Interview with Professor Alice Roberts – President, Humanists UK & President, British Science Association

by | January 21, 2020

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

From her website: “I’m an academic, writer and broadcaster. I’m interested in the structure of humans, how we function, and our place in the wider environment.

I make programmes and write books about human anatomy, physiology, evolution, archaeology and history. I passionately believe that universities are about generating and spreading knowledge to the widest possible audience.

I’m a medical doctor, and went on to become a university lecturer. I taught human anatomy to students and doctors, and did research into human origins and disease in ancient skeletons – which formed the basis for my PhD. But all the time, I felt that it was important to engage with people outside universities, of all ages and backgrounds. I’ve been Professor of Public Engagement with Science at the University of Birmingham since 2012.

I made my television debut back in 2001, as a human bone specialist on Channel 4’s Time Team. I went on to present Coast on BBC2, and then to write and present a range of television series for BBC2, including The Incredible Human Journey, Origins of Us and Ice Age Giants, as well as several Horizon programmes. I’ve presented five series of the popular Digging for Britain series, looking at the freshest, most exciting archaeology in the UK. We’ll be returning with Series 6 later this year.

I’ve written seven popular science books. My book The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being, was shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize 2015.”


Here we talk about her life, work, and views.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let’s start from the top. What is your story of finding humanism, finding science, and becoming one of the most prominent people in the community?

Professor Alice Roberts: I think, for me, it’s about an extension of a scientific worldview. I was interested in science from a young age – and I was interested in biology in particular. I went on to study medicine at university, and became a medical doctor, before taking a side-step into academia – as an anatomy lecturer.

I was brought up as an Anglican – in the Church of England. My parents were very religious, and went to church every Sunday. As a child, I went to Sunday School and then to church later. I was even confirmed at age 14. I think that sharpened my mind a bit – it makes you look hard at your belief.

The following year, I decided that I simply didn’t believe in enough of the dogma to call myself a Christian any more. There was just far too much that seemed to be unsubstantiated claims.

Jacobsen: You were ‘disconfirmed.

Roberts: Yes [Laughing], my confirmation lessons were interesting. We didn’t talk about God that much. I was doing Ancient Greek GCSE at school, and my local vicar was a classicist – so we had a great time translating bits of the Bible. I approached it like any other text – something which was wonderfully ancient, but not the ‘word of god’.

The following year, I thought about this more deeply. I had conversations with my father over the year. He was quite sanguine about most of the bible, seeing it as rich in storytelling and metaphor. Anglicanism does seem pretty much as close to agnosticism as you can get, as a Christian, anyway!

Modern Anglicanism does allow for that critical approach to the texts. My father approached it like that, seeing the Bible as a collection of stories – particularly the Old Testament, which is a collection of stories put together by people over perhaps thousands of years. They are legends and myths – fact and fiction intertwined.

But when it comes to the New Testament – as a Christian, you have to believe in the veracity of that, or at least some of it. Even if you don’t believe in the miracles of Christ, even if you think most of it is storytelling and not factually accurate – you have to believe in something, if you call yourself a Christian. You have to believe in Jesus as the son of God – and you have to believe in God.

So I got to the point with my questioning of my own belief, where I realised I simply didn’t believe in God. For me, Anglicanism as a form of Christianity contained the seeds of its own destruction – as it gave me permission to be critical, to question the dogma. If you start seeing some of the ancient texts as essentially mythological, that can expand to include the entire bible.

For me, the endpoint of the critical enquiry was that I didn’t see any real evidence for God, and didn’t see a reason to believe in something just because other people think it might exist, with no way of testing or proving that.

So, aged 15, I stopped believing (if indeed I ever really had) and I stopped going to church. It was a difficult decision at the time – my whole family was religious. When I’d gone to church on a Sunday, it was quite social – I’d see my grandparents there – so there was a strong social element that I missed. I definitely felt a feeling of separation from that community I’d been brought up with.

