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Using DNA to Plumb Human Ancestry

Nicholas Wade, science reporter for The New York Times, examines what we've learned about our human ancestors using the latest techniques in DNA analysis in his new book, Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors.


Other segments from the episode on April 19, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 19, 2006: Interview with Nicholas Wade; Interview with Mike Luckovich.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: The New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade talks
about his book "Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of
Our Ancestors"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.

With advances in genetic research, scientists are learning more about our
primate ancestors and how these creatures evolved physically and socially into
the human beings that came to populate the earth. There are new clues about
when humans invented language and even what it may have sounded like. Those
are some of the topics explored in a new book by my guest, New York Times
science writer, Nicholas Wade. He's the author or co-author of four previous
books. His latest is "Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our

What specific investigative tools does this new science of genetics provide?

Mr. NICHOLAS WADE (Science Writer, The New York Times): Well, it gives you
two kinds of insight. One is it lets you trace human genealogies way back
into the past chiefly by looking at the Y chromosome, the chromosome that just
men carry, and also by another bit of DNA, the mitochondrial DNA. And these
two regions of the genome are handed down unchanged--essentially unchanged
from one generation to another, and therefore can be used to reach back deep
into the human past. And this is the main way which we have been able to
follow the migrations of modern humans out of Africa across the globe unto the
various continents.

And the other kind of information comes from looking at specific genes when
you find a specific gene that does some--that confers some interesting
property--you can often date when that--when the latest version of the gene
evolved among modern humans. And that, of course, tells you something very
interesting, which is, you know, the date when that property was first
acquired as we evolved.

DAVIES: Now it's fascinating when one considers the typical view of human
evolution. We are all familiar with the encyclopedia book picture of the
little tadpole in the water that becomes, you know, an amphibian--a fish--and
then an amphibian and then some kind of land-based creature and then an ape
and then eventually we have the erect walking human beings. You present a
very different picture of human evolution, and it appears that if you go back,
say 100,000 years ago, there was not one but actually many different species
of creatures walking around the earth who looked something like us, right?

Mr. WADE: Well, that's right. There were--there are cells--we had attained
our modern form by 100,000 years ago. We looked more or less as we do now,
although our behavior was very different. And besides us, there were the
Neanderthals, archaic humans who had escaped from Africa many several hundred
thousands of years before. They were in Europe. And there were also Homo
erectus, another archaic species that occupied most of Asia.

DAVIES: Now the Neanderthals have become part of common lore. They are often
used to describe, you know, frat boy behavior, for example. But they were an
actual species, that went extinct like the dinosaurs, in effect. Tell us
about these creatures who were--I don't know whether to call them humans or
apes--the Neanderthals, those that occupied Europe, what did they look like?
How did they behave? What kind of society did they have?

Mr. WADE: Well, they are definitely regarded as human. Their Latin name is
Homo neanderthalis. There were also recognizably human. I find it though
definitely Neanderthals sat down next to you in a subway car, you would move
to a different car, whereas if a modern human of 50,000 years ago sat down
next to you, you might just move a few seats away. I think Neanderthals were
very frightening to our ancestors. They were very heavily muscled. They were
adapted to the cold of the earth, which was then in the grip of the last Ice
Age. They were--they had sophisticated weapons, and they probably battled
modern humans evolving in Africa up in that continent many thousands of years.
Of course, we were not better than they militarily, and we could not fight our
way out of the exits from Africa--the principal exits from Africa--which were
occupied by the Neanderthals.

DAVIES: The Neanderthals you said had weapons. What kind of weapons?

Mr. WADE: Well, we know they had stone-tipped spears. They almost certain
did not have bows and arrows. They probably had a very simple social
organization. There is a fierce debate as to whether or not they had
language. Very possibly they didn't. And it was the acquisition of language
by our ancestors, in Africa, that enabled a higher level of social
organization and the means to eventually overcome the Neanderthals.

DAVIES: But no modern human is descended from a Neanderthal. They became
extinct, right?

