David Quammen — The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life

On this episode of The Polymath Project Podcast, I speak with the author and journalist David Quammen about his latest book, The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life. The book explores how recent discoveries in genome sequencing are transforming our view of evolutionary theory and the history of life.

David is the author of over a dozen books, including Spillover, a 2014 book on the science, history, and human implications of emerging diseases. The book was short-listed for eight national and international awards and won three of them.

Some topics we cover:

  • Why “the tangled tree” is a much more suitable metaphor than the “tree of life” for talking about evolutionary history
  • Wild adventures David went on to write his past books and why this one was a little different
  • How the discovery of horizontal gene transfer is changing human identity and what this means for our future
  • David’s personal encounters with the scientists mentioned in the books
  • The “human” side of science, which is filled with jealousy, compassion, pride, desire, and excitement and all kinds of emotion you might not expect

We also cover a lot more than that, so check out the podcast and enjoy!

How to Listen

Resources & Links

Some of the scientists mentioned on the podcast:

This episode of the podcast was brought to you by audible. Visit audibletrial.com/polymath to get a free audiobook copy of David’s book (or any other book) and a free 30-day trial of audible’s services.

Inside the Mind of a Professional Artist: A Conversation with Damian Stamer [#8]

“It was the first time in school that I wanted to go home and continue working on [my art]… It was never like work to me.”

On this episode of The Polymath Project Podcast, I speak with the professional painter Damian Stamer. Damian’s work has been featured in solo exhibitions all over the world— including Berlin, New York, and his home state of North Carolina.

Damian is very different from the your stereotypical Hollywood artist. He’s both incredibly hard-working and incredibly humble.

Some topics we cover:

  • Damian’s creative process, and how it’s evolved over the years
  • Damian’s identical twin brother Dillan and how their life paths differed
  • How different cultures appreciate Damian’s art differently
  • The importance of early life experiences and parental support
  • Some surprising parallels between art and finance
  • Whether or not art is democratic

We also cover a lot more than that, so check out the podcast and enjoy!

How to Listen


Resources & Links

This episode of the podcast was brought to you by audible. Visit audibletrial.com/polymath to get a free audiobook of your choice and a free 30-day trial of audible’s services.

Books mentioned:

Other bits n’ ends:

  • Artists that Damian mentioned: Neo Rauch, Matthias Weischer, Cecily Brown, Dana Schutz, Basquiat, DeKooning, Rauschenberg, Adrian Ghenie
  • Morning Pages

I Was Wrong — The ‘Greatest in the World Fallacy’ and How I Made It

In the two years since I started writing, hundreds of thousands of people have read my essays. Along the way, I made a lot of errors. And I’m sure I’ll make many more.

There’s one particular mistake I made a lot that I feel guilty about. Recently, I’ve been calling it the “greatest in the world fallacy”.

How to Sell A Lot of Books

Here’s one version of the greatest in the world fallacy that I see everywhere:

“To be the best in the world, study the best in the world and do what they do.”

For a long time, I was convinced this was true.

To be a successful investor, I thought you could read books by Warren Buffett or George Soros and emulate them. To be an elite basketball player, I thought you could spend nights and weekends watching footage of Lebron James or Kobe Bryant and train like they train.

Or—as many self-help books claim—I thought you could be successful by imitating the routines of the best in the world:

Book sales and headlines don’t lie—people love this stuff. There’s a powerful belief that, if you study the best in the world and imitate them, you can become like them.

So far, it seems pretty convincing. So what’s wrong with it?

50 Cups of Coffee to Overnight Success: Signal or Noise?

The first problem is noise. People do many things, and it’s never easy to separate causation from mere correlation.

Balzac, the French novelist and playwright, was known for his maniacal writing habits. He drank somewhere from 30-50 cups of coffee a day, and it was not uncommon for him to write for 15+ hours in a single session.

I drink 1-2 cups of coffee a day. If I 20x my coffee consumption will I be able to write like good ‘ol Balzac? Of course not. Likewise, Warren Buffett eats McDonalds hamburgers and drinks Coca Cola. Does that mean I should eat like him to invest like him? Again, of course not.

The above two examples were silly, so it’s pretty easy to write them off. It’s not always so easy.

Things like morning meditation, whey protein shakes to boost mental clarity, self-hypnosis, shiatsu massage, and free-association journaling all sound like they could be useful.

