Dr. Liat Ben David on homo sapiens’ secrets of success - interview

Science and animals are Ben David's missions in life.

 DR. LIAT BEN DAVID offering a banana to an indri lemur in Madagascar. (photo credit: DAVID BEN DAVID)
DR. LIAT BEN DAVID offering a banana to an indri lemur in Madagascar.
(photo credit: DAVID BEN DAVID)

The cover of the astute, 225-page book The Story of Our Lives – Homo sapiens’ Secrets of Success shows a human hand extended toward the furry hand of a monkey – a commonly used symbol for evolution.

The author, Dr. Liat Ben David, is certainly an enthusiastic believer in evolution, which asserts that over millions of years plant, animal, hominid and human species underwent a process of change and advancement. But it also illustrates the fact that she has actually touched and marveled at various animals around the globe. 

“I agree with evolution because it’s based on scientific evidence. If there is convincing evidence tomorrow that disproves it, we will change our theory.”

For the last five years serving as CEO of the Davidson Institute of Science Education at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, the 62-year-old Ph.D. in molecular biology has visited animals in dozens of sites from Antarctica’s Georgia Island to the Galapagos Islands west of Ecuador; from Uganda to Guatemala; Cambodia to Morocco; Jordan to Egypt; Madagascar to Botswana; Kenya to the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic Ocean; China to Portugal; Thailand to Ethiopia; and England to Vietnam.

“I agree with evolution because it’s based on scientific evidence. If there is convincing evidence tomorrow that disproves it, we will change our theory.”

Dr. Liat Ben David

Her husband, David, who has a computer software company, often accompanies her as an amateur but skillful photographer, capturing scenes of the species that are included in the back of the book to illustrate her discoveries.

Dr. Liat Ben David (credit: DAVID BEN DAVID)Dr. Liat Ben David (credit: DAVID BEN DAVID)

“The primate hand was a golden monkey in a jungle that extended his to mine in Uganda. I wasn’t afraid. We go wherever there is nature,” she explained. “I feel very blessed that I can visit animals. If I were one, I’d be an Arctic tern, a gorgeous white bird with a red beak.”

Among the scenes from her travels that she includes in the book and in her husband’s many photos are an albatross courtship dance; the birth of a sea lion cub near the South Pole; bachelor giraffes necking in Botswana; nests of African weaver birds in Uganda; dolphins playing and tortoises “kissing” on the Galapagos Islands; elephants mourning one killed by a lion in Africa; sifaka lemurs playing in Madagascar; and baboons sliding on a solar panel in Uganda.

From 2011 to 2017, Ben David was CEO of the Wolf Foundation, awarding the internationally acclaimed Wolf Prize, which recognizes excellent scientists and artists worldwide and is regarded as second only to the Nobel Prize. She also lectures and teaches regularly in various fields, including academia and TEDx mini-lectures. She is an accomplished author who has published numerous articles and books, fiction and non-fiction alike, in Hebrew and English.

“Today we are a restless, world-changing species, the only organism to combine a multitude of abilities to harness the rules of nature – continuously manipulating our environment, resources and even our bodies to fit our ever-changing needs and desires,” she enthused. “What is it that enables us to share 99% of DNA as well as some basic behaviors with other organisms, yet at the same time be so different and powerful?”

Weaving personal stories with professional experience, she presents in her book innovative definitions of technology, education, science and their co-dependence, emphasizes their roles in the development of human societies, deliberates their implications on everyday life, discusses the crucial role of science education and offers a fresh look at who we are as the leading species on this planet.

I read the volume (aimed at audiences from age 15 and up and published by World Scientific, $28 softcover, $48 hardcover) twice and then interviewed her before she and David left for another far-off destination to visit unusual animals. Although not writing specifically for an Israeli or even Jewish audience, she mentions stories from the Bible and explains various Jewish holidays.

Ben David's biography

A fourth-generation Sabra, Ben David comes from a family whose mother’s side was part of the First Aliyah in1881 and established Zichron Ya’acov. Her father’s family arrived from Ukraine in the 1920s. She grew up in the US from the age of two when her father went to earn a Ph.D. in industrial engineering when there was no such degree in Israel, thus becoming fluent in English with a natural American accent. She lived in the US until the end of third grade, and then returned home.