Jacobsen: But having rejected religion – what did atheism – and humanism – mean to you?

Roberts: Well, I actually remember feeling a bit uncomfortable with the definition of atheism. The fact that atheism is defined as an absence. I find this really odd – to be defined by something you don’t believe in. I don’t believe the Earth is flat – but I wouldn’t describe myself as an un-flat-earther. It is an odd cognitive and descriptive problem, I think. It comes from the historical hegemony of religion, I suppose – at one time, most people were religious. But now more than half the UK population is not religious, it seems out of date to define anyone by a lack of religion.

Later on, when I came across humanism, I found that fitted very well with my personal philosophy on life. In fact, I think that’s true for a lot of people. I’ve certainly found that when I’ve explained to people – in person and on social media – what humanism’s about. You often get the response: “Oh, ok, I probably am a humanist, then.” It does seem quite natural and uncomplicated – you approach the world rationally, and value empathy and kindness too.

Quite importantly, humanism is about believing in the capacity of humans to create goodness in the world. The fact that goodness comes from people. I am on very friendly terms with my local vicar, and we’ve had some interesting conversations about religion and humanism. When I first tried to explain humanism to her, I said I thought it might ultimately boil down to this question of the source of goodness, of morality. That the religious perspective is that goodness comes from some external, divine source. But the humanist perspective is that it simply comes from us, from inside humans. That doesn’t mean I think good morals are somehow innate – it’s something that has to be worked on, as individuals and as a society.

I am a great fan of Steven Pinker. He’s argued in The Better Angels of Our Nature that, over time, we’ve been able to increasingly employ the better aspects of our human nature, and that we’ve emerged with better morals than our ancestors had in the past. We’ve mostly done that through the application of reason to moral problems. A combination of logic and empathy underpinned the rights revolutions, from the 19th century, into the 20th century, and into the 21st century. I think most people would agree those rights revolutions represent moral progress. I think Pinker’s right – they really happened through the application of reason and the infallibility of the logic – that says, “You’re not worth more than anyone else. So – you must have equality.” That was a long-winded answer!

Jacobsen: It was a very good answer. How did you get interested in anatomy?

Roberts: I cannot remember a time not being interested in it. I remember being absolutely fascinated with finding little skeletons of rats and birds, and coming home with little bird skulls.

I was particularly fascinated by human anatomy, and I really enjoyed studying biology at school. I went to university in the early 90’s in Britain. At that point, anatomy was a big part of the medical course. I spent 9 hours a week dissecting human bodies. I thrived on it. I was absolutely fascinated by the intricate machinery of the human body. I did an extra degree in the middle of my medical degree, where I specialized in anatomy and embryology.

I qualified as a doctor, worked as a junior doctor in South Wales, and then did what I thought would be a 6-month teaching job at Bristol University. It’s quite a standard thing for young surgeons to take some time out to teach medical students, and it helps you brush up on your own anatomy. But I ended up staying for 11 years!

I think that I would have been perfectly happy as a surgeon. In some parallel universe, there I am – as a paediatric surgeon. I didn’t really make a conscious decision to leave medicine and surgery; I just got delightfully sidetracked into academia.

So I entered academia as a clinical doctor, but not with a PhD. I then did a long-winded, long-drawn out PhD, which took me 7 years, looking at shoulder disease in ancient skeletons, and in apes, from an evolutionary perspective.

Jacobsen: Do you think religion affects how people look at the human body, and the ethical debates such as the pro-life/pro-choice debate?

Roberts: Yes, absolutely. Those important ethical questions are, I think, issues where there does tend to be a difference of opinion between the majority of people who are religious and the majority of people who are not religious. But I don’t think it is across the board. I know plenty of religious people who are pro-choice. I know some non-religious people who are pro-life. But religious attitudes to the human body – and human life – can make a huge difference in a country or state where a particular religion holds sway.