Mr. WADE: That is correct, though it has been a longstanding debate as to
whether or not Neanderthals sort of mated with modern humans, which was
unresolved really until genetic testing, and then we were able to look at
the--people were able to recover the mitochondrial DNA from the type specimen
of the Neanderthals, the first Neanderthals skull found in the Neanderthals
valley in Germany. And that mitochondrial DNA proved to be so different from
all modern human mitochondrial DNA that it showed the Neanderthals had
diverged away from our line a couple of hundred thousand years ago. This does
not exclude the possibility that some Neanderthals genes--perhaps those that
were useful in adapting to the cold--did get into the human line. But that
has not been proved as yet. I think one--you can say though as a general
rule, that few if any Neanderthals genes survived in the modern human line. I
mean, the Neanderthals in effect did go extinct.

DAVIES: Now there were, as we've said, several erect walking human-like
species around the globe. And the ones which--from which we are descended--I
guess the anatomically modern humans--were in a part of northeast Africa
before they were able to escape the African continent and spread throughout
the globe, but you said--if I have read this--if I have this right--it's
believed that they once shrank to as few as 5,000 people and had that tribe
not survived, the world today would not be populated with cities, farms,
villages, anything. Right?

Mr. WADE: Well, that is correct, and if there were farms and cities, it
would be some other species occupying them, not ourselves. Of course,
archaeologists have found no trace of this ancestral modern human population.
So the estimate of their numbers comes purely from genetics, and by the amount
of variation in the genome, you can make guesses as to population size. So
the geneticists' guess has been far lower than you might have expected. At
first they thought 10,000; now their...(unintelligible)...figure is about
5,000 people. So it was from that tiny population that the whole world is

DAVIES: And it was around 50,000 years ago that this small population of
humans got out of Africa in, I guess, what one could call an exodus story.
What prompted them to move?

Mr. WADE: We don't know what prompted them to move. It's only a matter of
speculation, but presumably there was an advantage in seeking novelty, in
seeking new territory. It's probable that the ancestor population was
very--it may not have been a single population. It may have been divided into
little warring groups constantly at war with each other as is often found, for
example, in Australia or New Guinea or where tribal peoples occupy large
areas. I think this is the sort of--is the nature of human existence to split
up into small groups like the tribe that is territorial, that defends its own
territory and attacks its neighbors. So you can imagine if that were the case
50,000 years ago, it would be great to escape from the fight and go find new
unoccupied territory. So on that supposition, people would always have been
trying to escape from Africa, but the odds were so stacked against them that
only one small group succeeded.

DAVIES: New York Times science writer, Nicholas Wade. We'll talk more after
a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: We are speaking with New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade.
His new book is called "Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our

Now what about the early humans who did not join the migration out of Africa?
Did some remain behind and are they linguistically connected in any way to
some of the tribes in Africa?

Mr. WADE: Yes, of course, some people did remain behind and the
human--though--although one can speak of an exodus from Africa, one shouldn't
forget that much of the--in fact, most of the human family at that time
remained within Africa. Now our ancestor population was probably emerged
somewhere in northeast Africa, maybe within the boundaries of modern Ethiopia.
And so the exodus took a small portion of that population outside to the
Arabian Peninsula and India. But the bulk of it would have remained in
Ethiopia but gradually started to spread southward and westward and colonized
the rest of Africa just as their relatives were colonizing the rest of the

DAVIES: Now people have spoken about the `click speaking' people in parts of
Africa. I mean, it is a language that is really very distinct from Bantu and
some of the other languages. Is it believed that this might be farther up the
linguistic tree and closer to the original language that our ancestors may
have spoken tens of thousands of years ago?

Mr. WADE: Yes, there are intriguing signs that the clicks at least are very
ancient. And the main evidence for that is that the 30 or so click languages
that survive today, mostly are spoken in southern Africa by the Sam, but there
are few--there are two that are spoken way north in Tanzania by people called
the Hadza and the Sandawe. And these languages are completely different from
the click languages of South Africa in every respect except they are clicks.
So this was for a long time a great puzzle to linguists that the languages
should be so different and apparently unrelated until the geneticists came
along and shared that there was the same difference in the genetics of the
Hadza and the Sam people. And that genetics show that they diverged very
early, at the earliest branches of the human tree that you can reconstruct
from mitochondrial DNA.

DAVIES: So you have in effect these two groups of Africans living hundreds--I
guess even thousands of miles apart--who were linguistically and genetically
different from the people around them but who linguistically and genetically
linked to each other, suggesting that they are survivors of this very, very
early branch of the human tree.