But a lot of things like astrology and tarot card reading that we know are bunk now sounded really good in the past. Just because something sounds like it works doesn’t necessarily mean that it does work.

It’s not so easy to sift the signal from the noise.

But all Tom Brady’s friends are doing it!


“Sure,” you might say, “some of that stuff may be useless. But, if everyone successful is doing something, then you can be more confident that it works.”

But is this true? If all people who get into Harvard read the same books, does it mean reading those books will help you get into Harvard? And if all NFL athletes train in a certain way, does that mean training like them will get you into the NFL?

I don’t think so.

The argument from ‘everybody is doing it’ is something we talked about on my podcast with the strength coach and legend Mark Rippetoe. During our talk, Mark gave two counter-examples to the ‘everybody is doing it’ argument.

First, functional Training. Elite NFL teams spend millions of dollars to put their athletes through functional training, which involves fancy movements and tools that look something like this :

The full article by Mark is great, but here’s an excerpt:

The primary problem with “Functional Training” is that it attempts to improve physical characteristics which are unresponsive to submaximal stimulation, like 5-pound dumbbells and medicine ball cleans. The explosive ability of high-level athletes is a neuromuscular characteristic that is part of their genetic endowment. It’s like red hair – you either have it or you don’t, and all the dye in the world cannot change this fact, even though you may fool the people at Walmart.

“Functional Training” confuses the display of athletic ability with its development.

In other words, the problem with functional training is that it tries to train things that can’t be changed.

As Mark pointed out in the podcast, no amount of training is going to take your vertical jump from 18 inches to 36 inches. That stuff is genetic, and—unless you find a way to make up for this severe deficit in other ways—you’re not getting into the NFL.

So there are all these elite teams out there spending millions of dollars on stuff that doesn’t work. Oops.

The second example is floor pulls. Many elite Olympic weightlifters pull the bar from the floor in demonstrably inefficient ways. At weekend seminars, Mark and his team are often able to add several inches to the bar height of already elite lifters!

So, when studying  the best in the world, it’s important to ask, “Are elite lifters succeeding because of what they do or despite what they do?” It’s not always clear, and it’s not good to accept what they do as the ultimate truth.

Another question to ask is “Is this person’s success due to luck or skill?”.

Even mediocre poker players and investors can “win” because of luck. And if you’ve got good genetics—another form of luck—you can get away with a lot of stuff ordinary folks cannot.

Humans are not Model Ts

Another lesson from the above is that—big surprise!—people are different.

Humans are not blank slates. We have different personalities, different strengths and weaknesses. You can’t run the same ‘success formula’ through each of us like you can run an algorithm through a computer. Sadly, most of the world still seems to think you can.

Tom Brady’s training program isn’t going to work for me. Why? Because I’m not Tom Brady. I don’t have his reaction speed, his proprioceptive awareness, or his ability to recover from training.

Most of us are—by definition—closer to the average, and what works for the exceptional doesn’t always work for the ordinary. If everyone at your local YMCA had to train like a Navy SEAL, most of them would be in the hospital before dinnertime.

This one-size-fits-all, do-what-others-do kind of thinking is naive, but it seems to be everywhere, even in the scientific literature.

Take education, for example. In school, I was able to get A’s without studying. Yet, I looked down on other kids and blamed them for their bad grades, saying, “They get bad grades because they aren’t working hard enough.”

In retrospect, that was both dishonest and egoistical of me. I didn’t work hard at all: Most of my time in school was spent playing video games. My grades were due to talent, and I don’t deserve praise for that.

Another example is parenting advice. The Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has been pointing out for over a decade now that much of parenting advice is BS (or at least severely misguided).

Like people selling functional training, people selling parenting advice regularly mistake luck (genetics) for skill (parenting).

Here’s Pinker in an interview for Edge:

Hundreds of studies have measured correlations between the practices of parents and the way their children turn out. For example, parents who talk a lot to their children have kids with better language skills, parents who spank have children who grow up to be violent, parents who are neither too authoritarian or too lenient have children who are well-adjusted, and so on. Most of the parenting expert industry and a lot of government policy turn these correlations into advice to parents, and blame the parents when children don’t turn out as they would have liked. [Charles: This is just like how I blamed my peers for not working hard enough!] But correlation does not imply causation.

