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Bogusław Pawłowski: If Chimpanzees Could Speak

We talk with Prof. dr hab. Bogusław Pawłowski, the head of the Chair of Human Biology of the Faculty of Biological Sciences of the University of Wrocław, winner of the 12th edition of the Science Communicator contest, about, among others, a TV show Wedding At First Sight, animal rights, and intelligent design.

Na zdjęciu Bogusław Pawłowski
Fot. Marcin Fajfruk/UWr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Photo by Marcin Fajfruk/UWr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Has the title of the Science Communicator affected your attractiveness? Are you scoring more points with ladies?

(laughs) It isn’t the Oscar nor the Golden Globe. This prize is awarded to individuals and institutions promoting science, which, unfortunately, doesn’t enjoy as wide interest as film or literature. If I were to consider the issue as a theoretician, then yes, various types of awards, appreciation expressed by a given community for outstanding qualities, and awards that come with it can increase a man’s attractiveness to the opposite sex. It’s normal that people with professional or other achievements and talents – artists, scientists, entrepreneurs – are usually considered more attractive potential partners than those who don’t rise above the rest. But in this specific case of course it doesn’t mean..

… you’ve been pestered by female fans?

Yes. Musicians, painters, actors, policitians – they are all public figures. The award ceremony of the Science Communicator was quite modest, brought a limited number of the invited winners and the committee in the building of the Ministry of Science and Higher Education. It wasn’t as publicised as the Entrepreneur of the Year, Telekamery contest or Miss Polonia.

We’ve been waiting for the results since the morning!

(laughs) Of course – the institutions concerned and the nominees wanted to know the results. But it’s nevertheless a fairly low-key event.

As almost everything related to science. But TV appearances – not so much. Can they work as an aphrodisiac?

Probably, when someone makes regular appearances. But this depends to a large extent on the age group, socio-demographic qualities. An actor – especially if he’s single – gets a lot of attention. In my case – scientist of my age, with a stable family – I can count on a little more respect, extra recognition of my skills and knowledge.

Popularity is one of attributes, but can it compensate for the lack of more „classic” measures of attractiveness, such as – let’s say – being tall or smelling pleasantly?

To some extent yes. If someone is popular, we assume he’s been appreciated by some group, is an expert in his field, has some talents (this is not to say that there are no celebrities famous for just being famous). This is the „halo effect” at work. We perceive the person as successful also in other areas of life.

Just as we talk about socio-economic status, we can talk about popularity status, which to many also seems to be an aphrodisiac. As research shows, it has stronger effect on females. Groupies, for example, love musicians and would probably do almost anything for them – they are mostly women. It’s rare to see men pursuing a popular woman. Of course we do have pin-up girls, we have posters of actresses – but to men a picture is enough. They are more drawn to physical attractiveness or smell than status or popularity.

Why have you decided to take part in Wedding At First Sight TV show?

I had my doubts at the beginning. I didn’t know what formula the show would adopt, but I had been assured on several occasions that it would be a documentary and scientific programme. I thought that my knowledge would be able to reach a greater audience than it is normally possible in the case of popular science articles read by a handful of people. Such productions also attract people who don’t read at all and don’t have any idea about various biological processes. The element of science communication – limited, truth be told, but still – concerning my field of expertise was crucial.

Another issue was ethics, one always take it into consideration. But no one was harming the participants. They volunteered, because they’d had problems finding a partner – they needed help. As a scientist I decided that it would be good to test out theories, research results, on real-world couples. We more or less know anyway how couples form in terms of certain qualities. Of course we’ll never be able to predict it with absolute certainty, but there are correlations which we can determine. I reached the conclusion that it would be interesting to verify in practice how they work.

And here’s the third argument: I thought that we might be able to make people happy. The participants couldn’t achieve it on their own, but they were determined – after all, they volunteered for this specific show. I thought: it would be worth to help, it might work.

To become a scientific matchmaker?

You know, my role in the show was the least prominent. As an anthropologist I didn’t even interview those people. I didn’t get to know their thoughts, personality types, temperament, IQ. These aspects should be examined and assessed by other experts on the show. I know, for example, that in Western societies a man is usually taller than a woman. I also know that the level of attractiveness is typically similar in both partners. So I can consider some qualities and on thir basis slightly increase the likelihood of successful matching for long-term relationship. I wouldn’t call it matchmaking, though. I performed a minor morphological examination, analysis of body type – we also checked smell preferences. The rest depended on the psychologist and sexologist.

