A man can live many lives. Paul Ehrlich has. Once, he was a butterfly biologist. Another time, he wrote the book called The Population Bomb, a book that triggered global conversations about the fate of humanity. Still another, he described the relationship between plants and the animals that eat them. A plant evolves, he says, to escape its herbivores and then the herbivores evolve, in response. This war goes on, he found, forever.
All of these and others of the lives of Paul Ehrlich have been lauded. I want to talk about the life of Ehrlich no one ever seems to mention at the award ceremonies, Ehrlich’s life as the guy at the party with the one good liner, the one that everyone laughs at even though it crosses, some say tramples, unspoken social lines.
The specific one liner I am talking about here is one I heard when Ehrlich visited North Carolina State University, where I work. I was helping to host his visit and he and I were talking at the back of a large conference room. We were both looking at the backs of a crowd of hundreds gathered in front of us and, of all things, discussing back pain. We agreed—back pain is terrible. He told me to take care of my back and then, as he looked to the audience and stepped forward through the crowd to give his talk, he left me with a sentence somewhere between punch line and universal truth…“ back problems all started when we began walking upright. The other bad thing about walking upright is that it made it hard to sniff each other…1” With that, he strode, upright, to the stage and began to speak.