Parents provide their children with genes as well as an environment, so the fact that talkative parents have kids with good language skills could simply mean that and that the same genes that make parents talkative make children articulate. Until those studies are replicated with adopted children, who don’t get their genes from the people who bring them up, we don’t know whether the correlations reflect the effects of parenting, the effects of shared genes, or some mixture. But in most cases even the possibility that the correlations reflect shared genes is taboo. In developmental psychology it’s considered impolite even to mention it, let alone test it.

If you want to be a better parent, it’s not enough study the parents with the ‘best’ children and copy their parenting methods. Why? Because a big part of how those kids turned out has nothing to do with parenting.

If you want to do a good job of parenting or educating or athletic training, you have to separate what actually works from what looks like it works.

Likewise, you shouldn’t look at the kids who get into Harvard or Princeton and apply their study methods. Why? For the same reasons: A big part of getting into top-tier schools is SAT scores. SAT scores are a glorified IQ test, and much of IQ is genetic.

A good education program should make everybody better, not simply help the kids who are already good at taking tests succeed.

So what’s my point?

Okay, there were enough taboo topics in this essay to offend 90% of my readership, so it’s a miracle if you’re still here reading. Thanks.

To recap, here are the problems with the “greatest in the world fallacy”:

  • It fails to separate correlation from causation. Warren Buffett (I hope) brushes his teeth each morning. That doesn’t mean tooth-brushing is going to make you into a world class investor. Zuckerberg wears the same t-shirt everyday, but would he really be a worse CEO if he didn’t?

  • What works for genetic freaks may not work for you. The best in the world aren’t the best solely because of what they do. They’re also the best because of what they are (genetics). Just because Navy SEALs can train 8 days a week and slap away shotgun blasts doesn’t mean you can too. Ask, “Are they the best because of what they do or despite what they do?”

  • Just because the best do something doesn’t mean it’s the best way of doing it. If all we did was emulate the best, we’d still be battling mammoths with sharp wooden sticks. History is young, and there’s a lot of room to think, criticize, reflect and improve.

If you think about it, “do what the best do” is another form of argument from authority. If we always took the “greatest in the world” for granted, we’d still be living in caves, gnawing on roots and tubers.

And we’d still be high-jumping like this:

I used to think you could study the best and emulate them to get their results. I am no longer so naive. We can learn from these people, but it’s an error to blindly worship what they do.

Instead of worshipping our heroes, let’s submit their ideas to the best criticism we can muster. Only then can we separate signal from noise, correlation from causation, and what works from what doesn’t.

Thank you for reading.

Barbara Oakley on Learning How to Learn, Improving Education, and Making the World’s Biggest Online Course [#7]

Barbara Oakley runs Coursera’s Learning How to Learn course, which has had over 2.3 million students. It’s the world’s largest MOOC (Massively Online Open Course), but the whole thing started in the basement of her suburban home!

Barb has traveled all over the world, served in the military, and done original research in multiple fields. She’s also the bestselling author of 8 books, and she joins me to talk about her latest book, Learning How to Learn.

Some topics we cover:

  • How Barb started the course in the basement of her home
  • Barb’s travels all over the world
  • Some common myths about learning/education
  • Why “getting focused” isn’t everything
  • What the US can learn about education from other cultures like Germany or China
  • The special qualities of “learning how to learn-ers”

We also cover a lot more than that, so check out the podcast and enjoy!

How to Listen


Resources & Links

This episode of the podcast was brought to you by audible. Visit audibletrial.com/polymath to get a free audiobook of your choice and a free 30-day trial of audible’s services.

Other books:

Other links:

Mark Rippetoe on BS Science, Intellectual Courage, and How to Think for Yourself

If you lift weights, you probably already know who Mark Rippetoe is. He’s a legend in the world of strength training. Mark is known for his no-BS approach to making people strong, and his book Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training has sold nearly a million copies.

With that said, this isn’t a podcast about strength training. It isn’t even a podcast about health and wellness. So why did I invite Mark?

Well, it turns out that Mark has a lot to say about subjects that go far beyond strength training. He’s been a vocal critic of the “scientific literature” that’s coming out of the universities, and he’s not a fan of government health & wellness advice either.

Just a taste of what we talk about:

  • The “greatest in the world fallacy”
  • How Mark uses common sense and logic to deal with arguments from authority
  • Why getting strong gets more and more important as you age
  • Why Mark and his team don’t care about aesthetics
  • How to set up your life for intellectual honesty
  • How Mark was wrong in the past and how he has changed his mind
  • The difference between science and scientism

And much more. Enjoy!

How to Listen


Links & Resources

See Starting Strength website, discussion board, articles