After earning her doctorate in molecular biology at the Weizmann Institute, she taught a 10th grade science class. After introducing herself and mentioning her advanced education, one of the 25 pupils exclaimed: “What is someone like you doing here?” hinting that she was overqualified and that “ordinary” school children like him were not worthy of well-educated teachers.

One very relevant chapter, “The Fifth Freedom,” focuses on the weak points of Israeli schools and the fact that when she returned to her own Israeli elementary school, she noticed that hardly anything, including educational techniques, had changed.

A mother of three, she is a grandmother of five (including two made possible by in-vitro fertilization, whom she boasts about in the book and even shows as embryos on page 221).

“Almost everywhere, be it a metropolis like Manhattan or a remote mountain village in Thailand, school structures have the same features. Classrooms look the same, their goal is mostly knowledge transfer and the means to do it are similar. Rows or aggregates of tables and chairs, a place for the teacher – almost always a woman – and a device considered as a crucial knowledge transfer vehicle, such as a blackboard and chalk or, in more ‘advanced’ settings, a white board and a marketer or even in more ‘updated’ settings, a screen and a keyboard.”

Ben David has more than 30 years of experience in the field of STEM (science, engineering, technology and mathematics) and regularly teaches in various spheres – including the establishment of knowledge and learning centers, curriculum development and implementation and leadership development both in Israel and the US. 

“I made it a point of establishing Davidson as the educational arm of Weizmann – a beacon of science literacy and excellence for everyone.”

In the 1990s, she was one of the leaders of the elementary-school science and technology curriculum, a program that deals with the teaching of science and technology with a humanistic-social approach. From this program, the National Center for Middle School Science and Technology Teachers was later established. Ben David has developed 19 textbooks for pupils and teachers on various subjects including health, reproduction, nutrition, astronomy, industry and educational approaches. She also wrote two children’s books and a novel for adults.

The Davidson Institute is a nongovernmental organization on Weizmann’s Rehovot campus, with 210 employees, including staffers in a full science communications department. It was established with funds from the William Davidson Foundation in Detroit and spreads science all over Israel.

“We do a lot in the periphery. We are strong in the field of hybrid learning, with Internet and trips outdoors integrated with classroom teaching. We try to work with the Education Ministry and the Council of Higher Education, [which] give us some money for specific programs. We aim at closing social gaps with activities that have proven to be effective. 

“Using the Geffen System for eight years already, we provide services to schools that don’t have teachers in chemistry and other subjects. In the southern town of Ofakim, high school graduates who excel in science are offered a full year at Davidson to study a higher level of science and then teach it in their hometown.”

Her institute is working on a huge educational program about climate change. 

“There is no doubt that the world climate is changing and that we are responsible for the fast pace and level of change,” she declared.

Two-thirds of all Weizmann Institute labs are involved in Davidson. 

“Spreading science is our mission in life. We do everything in Hebrew and Arabic, some in English, but not in Russian or Amharic, as the young people in these communities speak Hebrew. We also have an outdoor science museum.”

Ben David is in touch with the heads of the other three Israeli science museums. 

“Ours opened two decades ago and focused mostly on physics, but we wanted to create something new, improved and multidisciplinary, with donations from the Clore Foundation in the UK.”

Science denial – which was widespread with the COVID-19 pandemic, the release of protective vaccines and the fake news promoted by deniers on social media, “has been with us for centuries. Knowledge is much more accessible thanks to the Internet. The Davidson Institute website had three million page views in the year before the pandemic, and now it has reached 10 million. Two weeks after COVID began, we ran a campaign for those in lockdowns and stuck at home, using games, riddles and courses. The response was overwhelming in all age groups.

“But in the past half century, researchers have seen not just science denial but science abuse. People take science methodologies and distort them to argue that ‘your science is proving my point.’”

Science, she continued, “is about asking questions. We’ve changed some of our answers, not because science made a terrible mistake but because new discoveries were made. We’re not ashamed to say we learned something new.”

Her use of footnotes on nearly every page to explain her delightful word plays and references (such as “May the story be with us” referring to the famous Star Wars quote or “We see a rainbow and dream of going to Oz” referring to the Wizard of Oz film starring Judy Garland) is a delight.

“I am ancient at 62. Not everybody in the future will understand them without explanation.”