Mr. WADE: That is correct. And another interesting thing is that clicks,
they are quite hard to do. You can do a single click, like when you say
(clicking sound) to a child. But it is very hard to do a double click which
many of these lang--which several of these languages have. So it looks
like--once you have clicks, you can lose them, but it is very hard to see any
one sort of inventing a click from scratch. So if that is the case, if clicks
have only been lost and not gained, then they must be of great antiquity.

DAVIES: Do we know when language began?

Mr. WADE: The best guess is that language began about 50,000 years ago,
although it has probably been evolving for sometime before that, but at least
we think it reached its sort of modern form about that time.

DAVIES: And do we believe that all of the world's languages today are
descended from a single root language?

Mr. WADE: This is a reasonable hypothesis simply because if you assume that
modern language was an identifying quality of that ancestral human population,
which as you mentioned was only 5,000 people, and if they also lived
reasonably close to each other, close enough to trade and have interactions,
it is a reasonable assumption that they spoke a single language, or even if
there were sort of more than one language that the others might have fallen
extinct when humans entered that bottleneck of--of just 5,000 people.

DAVIES: And do we have any idea what the original language might have sounded

Mr. WADE: Apart from the fact it may have contained clicks, we have almost
no knowledge of that language, and here we get into a fierce dispute. Most,
if not all historical linguists, believe that it is impossible to trace the
history of language back further than five, maybe at the most 10,000 years
ago, and the reason is that language changes so quickly. And even the
language of Chaucer is sort of halfway to being a foreign tongue to us, though
it was spoken just 500 years ago.

DAVIES: And 500 years ago is almost yesterday in evolution. Now I want to
take--go a little bit farther back in prehistory. Before we were anatom--the
anatomically modern humans were there, say two to three million years ago,
when our--some of our primate ancestors were much more like chimpanzees and
then something happened that caused some of these ape-like creatures living in
trees to evolve in a direction that created us. And one of the things that
seems may have been pivotal was the decision to eat meat or the beginning of
carnivorous practices as opposed to simply eating, you know, vegetation. Why
was that meaningful in the development of modern human anatomy?

Mr. WADE: Well, it was part of a complex of pressures forcing our evolution,
one of which was that our brain was getting larger, and probably the reason
was that our society was becoming more complex, and the main reason you need a
larger brain is to interact with other members of your own species and learn
how to survive in a primate and early human society. And this would have
placed a constant demand each generation on people who had greater cognizant
capacity, greater computing power, if you like. But the brain is a very
greedy consumer of oxygen, and you need to have a more efficient way of
getting your nutrition than chomping through mounds of vegetation, which is
essentially what our primate cousins, the chimpanzees and the bonobos, do. So
it seems to be that meat eating and an increase in the size of the human
cranium, as assessed by fossil skulls, and also the invention of the first
fossil tools were all sort of bound together in evolutionary mixes. And the
first fossil tools, the old ones--complex--occurs about the same time as we
see the beginning of the expansion of the human cranium.

DAVIES: So it was the meat eaters who had the bigger craniums, the bigger
brains, and that might have promoted further development?

Mr. WADE: That seems to be the best explanation.

DAVIES: We also know that a change critical to developing modern civilization
was the invention of agriculture because that allowed people to settle and
build permanent communities and store food. But you write that our
prehistorical ancestors had a major limitation to overcome before they could
settle and that was that they were really too aggressive to live together in
villages. Do we seem to have a genetic predisposition to warfare?

Mr. WADE: I think you can--I think it is reasonable to say that we do have a
genetic predisposition to warfare. It's not the controlling part of our
nature, but it is always there beneath the surface. But it is counterbalanced
by many other tendencies, including the more conciliatory instincts of trade
and exchange and reciprocity. But I think it is this--connected with the
strange fact you mentioned that it took us so long to settle down. We left
Africa 50,000 years ago, but there is no sign of human settlements until
15,000 years ago. So what was happening during those 35,000 years? Why did
it take us so long to realize that there were great advantages in settling
down in one place rather than living as hunters and gatherers with no shelter
or fixed abode? So it is reasonable to assume that while we didn't settle
down because we were too fierce and aggressive to do so, if you settle down,
you make yourself a sitting target for anyone who is on the move. Your best
defense is to keep moving. So maybe it required another evolutionary change
in our behavior, almost as significant as the early one that led to the
perfection of language 50,000 years ago. Maybe it took another 35,000 years
ago for us to develop a more conciliatory version of human behavior that
allowed us to settle down in fixed groups large enough to resist attack and