You’ve mentioned emerging ethical dilemmas. Did you feel responsible for the participants after you’d made the decision to appear on the show?

If romantic love was the most crucial bond determining long-term marital satisfaction, I wouldn’t have taken part in the show. But from the point of view of both present and historical intercultural data it isn’t true. Of course Western societies idealise romantic love – but it doesn’t guarantee relationship stability. If this was the case, then in the societies where this is the main criterion for pairing off there shouldn’t be as many breakups or divorces. Arranged marriages, also – some time ago – in our society, were quite popular, and what’s more important, they worked. I don’t mean of course they were ideal, because they were often  ordeals, particularly where women were mistreated by their husbands.

But if you are doubtful, think that a stable relationship is impossible without love, just take a look around. People pair off on their own, make their own decisions based on, let’s say, the „chemistry of love”. And how many people are single? How many after a month, two, three finds another partner? Why 30 percent of all marriages end up in divorce, and in some countries, even 50 percent? This shows that the mechanism of pairing off based on romantic infatuation doesn’t guarantee a monogamous relationship „till death us do part” at all.

Romantic love is of course important, especially at the beginning. It sometimes is a very strong, emotional, fascinating experience. But is serves mainly one purpose – keeping the partners focused on each other and increasing the intensity of their sexual contacts, thus increasing the likelihood of conception. This fever usually lasts several, maybe more than ten months and rarely longer than 2-3 years. Afterwards this kind of bond becomes less important. I’m afraid there’s no expert that could guarantee the „love chemistry” to work between people. But since it’s not the only bond – and in the case of long-term relationships not even the most essential – we aren’t doomed to fail in the experiment and make people suffer for nothing. As I said, the participants were not successful in relationships. Since they themselves were making poor choices, it’s easy to see why they decided to trust the experts. But we were faced with a huge problem. Because who signs up for the show?


Yes, but being single itself wasn’t a problem in this socialexperiment, rather a prerequisite. The problem was the fact that the participants were people who for some reason weren’t able to stay in a long-term relationship, therefore people who either have exaggerated expectations about potential partners or are for some reason unattractive to the opposite sex. For example, if we have women with high expectations and men who are not particularly popular with ladies, there’s an enormous gap. The task of the experts – I know this after the first edition of the show – is indeed extremely difficult.

Do you think the experiment was successful? Can it even be evaluated in such terms?

I was constantly repeating – I think the other experts agreed with me – that if even one couple lasted, that’s success. Given that we had a very limited group of people to select from, from today’s perspective I think it was an almost impossible task. A strictly scientific experiment of this kind would be right if we had a randomly selected group of 100 young men and similarly sized group of randomly selected young women. The probability of matching three couples with relatively good prospects for success would be high. But of course it’s impossible to conduct such experiment with randomly selected participants in the show.

Wedding At First Sight is not the first project you’ve participated in that caused controversy. It’s almost your trademark, because you often address issues such as polygamy, homosexuality or atheism, as recently, in „To Stir Up a Hornet’s Nest” lecture cycle in the Institute of Psychology. Does controversy make it easier to get potential audience interested? Is it purposeful?

Why are these issues controversial?

I don’t fully understand it, but they are.

They are controversial, because they concern human behaviours, preferences, and interpersonal relations, and these have many social and cultural taboos which not always take into consideration biological mechanisms of human nature. Even more than Homo sapiens we are Homo societas. Interactions are very important to us, no matter their context, which can be sexuality, co-operation, altruism etc. We don’t know much about the biology of these issues. Sometimes we even mask it in order to produce a specific social, cultural or ideological effect. For this reason any biologist talking about such matters from the evolutionary point of view will stir up controversy.

But the 21st century is the century of biology, just as the 20th century belonged to physics. Biologists delve deeper and deeper into human behaviour and its social aspects, that is the area not so long ago dominated by social and humanistic sciences. Evolutionary biology, human genetics or neurobiology play an increasingly important role in deciphering human nature. Biologists, for example, show us that what happens here and now in our population is only one possible variant of human behaviour or preferences, that certain mechanisms responsible for human behaviour were developed in our evolutionary past, and culture is only a kind of „cover”. This point of view provokes the resistance of people who claim that human behaviour is influenced solely by upringing. Well, journalists are interested precisely in such thought-provoking subjects and that’s why they ask me questions related to controversial topics. So it’s not me who brings them up. I talk about them, because there’s social demand. Sometimes, when I’m bothered by comments far from scientific truth – and they can concern the basis of sexual orientation or the recent remark of one of the bishops about the likelihood of conception after rape – I try to respond.

