Telephone interview, October 2022
“I got this call from Sweden and I of course thought it had something to do with our little summer house in Sweden”
Telephone interview with Svante Pääbo following the announcement of the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on 3 October 2022. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Prize Outreach.
In this conversation recorded just after he had heard news of the award of his Nobel Prize, Svante Pääbo reflects on our relationship to extinct species of early hominins and how his exploration of their genetics might influence our view of ourselves and our place in nature. He also discusses what gave him the confidence to undertake the decades-long search and the influence of his mother and Nobel Prize laureate father, Sune Bergström. He tells Adam Smith that having a laureate father taught him an important lesson: “Such people are normal human beings.”
Svante Pääbo: Hello, Svante.
Adam Smith: Hello, this is Adam Smith.
SP: Ah, hi, hi. I was warned that you would call.
AS: Well, many, many congratulations on the news.
SP: Thank you.
AS: You sound remarkably calm and collected.
SP: [Laughs] Oh, well, I’ve discussed it with my wife at length already, I must admit.
AS: It sounds like your wife is a calming influence.
SP: Yes, certainly, she is.
AS: How did you receive the news?
SP: So I was just gulping down the last cup of tea to go and pick up my daughter at her nanny where she has had an overnight stay, and then I got this call from Sweden and I of course thought it had something to do with our little summer house in Sweden. I thought ‘oh the lawn mower’s broken down or something’.
AS: Did you manage to get to collect your daughter?
SP: I am going now actually.
AS: I gather today is a holiday in Germany.
SP: Yes, it’s a day of German unification, so it is very calm here, everything is closed.
AS: That’s… that’s a peculiar day in a way to receive the news because otherwise you would have been at the institute, and you would have been surrounded by masses of people I suppose, popping champagne. But as it is you can perhaps have a quieter introduction to life as a laureate than most.
SP: Yes, yes. And I can go out and buy some champagne when the shops open tomorrow morning, and come well equipped to the institute.
AS: I can’t imagine that celebrations would really be delayed by 24 hours though, I’m sure they’ll be… It’s… I remember when we were together in Stockholm in 2012 for that Nobel Week Dialogue on genetics, and then you were sitting at the Nobel banquet the next day, and I guess maybe you’ve been to the Nobel banquet before. I just wondered whether sitting at the banquet you’d ever imagined yourself being the recipient of the Prize?
SP: No, really not. I sort of… No, I have received a couple of prizes before, but I somehow did not think that this really would be… qualify for a Nobel Prize.
AS: Your work is of course on the sequencing of these early hominins. What does our knowledge, your knowledge of the genetic makeup of those species tell us about our relationship with them.
SP: Well, it does tell us that we are very closely related, first of all, and we’re actually so closely related that they have contributed quite directly, 50, 60 thousand years ago, DNA to the ancestors of most people today, those who have their routes outside Africa. And that variation that, sort of, those variants do have an influence, and influence many things in our physiology today.
AS: Do you think that changes our view of ourselves, knowing that?
SP: In some sense, I do think it does so, the sort of realisation that until quite recently, maybe 14 hundred generations or so ago there were other forms of humans around and they mixed with our ancestors and have contributed to us today. The fact that the last 40 thousand years is quite unique in human history, in that we are the only form of humans around. Until that time, there were almost always other types of humans that existed.
AS: That should change our view of our place in the world, shouldn’t it.
SP: Yes, I think so. I mean sometimes I think it’s interesting to think about if Neanderthals had survived another 40 thousand years, how would that influence us? Would we see even worse racism against Neanderthals, because they were really in some sense different from us? Or would we actually see our place in the living world quite in a different way when we would have other forms of humans there that are very like us but still different. We wouldn’t make this very clear distinction between animals and humans that we do so easily today.
AS: The press release uses the word ‘seemingly-impossible’ for the task you undertook. I was wondering what gave…
SP: Oh really? Okay. [Laughs]
AS: I was wondering what gave you the confidence, the courage to undertake a seemingly-impossible piece of research?
SP: Well, it is of course a step-by-step process that started back in the 80s. I was struggling to retrieve a little bit of DNA from things that were just a few … starting with just dried tissues that, you know, that were just a few months old, going back in time and struggling with the technological issues with that over a decade. And then it became possible to retrieve DNA from things like the mammoths or cave bears that lived at a similar time as the Neanderthals. And then I was very lucky to get a job in Germany, where of course Neanderthals is a big presence in our, in the imagination of people, so it was then very, an obvious next step, in a way, to try to do that.
AS: You make it all sound very logical, but I think there’s an understatement there. You of course have a Nobel laureate lineage, and your father was a Nobel laureate. Does that make a difference to you, in receiving the Prize?
SP: To some extent I’m sure, yes it does. I mean, I think the biggest influence in my life was for sure my mother, with whom I grew up. And in some sense it makes me a bit sad that she can’t experience this day. She sort of was very much into science, and very much stimulated and encouraged me through the years. My father I did have some contact to and he took a big interest in my work, but it was not that close a relationship as with my mother.
AS: I was just wondering whether there’s some sense in which Sune Bergström or maybe other laureates or great scientists had given you, again, that sort of approach, that confidence or had helped you acquire the confidence to undertake such major challenges?
SP: Maybe also the realisation a bit that one have less… or realise that also such people are normal human beings, and it’s not such an amazing thing, that you may have bigger confidence to try, sort of, challenging things yourself.
AS: That is indeed a very important point, a very important lesson, yes. People are inclined to put everybody on pedestals, but of course…
SP: Yes, and you don’t put your parents on a pedestal, at least not when you’re a teenager.
AS: Ah, tell me about it! I should let you go and pick up your daughter and get on and enjoy your, what seems to be looking like a relatively quiet day, but…
SP: Yes, I think it may be quite good that it is a holiday today, so I can collect my wits till tomorrow.
AS: You sound like you have all your wits about you in a quite remarkable way. Anyway, it’s been an absolute joy to speak to you, and congratulations again. Have a splendid day, and thank you.
SP: Thanks, yeah, bye bye.
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