DAVIES: New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade's latest book is "Before
the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors." He'll be back in the
second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song "Alley Oop")

Unidentified Singing Group: "There's a man in the funny papers we all know.
Alley Oop, oop, oop, oop-oop. He lives way back a long time ago. Alley Oop,
oop, oop, oop-oop. Well, he don't eat nothing but bear cat stew. Alley Oop,
oop, oop, oop-oop. Well, this cat's name is Alley Oop. Alley Oop, oop, oop,
oop-oop. He's the toughest man there is alive. Alley Oop. He wears clothes
from a wildcat's hide. Alley Oop. He's the king of the jungle jive. Look at
that cave man go.

He's got a chauffeur that is genuine dinosaur. Alley Oop, oop, oop, oop-oop.
And he can knuckle your head before you count to four. Alley Oop, oop, oop,
oop-oop. He's got a big ugly club and a head full of hair. Alley Oop, oop,
oop, oop-oop. Whoa, he's a grizzly bear. Alley Oop, oop, oop. Forgot the
words. He's the toughest man there is alive. Alley Oop, oop. He wears
clothes from a wildcat's hide. Alley Oop. He's the king of the jungle jive.
Look at the cave man go.

He rides through the jungle tearing limbs off of trees. Alley Oop, oop, oop,
oop-oop. A knocking great big monsters dead on their knees. Alley Oop, oop,
oop, oop-oop."

(End of soundbite)


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.

We are speaking with Nicholas Wade, science reporter for The New York Times.
His latest book deals with new insights into early human evolution provided by
advances in genetic research. It's called "Before the Dawn: Recovering the
Lost History of Our Ancestors."

Where did changes in skin color come from in human evolution? At what point
did we begin to differentiate racial types and why?

Mr. WADE: Well, if I could start answering your question a little further
back, the default color of primate skin is white or pale. So if you look
under a chimpanzee's fur, you will find pale skin. And their faces are dark
because they get sunburned. So presumably our ancestors, too, had pale skin
underneath their fur. But when we moved out of the forest and started
occupying the savannah, we must have lost our fur, and that would have exposed
our pale skin to the sunlight. So you can imagine that evolution then would
have rewarded people who had dark skin, so the skin would have gotten darker
and darker and darker to compensate for the lack of fur and the fact that you
needed protection against the ultraviolet rays of the hot African sun.

So everyone in the ancestral human population had dark skin and so did the
people who first reached Australia--the Australian aborigines still have dark
skin--and so probably did our ancestors who first came through Europe and
vanquished the Neanderthals. But at some stage, that dark skin would have
become light for people occupying the northern latitudes of Europe and Asia,
and it would have become light because you need the sun rays to penetrate the
skin to create vitamin D.

DAVIES: Now one of the interesting differences between us and our primate
relatives is that while most animals have fur or hair throughout their body,
we have relatively little hair--except for the spot on top of our head--which
grows regularly and causes us to kind of cut it and groom it and shape it in
modern times. Do we know why we began to grow this hair on our heads and when
that might have occurred?

Mr. WADE: We don't know for sure. There is a gene that seems to be involved
in controlling the hair cycle and hence, the length of hair, which is changed
in humans compared to its chimpanzee version, and this gene seems to have
changed about 100,000 years ago. So given the enormous social importance of
hair in human society as a sort of signalling system of caste and status and
emotional state, and given the attention that people all around the world
still pay to their hair, you can imagine that it evolved because it did
something useful for its owners to have continually growing hair. So I see it
as yet another social adaptation we made to the increasing complexity of our

DAVIES: What advantage would it give someone to have continually growing head

Mr. WADE: Well, presumably because you could signal information with it, and
this information was somehow of value in constructing your society and making
it more cohesive. I mean, it is easy to sort of spin just-so stories. We
don't exactly know what advantage it was that made this gene become
widespread. We can simply observe the gene did become widespread. So
presumably it was some evolutionary reason which we can only speculate about.

DAVIES: Well, you know chimpanzees love to groom each other, and I wonder if
people grooming their hair and grooming each other's hair had some interaction
with a--you know, signalled a greater level of social interaction.

