Who would paint your portrait?

The cartoonist Bill Watterson, the creator of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip. His humour and art sustained me through my years of graduate study.

What’s your theme tune?

Who can live with just one? Lenka’s “Trouble Is a Friend”. I also love the whimsy of the Beatles’ “Octopus’s Garden” and “Yellow Submarine”, and they remind me of the time in my life when I studied octopuses through the portholes of a yellow submarine.

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

“Let it go.” I’ve followed it as best I can, so only intermittently. 

What’s currently bugging you?

Plastic waste in the oceans. Food in the US is still sold predominantly in single-use, disposable and convenience plastic, which ought to be eliminated.

What single thing would make your life better?

If the trees, grasses and moulds would stop releasing pollen and allergens into the air we breathe. Or some simple and permanent cure for hay fever and allergies.

When were you happiest?

Now is a pretty good moment.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I always wanted to make wildlife documentaries and be a photographer for National Geographic.

Are we all doomed?

It is the lot of humanity that life has never been better, and the end is nigh. I don’t think we’d have it any other way.

“Many Things Under a Rock: The Mysteries of Octopuses” by David Scheel is published by Hodder & Stoughton

[See also: The best children’s books for the Easter holidays]

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This article appears in the 12 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Tabloid Nation

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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