There you have a religious institution or a church, essentially telling people what they should do with their bodies. I think similar debates then play out at the end of life as well. Your religion may tell you that life is sacred, and that you would be committing an ultimate sin by deciding to take your own life – even if you were terminally ill.

Jacobsen: Both cases – assisted dying and abortion – touch on the topic of individual autonomy. Is that the crux of it – that the humanistic ethic promotes individual autonomy whereas the religious ethic says, “You don’t have a choice over ending your life because you don’t, ultimately, own your own life. You are God’s child,”?

Roberts: I think you’re right – it is about autonomy. That harks back to what I talked about earlier too – that idea of an external arbiter of morals. The idea that you cannot depend on your own reason to reach a decision about whether to end the life of an embryo or the right to end your own life. It is can never be right because an external arbiter has already decreed that it is not right.

Jacobsen: If we look at the human body, what are good cases for seeing ourselves as evolved organisms?

Roberts: I did a program on this for the BBC last year. We had great fun with it. It started because I had said, on numerous occasions, that I thought – despite the human body being a marvellous machine, intricate and beautiful, and detailed – it was also riddled with flaws. It is a bit of a hodgepodge in places – because of both evolutionary development and embryonic development. Obviously, when you’re developing in the womb, that embryo, that fetus, has to work as a body. And that’s a very different physiological challenge to when you’re born – and become an air-breathing, independent organism. The way things form in the embryo also leave some baggage behind as well. Some things form more quickly than other things. You get wires to develop with muscles and then migrate elsewhere, so the nerves have to migrate with them. Then you will get another structure intervening and pushing the nerve, until it becomes much longer. There’s a great example of this in the throat: the recurrent laryngeal nerve. It supplies the voice box, which I am using right now. It branches off its parent nerve high in the neck here – then it should have a journey of a couple of centimeters to the voice box. Instead, it goes all the way down to the chest, under the subclavian artery on the right and the aorta on the left, then goes right back up again. It is a ridiculous thing. You could certainly tidy it up.

There are lots of other bits of anatomy, where you think, “I could design that better!”

For instance, I wouldn’t have gone for the 5 lumbar vertebrae; I would go for the original ape spine, which, we think was just 4 lumbar vertebrae – less flexible but more stable. It would eliminate the problem of slipped discs, brilliant! Bad backs – one of the most common reasons people attend a physician. You could get rid of that very easily, if you were God, if you were an ‘intelligent designer’!

On that BBC programme, we collided science and art. I worked with an amazing artist named Scott Eaton. He scanned my body and then tweaked it in all sorts of ways, that I suggested, to make it ‘perfect’. Of course, every tweak had a knock-on effect – and one of the take-home messages was that – the body might be a bit of a hodge-podge, but it all works, taken together.

I’ve looked at anatomy and development in my writing too. I wrote a book weaving together embryology and evolution called The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being. It also touches on humanist, atheist ideas throughout, without explicitly saying, “This is a book about atheism, and why I am an atheist.”

One of those ideas is the sheer unlikeliness of your being here. Obviously, you are a unique genetic individual. That relied on a chance meeting. Then, that month for your mom’s egg – and one single sperm among millions. When you were conceived, it could have easily been another egg, another sperm. Each one has a different complement of DNA – so ‘you’ would have ended up being a completely different individual than you are now.

That unlikeliness of existence makes me think, “Yes, it is highly unlikely for me to be here. But as an atheist and a humanist, I am lucky to be here. I might as well enjoy it and make my life meaningful.” Humanists don’t believe in any divine purpose behind our existence. There is no external meaning: we have to create the meaning in our own lives.

I find that a positive philosophy. A joyful philosophy. You are not put here for a reason. But you make a reason by the time that you die.

Jacobsen: In your latest book, Tamed, you’ve written about later human history – particularly the start of farming – and how that ties in with religion. What can we learn about the emergence of religion from archaeology?