Mr. WADE: Oh, it may well have done. Grooming is very important in primate
society, and you spend a great deal of time grooming people important to you.
If you are trying to rise to the top of the male chimp hierarchy, you need to
spend a lot of time grooming your social superiors so as to form alliances
that may enable you to overthrow them at one time. So it may well be
that--it--this was the basis of interaction. I don't know if humans groomed
each other as much as other primates do. They have, of course, less hair.

One of the theories of the origin of language is that when you could speak to
someone you could do the--you could perform the grooming function much more
efficiently in far less time. And the need to groom all other members of a
primate community was a constraint that keeps monkey communities at about 15
individuals. They never grow more than that. Humans broke that constraint,
and maybe it was, in part, because they switched from grooming behavior to
languages as a grooming substitute.

DAVIES: The grooming meaning simply establishing social connections,
conveying affection?

Mr. WADE: Yes.

DAVIES: Yeah. Yeah. You know, I think kind of the traditional view of
evolution is that it more or less stops once human beings settle in farming
communities and civilization develops because we use our brain power and our
tools and our technology to adapt and survive in ways that in many, many
earlier generations, it would have taken genetic changes to achieve. Do we
believe that--is there any evidence that--of evolution continuing in the
historical era?

Mr. WADE: Well, yes, there is, and we are seeing more and more of it. Every
month, there's new papers are published. This isn't a surprise, because as
you say, I think this has been generally assumed for a long time by social
scientists, but human evolution effectively came to a halt way back in the
distant past, maybe 50,000 years ago or at least far enough ago that they
don't have to worry about it. But to the contrary, we are finding that our
evolution has continued probably to the present day. And this shouldn't
really be any surprise because the genome is very dynamic. It changes over
time, and it must change if a species is to adapt to its environment and
survive. So...

DAVIES: What's an example of a more recent adaption due to evolution?

Mr. WADE: I think one of the best examples, so far, of recent adaption is
the emergence of lactose tolerance, which we find mostly among Europeans who
descended from something called the Funnel Beaker culture that was centered in
northern Europe, and these were the first European cultures to depend very
heavily on cattle breeding. And they drank a lot of milk, and there was
obviously an advantage--an evolution advantage for them in being able to
digest milk throughout adulthood. Now this is unusual. The default human
condition is to switch off the lactose digesting gene after weaning, which
makes a lot of sense, you never get exposed to lactose thereafter, so the body
doesn't need to keep the gene around.

In Europeans, a mutation arose that stopped this gene being switched off, so
it stays on throughout most of adulthood, and that makes it easier for--that
made it easier for people of the funnel beaker culture to digest lactose. So
this is a recent evolutionary development. It occurred about five to 8,000
years ago as far as we can tell. And it is also, of course, a response to a
human cultural practice, the dependence on cattle farming, suggesting that
many other human cultural practices may also have fed back on the human

DAVIES: Well, Nicholas Wade, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. WADE: It was my pleasure. Thank you.

DAVIES: New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade. His new book is "Before
the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors."

Coming up, some laughs with Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Mike

This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Mike Luckovich of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
talks about his editorial cartoons

Mike Luckovich was a kid, he wanted to draw for Mad magazine. He couldn't
shake his penchant for sketching and sarcasm, and it's worked out well for
him. He is now one of the nation's leading editorial cartoonists. He draws
for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution where he has just been awarded his second
Pulitzer Prize.

Well, Mike Luckovich, welcome to FRESH AIR and congratulations on your second

Mr. MIKE LUCKOVICH (Editorial Cartoonist, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution):
Hey, thank you very much.

DAVIES: Was there a particular cartoon that you think nailed this prize or
weighed heavily in the decision of the committee?

Mr. LUCKOVICH: Well, I think yes. Although you are never sure with these
things. You kind of submit and you--and it's sort of like the Vatican when
they appoint a new pope and the smoke goes up. You don't really know what's
involved in the decision making, but I did a cartoon right as we were coming
up on the 2000th death of the soldiers in Iraq. I started thinking about what
I wanted to do for a cartoon on that, and normally I use humor in my cartoons.
I like to be hard-hitting and still use humor. I just find that as a good
delivery vehicle. But, of course, on some things you just can't use humor,
and this was one of them, and I started thinking about what I wanted to do.

