Steve Jones Q&A: “A faint grey square captures the very essence of my being”

The geneticist talks David Attenborough, Grand Designs repeats, and The Law and How it’s Broken by the Secret Barrister.

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Steve Jones was born in Aberystwyth in 1946 and studied zoology at the University of Edinburgh. As a television presenter and writer on biology and evolution, he won the 1996 Michael Faraday Prize and in 2012 was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.

What’s your earliest memory?

At the age of five, sitting naked with my female cousins under a UV light to build up vitamin D. I was (and remain) baffled by the physical differences on display.

Who was your childhood hero?

It was, and is, David Attenborough.

What book last changed your thinking?

The Law and How it’s Broken by the Secret Barrister sharpened my disgust at hereditary privilege in British society.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Not, obviously, any of today’s party leaders. Nicolas Condorcet was the delegate for Paris in the National Assembly in 1791/92. He studied the mathematics of electoral systems and defined the metre to be one ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the equator, setting up the first survey of Europe to do so. 

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

The life and works of Charles Darwin (the fact that I have plagiarised all his books would help).

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

London, in the summer of 1858; the year of the Darwin-Alfred Russel Wallace letter on natural selection (and, in homage to the present day, the time of the Great Stink from the filthy Thames, an event that paralysed parliamentary business).

What TV show could you not live without?

I admit it: repeats of Grand Designs.

Who would paint your portrait?

It’s already been done: Kazimir Malevich’s White on White of 1918 seems, at first glance, to be a blank canvas, but a closer look reveals a barely perceptible off-centre grey square. It captures the very essence of my being.

What’s your theme tune?

The national anthem of the former Soviet Union, part of which – bizarrely – provided the melody of my grammar school song.

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

Dr Johnson tells us: “Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.” I do so with a search programme that picks up adverbs, most of which I abolish. It can also be trained to smother semi-colons.

What’s currently bugging you?

Brexit, what else?

What single thing would make your life better?

An ability to understand mathematics.

When were you happiest?

Standing on a rocky slope in the Velebit mountains of Yugoslavia in 1966 and being able to predict the genes of the next snail sample from the local topography, based as it was on mountains and enclosed basins. I was less good at forecasting the local political climate.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

A concert pianist, although I would have to learn to play the instrument first.

Are we all doomed?

I speak as an evolutionary biologist: we are. 

“Here Comes the Sun” by Steve Jones is published by Little, Brown

This article appears in the 05 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn delusion