Roberts: Well, one of the most interesting sites that I have ever been to was in Southern Turkey, about 30 miles from the Syrian border. It’s called Gobekli Tepe. I was lucky enough to visit there 11 years ago, when Klaus Schmidt, the original director of the excavations, was digging there.

He took me on a tour. It is an utterly astonishing site with huge stone T-shaped pillars arranged in circles. It doesn’t seem to be a settlement. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence of people living there. So – it seems to be a ritual site, perhaps we could even call it a temple. It certainly looks like some form of ritual activity bringing people together on a large scale.

The iconography on the pillars is utterly mind-blowing. There are images of birds, mammals. Some are carved in relief, others in the round. It is 11,500-years-old. When it was first discovered, I think a lot of people didn’t believe the date because it seems to be too early for anything that sophisticated in terms of the craftsmanship.

I don’t think we will ever know what those images mean – though we know they mean something. They seem to be stories – but again, we will never know the details of those stories.

In that storytelling, we may be seeing the beginnings of what could be called a religion. And that turns our ideas about when and how religion appeared on its head. We used to think organised religion came after farming – but Gobekli Tepe is pre-agricultural. Perhaps, religion is emerging first as a system of thinking, a system of belief, which brings people together on a large scale and influences them to be involved in the collaborative projects like building Gobekli Tepe. And then that’s what leads into the Neolithic Revolution – because you need to provide food for all those people. They’ve also recently found early evidence of beer from Gobekli Tepe [Laughing].

Jacobsen: [Laughing] it could have been – I don’t know – a cave club.

Roberts: Yes, some kind of beer cult [Laughing].

Jacobsen: Are you worried about the rise of nationalistic problems, xenophobic problems and even threats to human rights in the world right now? Do you think humanism can provide answers?

Roberts: I think a lot of people here in Britain and throughout the world would recognise the phenomenon you’ve described: nationalism, a rising authoritarianism, and a possible reversal of some of the rights revolutions that have happened from the 19th into the 21st centuries.

If this is true, it is immensely worrying. I don’t think many of us would want to go back to a world when particular people in our societies were oppressed. From a humanist perspective, going back to the infallible logic, logic does not recognize a difference between you and me. There should be no difference between you and me: so we should strive for equal rights.

But I think the big elephant in the room is the economic disparity around the world. We’ve come a long way with human rights. But I wonder if – when people will look back on us in, say, 500 years – if we are still here as a species (which I hope we are) – whether they will as relatively still medieval, in terms of our ability to distribute wealth evenly and to give people equal life chances.

If we should be treated equally in terms of the law in an individual country, then you can extend that argument globally. You can say, “We should be striving for equal life chances across the world.” I don’t think that’s even dimly on the horizon, yet.

Having said that, most countries in the world saw an increase in the quality and longevity of life over the 20th century. So we’re heading in the right direction. But we still have a long way to go.

I think that is the business of the immediate future. We should make sure that hard-won rights are not reversed. The first thing to do is to make sure they’re translated into law. Once they are translated into law, it becomes harder to dismantle.

This has always been part of what Humanists UK does. They are constantly lobbying government to make sure that progress on rights are enshrined in law – making sure that same sex marriage is legalised, that weddings for non-religious couples are legalised, for instance.

Jacobsen: In personal life, what role are you most proud of? In professional life, what role have you been most proud of?

Roberts: In my personal life – I think most parents would say this: “my kids.” Becoming a mom, a parent, completely transforms you. I have found it a really amazing journey – and a fulfilling, and satisfying, journey. It is interesting going from being a person in a couple, without children – wondering if you have it in you to be unselfish enough to have children. And then you do – and it certainly makes you less selfish.

You have to change your life, in ways that you cannot even imagine before you have children. And it’s wonderful. They are wonderful. My two are 9 and 6 now.

Professionally, I have been very lucky to receive lots of or various accolades over the years. I feel privileged to the current President of Humanists UK. And this year, I’m also President of the British Science Association.