Another topic you address are animal rights. Many don’t like comparing humans to other animals. Is this still a taboo?

Oh yes! The key is”to other animals”. In Poland it is usually said „man” and „animals” – just as if humans were not a subgroup of the latter category. It’s not only sad, but when considering the level of the exploitation of our planet – also harmful. In our Judeo-Christian civilisation anthropocentrism is very blatant. „Fill the earth and subdue it”. „Man is the measure of all things”.We treat the planet, biosphere around us as a tool to serve us, because ideology says so. This is something to dislike, not the fact that humans are animals too! A bit of specifical humility would do us good. I speak out on these issues as well. Discussing processes related to religion, reflecting on why humans are religious, why many people become fanatics – I’m interested in such topics, because it’s one of the important aspects of human behaviour.

You’re talking to an atheist, vegan, and general renegade…


… who likes to listen to a scientist talking openly about such things. Contrary to what one might expect, not all academics have open minds.

Some do, some don’t. In the popular science book „Nagi umysł” [„Naked Mind”] (co-authored by Tomasz Ulanowski – editorial note) I devoted an entire chapter to religiosity. I write, among others, about how chimps would be religious too if they could speak.

There already are first studies which confirm this.

Manifestations of symbolic acts have been reported, true.

After last year’s premiere of the book journalist Terlikowski called me names in Fronda magazine. But this probably had opposite effect. Some say that if Terlikowski offended you, you must have said something interesting. His criticism can be a good advertisement (laughs).

Just as you’re not afraid of controversial subjects, ignored by some scientists, you don’t hesitate to make media appearances. You have given interviews to, among others, Playboy and CKM.  

You know, people working at public universities are given public money, carry out reseach thanks to taxpayers’ funds, are obliged to provide information. When journalists call and ask questions I can answer, I don’t understand why I should avoid them. We’re not a closed corporation living on its own resources and able to do whatever it wants. Of course, there are media outlets in which I wouldn’t like to appear for some reasons – but luckily they haven’t called yet.

I’m baffled by some scientists. They should communicate knowledge – but don’t. To me that’s shocking. If a scholar during a few years of work, having his research results ready, doesn’t create at least one popular science project, he should be given penalty points.

What do you, evolutionary scientist, think about the reverse trend: ignoring scientific discoveries and promoting at schools – not only in America, because we’ve had a sample of this here as well – „alternative theories”, such as intelligent design?

I was a member of the Committee on Evolutionary and Theoretical Biology PAS, now of the Committee on Environmental and Evolutionary Biology – and I must admit that my colleagues and I are concerned. This trend is still on in the United States. It’s not as prominent in Europe, but is slowly gaining momentum.

We’ve always been somewhat suspicious about „uneducated” American society when we’ve heard that more than 50 percent of Americans think that primitive humans lived in the era of dinosaurs, and 50 to 60 percent don’t believe in evolution at all – as we know, it’s not a matter of faith but a fact (one can argue only about the mechanisms of evolution, but can’t deny its existence). But recent surveys in Poland show that the situation is not much better here. It’s surely a matter of universal education, but academics who lock themselves shut in their little scientific worlds are partly to blame.

What’s interesting – you’ve touched on the subject before: ironically, individuals negating evolution manifest more evolutionary behaviours.

I’d rather say: they act according to biological priorities, so they increase their biological fitness. For example, they have more children and care less about their comfort in life. If such trend continues, we can expect different distribution of certain personality traits in our population. Of course it won’t happen in 5-10 years, but on the scale of several generations the shape of certain societies can change. I wouldn’t like to steer towards politics too much, but we do have a problem of democracy – changes I mentioned will be reflected in social choices. The average IQ in some Western socities is probably slowly getting lower. Studies carried out on the basis of several decades worth of data in Iceland show that people don’t want to educate themselves as much as before. Sense of curiosity about the world is diminishing, along with scientific understanding of the mechanisms that govern it.

In the book Naked Mind mentioned above you address, among others, aggression and violence. Many of us imagine that we live in a civilised, developed world, in the 21st century, full of incredible technological advancements. But it turns out – it’s been also clear in Poland in recent months and years – that it’s very easy to provoke aggression. It seems like violence is getting stronger. Why?