And so the weekend before the 2000th casualty was announced, I sat down at my
kitchen table, and--I have four children, and so whenever I could find a quiet
moment when they didn't need me, I would sit down at the table--and I would--I
started writing the names of all the soldiers that had been killed. And I
wrote them out so that they formed--if you can understand what I am saying
here, they--it spelled out the word `Why,' `W-H-Y,' using the names of all the
2,000 soldiers. And so I did that on the weekend, and then on Tuesday or
Wednesday when they announced the name of that 2,000th soldier, I put his name
in there, and it was a very emotional thing first to do this, because so much
of the coverage of the war to me it seems buried in the background. Troops
will be blown up, and it won't be on the front page, and you just, I think,
kind of got numb to that.

Writing out all these names, you just--you realize that each one of them has a
family. And so many young people, men and women, Hispanic, Asian, the whole
fabric of the country are in this cartoon--are in this drawing. And so it
brought it home to me--and I wanted, with the cartoon, first of all, to
question the war. I don't agree with us going into Iraq. There was no--I--it
seems to me there were falsehoods used to get us in there, and the rationale
for the war has changed often. So I wanted to question the war, but I also
wanted to personalize and honor the troops who I believe are heroes who have
served and lost their lives. So that was the reason for the cartoon.

DAVIES: What kind of reaction did you get? I mean, what people saw was they
opened your newspaper and saw what looked initially like the word `Why'


DAVIES: ...the question--under the statement `2,000 American soldiers killed
in Iraq,' but then when you look at it carefully, you realize that the `Why'
was, in fact, composed of the names carefully written of 2,000 dead


DAVIES: What kind of reaction did you get to that cartoon?

Mr. LUCKOVICH: An outpouring of reaction. Pro and con. From military,
active service people, people praising the cartoon, people saying I was
dishonoring the troops by doing a cartoon. I have a blog--everyone has a blog
it seems nowadays--but I have one--it's on, my newspaper's Web
site--and each day my cartoon of the day goes up and people can comment on the
cartoon. And we had thousands of responses to this particular cartoon. And
so I thought it was great because that is what I want people to do. When I do
a cartoon, I want people to at least think, if possible, even if they don't
agree with it.

DAVIES: I want to look at some of the other cartoons in your Pulitzer
submission, which are probably more typical of what you do day-to-day...


DAVIES: ...because they use humor to make a point. One of them that really
caught my eye was when President Bush was defending his nomination of Harriet
Miers to the Supreme Court and...


DAVIES: ...there was the issue of whether she had left enough of a paper
trail. And you...

Mr. LUCKOVICH: Right, right.

DAVIES: ...illustrated this visual. How did you do that?

Mr. LUCKOVICH: Well, first of all, before I describe the cartoon, let me
just say I had second thoughts. I was divided about whether to include this
cartoon, because I had done two or three different Harriet Miers cartoons, and
I think this one is a little sophomoric, but I just thought it was funny. So
I thought, `Oh, what the heck! I want to show a range.' So I did this
cartoon. It's--Bush is at his podium and Harriet Miers is walking by. And
Bush says, `And to those who say Harriet Miers isn't accomplished enough to
have a paper trail'--and as she walks by, you see on her foot, she's got a
piece of toilet paper that she is, you know, dragging behind her, so--a little
sophomoric, but I just liked it.

DAVIES: Yeah. I was going to ask you if there are any questions of standards
of taste there, but I guess there must be guys on the committee, too, and they
liked it.

Mr. LUCKOVICH: Yeah. Yeah. I think so.

DAVIES: There was--if ever an event begged for a cartoon, it was when Pat


DAVIES: ...heard about Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and in effect, kind
of asked for a divinely inspired hit--said that...


DAVIES: ...he ought to be killed. How did you handle that one?

Mr. LUCKOVICH: Well, I've got--I drew Pat Robertson in it, and I really
spent time trying to get his caricature just right. There is just something
about his face that is kind of scary to me, and so I drew him with his big
smile, and he's wearing a T-shirt that says, `Who would Jesus assassinate?' To
me his calls for, you know, assassination, that just seemed so un-Christian to
me, and so it was--it really made for a very easy day that day that he said
that, for me to draw a cartoon on that. I didn't have to think too hard on
that one.

DAVIES: If you are just joining us, we are speaking with Mike Luckovich. He
is the editorial cartoonist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has just
won his second Pulitzer Prize.