Ten years ago, I would not have imagined I’d be in these roles today – I feel really humbled and honoured. But in terms of what I’m proudest of, professionally, I think it has to be about my Ph.D.

It went on, and on, and on, and on, and on. I nearly gave up on a few occasions. And I bloody got it! [Laughing]

Jacobsen: What traits do you identify as most valuable in human beings?

Roberts: The two things which I think are fundamental are reason and empathy. You can see that going back into prehistory, from the dawn of our species, even.

I think the empathy comes from being sociable animals. We exist in large groups. There’s good reason to believe that much about the evolution of the large human brain is about sociality.

That is certainly what we see among other animals. The more social animals are, then the bigger the brains. Then I think that what we have seen going through human history, and what we see clearly now, in terms of a kind of moral-ethical approach – is that we are at our best when we cooperate with each other.

When I say, “At our best,” I mean, we have our best chance of improving lives for everybody when we cooperate with each other. That has to be a reasonable aim.

And I think this moves us beyond moral relativism. I think cooperation, which depends on traits like empathy, has been really important throughout human history. Reason, which we see in a problem-solving approach to the world, working out cause and effect, and being able to modify the world around you, by applying reason to problems – provides us with the cognitive tools to overcome real world challenges. I think those two together – reason and empathy – make us the best that we can be.

Jacobsen: Softballs, what book or books are you reading now?

Roberts: I just finished – it was amazing! – Naomi Alderman The Power, which is a bit of a mind-bending book about women developing the power to electrocute people – and how that might change society. I loved the ending. It’s a brilliant book.

I am also reading Pavaliland Cave and the ‘Red Lady’ by Stephen Aldhouse-Green – about the oldest burial in Britain, 30,000 years ago. There is always an academic book on the go at the same time as a novel!

And I am also reading a book to my children as well, written by my very good friend, Janina Ramirez, called Way of the Waves. It’s her second novel for children about a Viking girl who is also a detective, and it’s excellent.

Jacobsen: Last question, for the next generation, even your children when they become adults, what do you want them to know?

Roberts: I want them to know themselves. I want them to be confident that they can approach the world out there and the world of human learning. I want them to know that they can make the world a better place.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Professor Roberts.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-booksfree or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott:

Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular AllianceCentre for Inquiry CanadaKelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.

Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du QuébecAtheist FreethinkersCentral Ontario Humanist AssociationComox Valley HumanistsGrey Bruce HumanistsHalton-Peel Humanist CommunityHamilton HumanistsHumanist Association of LondonHumanist Association of OttawaHumanist Association of TorontoHumanists, Atheists and Agnostics of ManitobaOntario Humanist SocietySecular Connextions SeculaireSecular Humanists in CalgarySociety of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph)Thunder Bay HumanistsToronto OasisVictoria Secular Humanist Association.

Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an AgnostikerAmerican Atheists,American Humanist AssociationAssociação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and AgnosticsAtheist Alliance InternationalAtheist Alliance of AmericaAtheist CentreAtheist Foundation of AustraliaThe Brights MovementCenter for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist IrelandCamp Quest, Inc.Council for Secular HumanismDe Vrije GedachteEuropean Humanist FederationFederation of Indian Rationalist AssociationsFoundation Beyond BeliefFreedom From Religion FoundationHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist InternationalHumanist Association of GermanyHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist Society of ScotlandHumanists UKHumanisterna/Humanists SwedenInternet InfidelsInternational League of Non-Religious and AtheistsJames Randi Educational FoundationLeague of Militant AtheistsMilitary Association of Atheists and FreethinkersNational Secular SocietyRationalist InternationalRecovering From ReligionReligion News ServiceSecular Coalition for AmericaSecular Student AllianceThe Clergy ProjectThe Rational Response SquadThe Satanic TempleThe Sunday AssemblyUnited Coalition of ReasonUnion of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Dave Stevens.

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