Aggression is, as Konrad Lorenz beautifully wrote in his book, the so-called evil. It’s an indispensable attribute of many living organisms, which often must fight for what’s theirs. It’s an element of survival. Organisms devoid of aggression won’t fight for sustenance in a critical situation, won’t fight for their offspring, partner – they’re doomed. Of course the intensity of violence in a situation where there’s no need for it can be pathological, and such cases do happen – let’s hope as rarely as possible.

Don’t you have the impression that politicians – just recently, not only in our country – take advantage of the ease of provoking aggression?

I’m not convinced any politician has such intentions.

It can be observed in their very emotional comments.

Exactly! Emotional! I have the impression, or at least hope, that no politician wants to increase the level of aggression. No – they openly, maybe accidentally, express their views about certain issues and just as in the case of any man in emotional state, they sometimes express themselves in less than diplomatic ways, especially if it happens when they’re among like-minded people.

But it’s true that it’s easy to get the impression that the general level of aggression is increasing. What the media talk about? Not about 100 000 people living in peace, but about that one rape, murder or five cases of assault. We immediately think the world is evil. But no one measures the proportions. If one did, it would turn out that the world is now much safer than before. I laugh when various people are raising alarm – politicians, members of clergy saying: „The apocalypse is coming the way things are with humanity!”. They have no idea how humanity acted in not so distant historical past. How people were dying, killing each other. Our living conditions are almost like in a paradise! Of course I ignore here the issue of pollution.

The recently published results of the experiment you conducted in co-operation with Wojciech Małecki, literature theoretician, and Piotr Sorokowski, psychologist, show that  the feelings provoked by a literary description – in this case a fragment of Marek Krajewski’s prose about abusing a circus monkey – can change our worldview. Is it a proof that it’s worth to present knowledge in accessible and emotionally engaging way?

We only confirmed scientifically the operation of a mechanism which have been known for years. All literary forms change attitudes, because they allow us to look at various phenomena, situations from a different perspective. Reading is not only a tool to attain knowledge. It enriches our experiences, increases empathy, fosters awareness, and thus – at least in theory – allows us to function better.

In this case the issue we studied was attitude towards animals, which in our Judeo-Christian cultural sphere are treated like objects. But they have their emotions, feelings, experience pain the same way as we do – there’s more and more data on that. During the experiment we discovered that the narrative, a short paragraph about animal cruelty, worked. Of course we don’t have any guarantee that the attitudes of the participants are changed for good, but there will be something left in them.

Literary narrative seems to be more effective than the traditional way of passing knowledge favoured by scientists. It works better than a lecture of a professor trying to persuade people that animals need – for example – greater living space, because when they don’t have enough of it, they suffer as we do. That’s why in communicating science it’s sometimes worth it to start by provoking emotions, and then provide detailed information.

Interview by Michał Raińczuk

Main photo by Humphrey King/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

The article above may be copied and distributed under CC BY 2.0. licence.

Bogusław Pawłowski Is the Science Communicator of 2016

Prof dr hab. Bogusław Pawłowski, the head of the Chair of Human Biology of the Faculty of Biological Sciences of the University of Wrocław, has won the 12th edition of the Science Communicator contest. This prestigious competition was organised by Polish Press Agency – Science in Poland and the Ministry of Science and Higher Education. It rewards individuals or institutions which „help others to understand the world better and draw attention to scientific achievements”. Beginning with this year, there are five categories: scientist, animator, team, institution, and media. The previous winners include, among others, co-creator of Warsaw Science Festival, Prof. Magdalena Fikus, Copernicus Science Centre, natural philosopher Rev. Prof. Michał Heller, author of popular science TV shows Wiktor Niedzicki, and archaeologist Prof. Andrzej Kokowski. According to PPA – Science in Poland: „Bogusław Pawłowski specialises mainly in human evolution, with emphasis put on biological mechanisms of human behaviour, evolutionary psychology, and human behavioural ecology. This means that his studies include not only human evolution but virtually every aspect of our behaviour, psychology, and social life. It can be said that Prof. Pawłowski is a veteran of science communication. He gives scientific interviews (also to foreign press, such as New Scientist, Die Weltwoche, Sunday Time, L’Unione Sarda) and writes popular science articles. He publishes both in science-oriented press (such as Wiedza i Życie, Focus or National Geographic) and popular magazines such as Dziecko or Twój Styl”.


Published by: Małgorzata Jurkiewicz

28 Jul 2017

last modification: 28 Jul 2017