Mike Luckovich, what do you think an editorial cartoon can do that's different
from what a news story can do, a column editorial? What is unique about what
you can do for a newspaper?

Mr. LUCKOVICH: Well, first of all, people seem to be so starved for time,
and the thing about an editorial cartoon is you get the message right away,
and they're not all the time fare or they are one of the last areas, I think,
where you can be kind of politically incorrect. But something about a visual
comment, I believe if it is done well and if you can be hard-hitting and
clever, I think it stays with people. And my goal when I draw my cartoons
is--this may be kind of naive, but I think if I do a really good cartoon on a
subject, maybe I can change some people's minds. And that's what I try and
do, and I think that--I think that with a column people have to be a little
bit more `on the one hand, on the other hand.' And you don't have that with an
editorial cartoon, a good one, you can--you know, it just makes its point
right there, and hopefully it will stay with you.

DAVIES: You know, there has been a lot said about the coarsening of our
political discourse...


DAVIES: recent years, how bitter partisanship. I wonder if that's
maybe not good news for a guy who makes his living throwing these zingers that
you do as an editorial cartoonist. You're maybe not alarmed by these calls
for more civility.

Mr. LUCKOVICH: Yeah. You know, I actually--no, I think we need more
civility. I think editorial cartoons--for instance, the whole Danish cartoon

controversy--I looked at that, and I believe that the cartoonists were wrong
to have done that...

DAVIES: Just to clarify, we are talking about the Danish cartoons which
depicted the prophet Muhammad which set off...

Mr. LUCKOVICH: Yes. Correct. Yes.

DAVIES: ...a torrent of protests.


DAVIES: Go ahead.

Mr. LUCKOVICH: Right, right. You know, we have freedom if the press in the
West, and we should be free to print what we want. But I believe that with
the freedom comes responsibility, and I would never--I'm Catholic--I would
never draw--and I repeatedly hit the Catholic Church for various things, so it
is a little tough for me to come to Mass sometimes, and I don't want to catch
the monseigneur's eyes sometimes--but I would never use Jesus Christ in a
cartoon or show him in a demeaning way. It would ruin whatever point I was
trying to make. And so, those cartoons--I think they were just designed to
offend--and that's not what editorial cartooning should be about.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Mike Luckovich who is the editorial cartoonist
for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution where he has just won his second Pulitzer

We'll talk more after our break. This is FRESH AIR.


Mr. LUCKOVICH: We're speaking with Mike Luckovich. He is the cartoonist for
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has just won his second Pulitzer Prize.

Now newspaper columnists often have an identifiable political perspective, you
know, the liberal, the conservative. Newspapers generally have one
cartoonists. Do you think you have an identifiable political perspective?

Mr. LUCKOVICH: Yeah. I'm--you know, I like to--first of all, I like to have
an open mind, and cartoonists are sort of a little bit different in that
whoever is in power--we question authority whether the authority is Republican
or Democrat. And all humans are fallible and--fortunately for cartoonists,
and so, for instance, on my blog, I read today someone said, `Well, you know,
he never criticized Clinton when he was president.' You know, I kicked Clinton
so hard, especially during the Monica mess. It was constant. So we are kind
of equal opportunity assassins, I guess.

DAVIES: Since you do a blog, you obviously have a lot of chance to respond to
complaints. Do you ever have, you know, newsmakers who you've eviscerated
call you up and want to argue with you?

Mr. LUCKOVICH: You know, not that much. It's interesting. I usually hear
from a third party when I've really angered a politician. Newt Gingrich used
to--he used to be in my district--congressional district years ago--and
another thing that was fortunate for me was Newt did not like criticism, and
so he got very upset when I would draw cartoons hitting him. And, as a matter
of fact, I did a cartoon--it was a lame cartoon, but it was right before
the--I guess it was the '94 elections where Congress went Republican, and he
became the House speaker, and so a few days before I did a cartoon--he once
presented a wife with divorce papers while she was in the hospital recovering
from cancer. Do you remember that?


