By 2050, it is believed that two-thirds of the world’s population could face a shortage of fresh, potable water. It’s a crisis that extends beyond the poorest developing countries, but it’s also a crisis that “denotes our ethics and our responsibilities to each other”, says Patrick Aryee, host of “Evolve,” a new docu-nature series on the Curiosity Stream streaming service premieres Jan. 27.
On “Evolve,” Aryee introduces viewers to a beetle in the Namibian desert that uses its bumpy body to drop mist droplets into its mouth. It’s fascinating to watch, but the charming and charismatic Aryee doesn’t just show us nature for nature’s sake. The series focuses on biomimicry and how we can learn from animals ways to create more sustainable life for humans.
Beyond the beetle, he finds solutions to modern problems everywhere, from giraffes to mushrooms to proteins found in squid teeth, which can be used for an ecological and powerful glue.
Aryee, who has a background in molecular and cell biology, has worked on nature documentaries in his native Britain for years – he worked as a researcher for the legendary David Attenborough – and previously hosted a podcast and wrote a book on “30 Animals That Made Us Smarter.
He recently explained via video why it all matters, his favorite segments, and what he hopes to include in a sequel.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. You’ve been working on nature documentaries for a decade. What drew you to this field from science?
One of my biggest inspirations in the 90s was a show in Britain called “Tomorrow’s World”. Imagine Bill Nye the Science Guy having a magazine show. I remember an episode about stem cells and another about this revolutionary thing called broadband, which was going to mean we could download and get content much faster.
It means a lot to me to be able to be a storyteller and tell these stories. I like being able to go on the field. I like meeting people. I like to show off my knowledge and experience, but I also like to be surprised and be honest if I don’t know something. I see my role as a curious friend – I’m there and now I’m one of your buddies and I’ll tell you about it in the pub.
Q. You have always been fascinated by biomimicry as a key to sustainability. Why?
It seems inevitable, like the completion of a circle. They are the plans of Mother Nature, like the sketches of Leonardo da Vinci. But they’re 3.8 billion years old, they’ve been there all that time. We finally saw the book and now we open it and say, “Wow, it’s all here.”
But the world we live in is run by money. So I wanted to create a show that features things like bricks made from mushroom mycelium bricks, which are much lighter than traditional bricks but still stronger to say, “Hey, we can preserve these wild spaces and flora, fauna, or fungi, because that’s going to save us all and be good for business.
Looks like it’s the future.
Q. The first episode begins with space travel and some ideas that seem far from realized or practical here on earth. How important was it to find a balance with achievable ideas in the short or medium term?
We were fully aware of that. We wanted the show to be tangible, for those ideas to be real, not just hyperbole or wishful thinking, like science fiction. The key was to have a balance between some of those wacky ideas, which get the audience’s mind going wild – and there’s a certain joy in that – with the stories that are true and actionable today.
That’s why we had a segment on Ido Sella and his company ECOncrete, which creates new products to modify or replace traditional concrete along shorelines. [Concrete’s chemicals make the water more alkaline, harming some species; it also makes it difficult for some native species to survive on the shoreline while allowing invasive species to thrive.]
It is already happening. It’s a business and Ido is out there with it and it works.
Q. What were some of your favorite segments?
I like to get my hands dirty, so I loved the squid glue. You can see it in the actual footage. I try to break the fourth wall, I include the sound guys to catch it and try to tear it apart. It’s a way of giving the audience the impression that he does.
I also enjoyed catching the bull shark and then helping to tag it. It was great fun, but the hard work I was dripping with. But I had to double check – if we’re going to fight a bull shark, what are the ethics? I didn’t want to come across as too macho, do a shark rodeo and lose all credibility. But we’ve done our research and this is one of the safest ways to catch them, tag them, and take a blood sample and get them out.
Q. The series features many scientists who are women or people of color. Was it a conscious decision on your part?
As a host, all I can do is tell the production company how important this is to me. And that’s really important and that’s something that I pay more attention to, being more responsible for having more screen representation. In terms of race, age and gender diversity, I think we did well.
Once we have diverse voices among scientists, we will have a much fuller story to tell. It’s ultimately about the audience – people who are interested in science or excited about it, but don’t see themselves on screen, so they think it’s not for them. When kids see someone who looks like them or their family on screen, they can relate to the story. If you feel you have a certain property, you will care more about it.
Q. What impact has the pandemic had on the show?
Going around the world was tricky. That’s why we chose to focus so much on Namibia, which is one of my favorite countries. It’s nice. It’s warm, but dry, which means there are no mosquitoes. If you go to Borneo, you will get bitten by bumblebee-sized mosquitoes.
Q. So what would you include in a suite that you couldn’t access this time around?
One of my all-time favorite stories is about Frank Fish, a marine scientist and professor, who discovered that by adding bumps to the leading edges of wind turbines, you could get 30% more power. These bumps came about because he saw a pattern of humpback whale fins. We’ve always thought of smooth levels on the turbines, like on the wings, but if nature has bumpy leading edges, he wondered, “Why don’t we try that?” He started a company called Whale Power that researched it. I would love to be able to see the turbines and get in the water with the humpback whales.
My dream would have been to go to Tonga because they have this great humpback whale migration. And when you look at what happened in Tonga, it ties into the stories we’ve told on this show about mimicking nature to learn how to read eruptions and tsunamis better – if we can do better in seconds or minutes , it can save lives .