Mr. LUCKOVICH: Yeah. OK. So I did a cartoon with him presenting divorce
papers to a woman in the bed labeled "Georgia constituents." This was really a
lame cartoon because I labeled everything. And on his arms, he has got a
couple of voluptuous babes, and they are labeled "DC high rollers" or
something. Like he was--you know, he was abandoning Georgia or something.
And he is telling the woman in bed, `I want a divorce.' Well, it was a stupid
cartoon, and I didn't like it very much, but the night of the Republican
ascendency, and he is on his way to becoming the House speaker, and they are
having this glorious victory, he is at his election headquarters, and he is
condemning the cartoon, and he is condemning the newspaper, and all his
supporters are yelling and booing when my name comes up. And I am watching it
on TV, and I am just so happy that someone is paying attention, and he
subsequently banned my newspaper like four months from covering him over that
silly cartoon.

So I like that kind of politician that reacts strongly. On the other hand,
you have politicians like Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld I have hit, but I will
occasionally get calls from the Pentagon saying, `Will you send Rumsfeld that
cartoon or a print of that cartoon?' I actually visited him. They invited me
to the Pentagon during the first week of the war, and he brought me into his
bathroom, and he has my cartoons on his bathroom wall. So you know, that was
sort of neat, but I actually really like it when the politician gets angry
rather than, you know, is sort of happy about the whole thing.

DAVIES: You have had a lot of fun with Dick Cheney. Something that
particularly draws you to him? Maybe give us one of your favorites?

Mr. LUCKOVICH: Yeah. Well, first of all, he's sort of a colorless, and he
is seemingly humorless individual. And something about that type of person is
sort of fun to caricature. And he is always so certain when he talks. Like
when he, on "Meet the Press," `Well, we'll be greeted as liberators, Tim.' You
know, he was just so certain, and then he's just completely wrong. And I just
think there is something funny about that. But now here you have this guy
that is so certain and seemingly trying to be so competent, and then he shoots
somebody accidentally in the face. Now that is a sad situation, but
fortunately the guy was OK, so it became very funny.

And it just sort of--you know, sometimes unscripted things sort of reveal
something about a person, and cartoonists were talking about it. When that
happened we were just--we just all--after we knew, of course, that the
shooting victim was OK, we were just overjoyed that that had happened. And so
I remember doing a cartoon, and know I may screw it up, but it's a two-panel
cartoon, and I actually drew Cheney in the first panel talking to an aide, and
then I made a Xerox of that for the second scene, so it is the exact scene in
the second scene. And in the first scene Cheney is telling his aide in the
first panel, he's saying, `Tell the man in charge I shot someone.' And in the
second panel, the aide is looking at Cheney and he's saying, `You shot
someone.' And you know what I loved about that cartoon? Is I draw
Cheney--he's got that crooked smile and he--and his bottom teeth really show
when he talks. All right, I'm doing it right now even though no one can see
me. But I just really exaggerate that. He is just such a fun caricature to
do, so I really had fun drawing that cartoon.

DAVIES: Donald Rumsfeld has asked for some of your cartoons and has displayed
them. Any contact from Dick Cheney?

Mr. LUCKOVICH: No contact from Dick Cheney, but I am waiting. You know, I
am expecting any day now he's going to call...

DAVIES: All right.

Mr. LUCKOVICH: ...and just want to shoot the breeze or congratulate me on my
award or something.

DAVIES: Well, maybe he can take you hunting someday.

Mr. LUCKOVICH: Oh, yeah, yeah. I'm sure.

DAVIES: This is your second Pulitzer Prize. You won--your first was in '95,
is that right?

Mr. LUCKOVICH: Yes, that's correct.

DAVIES: Does winning journalism's highest honor, I don't know, put more
pressure on you? Raise the stakes? Make you more visible?

Mr. LUCKOVICH: You know, I put the pressure on myself. I don't think so. I
put so much pressure on myself trying to come up with a better idea than the
one that is in front of me. And so that is not going to stop. I just love
this job, and I love trying to do the best I can, and when I do a cartoon I am
not happy with, I am just--I just feel so bad, and I can't wait for the next
day to be able to do another cartoon and sort of redeem myself. So it's just
sort of a self-imposed pressure that keeps me--you know, I procrastinate a
lot, but then it forces me to come up with something.

DAVIES: Well, let's hope you can stay at your easel. Well, Mike Luckovich,

thanks so much for spending some time with us.

Mr. LUCKOVICH: Thank you, Dave. It's been great.

DAVIES: Editorial cartoonist, Mike Luckovich. He draws for The Atlanta
Journal-Constitution where he has just been awarded his second Pulitzer Prize.

(Soundbite of music)


DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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