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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Why Sweden’s Nobel prizewinner would be a great dinner guest

It is not only Svante Pääbo’s contribution to evolutionary biology that makes him so interesting, but his own personal story as well, says David Crouch.

Why Sweden’s Nobel prizewinner would be a great dinner guest
Swedish scientist Svante Paabo poses with a replica of a Neanderthal skeleton at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. Photo: Matthias Schrader

Elite scientists are maybe not so high on our list of fantasy dinner guests. Too much homework before the conversation. But the more I find out about Svante Pääbo, the Swedish winner of this year’s Nobel prize for medicine, the more I am convinced he would be great company. 

A modest man with a delightful smile, who likes beer and schnapps with lunch and listens to rock band Talking Heads, Pääbo comes across as warm and approachable. When he won the Nobel, his colleagues at the university threw him in a pond. His book Neanderthal Man is peppered with praise for students and colleagues who helped him along the way. 

He is also skilled at explaining in simple and engaging terms what his research means for all of us. At a time when immigration is such a hot potato, Pääbo reminds us that the history of our species is one of movement and mingling of populations. 

It is not only Pääbo’s contribution to evolutionary biology that makes this clear, but his own personal story as well.

Aged 19, his mother Karin fled her native Estonia in 1944, joining tens of thousands who escaped the Soviet occupation. She worked as a cleaner and a cook in Kalmar, then studied chemistry in Lund, where she met Svante’s father. 

But he was married. Karin brought up her son alone in Stockholm. The father visited on Saturdays when his family thought he was at work.

Svante followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a researcher. A surreptitious experiment in the lab with a piece of liver from ICA set him on a path towards discovering how to extract and study DNA from long-dead animals. At Uppsala University he was also a gay rights activist, before he fell in love with the “boyish charms” of a female colleague at Berkeley, with whom he went on to share his life and have two children. 

Pääbo says it came as a surprise that his bisexuality was considered unusual, and the fact that it didn’t cause him any problems he contributes to the high self-esteem that his mother had given him. “The realisation that my feelings were not quite what the majority society expected forced me to change my rather complacent attitude and led over time to me becoming more open,” he said in a talk on Swedish radio. “Not only to myself, but also for the idiosyncrasies of others.”

Pääbo developed the ideas and techniques that enabled the DNA of our closest genetic relative, the Neanderthals, to be fully decoded and compared to human DNA. His work shows that, as early humans moved east and north from Africa some 70,000 years ago, they mingled and mated with Neanderthals, their mixed children living in human communities and passing on their genes. 

“From a genomic perspective, we are all Africans – either living in Africa or in quite recent exile,” Pääbo says. But many of us have Neanderthal DNA, around 2.5% of the total – we are more Neanderthal the further you get from Africa, in fact. “The lesson is that we have always mixed. We mixed with these earlier forms of humans, wherever we met them, and we mixed with each other ever since,” Pääbo says.

Swedish scientist Svante Paabo swims in a pool at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Photo: Matthias Schrader/AP/AFP

Pääbo’s research has relevance for modern medicine because he has enabled scientists to examine how viruses have changed with time. Last year, he and his team made headlines when they reported that people with a Neanderthal variant of their third chromosome were at a higher risk of suffering severe consequences from contracting Covid-19.

As a dinner guest, I think Pääbo would bring the outlook of a person who has experienced both east and west. The Stasi, the east German secret police, investigated after he was given tissue samples from Egyptian mummies at a museum in East Berlin. He moved from California to live and work in Munich, and then the former east-German city of Leipzig. Some of his seminal work is on samples found by Russian researchers in a cave in Denisova, a remote spot in Siberian mountains near the borders with Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia. 

It is wise to avoid politics at dinner parties, but Pääbo might also have something interesting to say about Sweden today. 

Julia Kronlid, newly-elected to the post of vice speaker of parliament, is a senior member of the Sweden Democrats and someone who does not accept the theory of evolution. In 2014, she said in a widely cited interview: “I do not accept the theory of evolution’s claim that humans are descended from apes. One can question the scientific nature of it because it is so far back in time.”

By all accounts, Kronlid appears to be a nice person, whatever you think of her politics or beliefs. Hopefully, she celebrates the Nobel prize for medicine as a great Swedish achievement. And wouldn’t it be nice if she and Pääbo could sit down to dinner together sometime soon?

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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INTERVIEW

INTERVIEW: ‘Like before the Swedish financial crisis only the numbers are bigger’

Andreas Cervenka, the author of the hit book Girig-Sverige, or Greedy Sweden, is, you can safely say, not the cheeriest of economic commentators.

INTERVIEW: 'Like before the Swedish financial crisis only the numbers are bigger'

The situation the country is in, Cervenka explains in this week’s Sweden in Focus podcast, out this Saturday, is in some ways worse even than what it was in the run-up to the 1990-1994 Swedish financial crisis. 

“In the beginning of the 90s, we had a huge real estate and housing bubble that burst and sent Sweden into the deepest financial crisis since the Second World War, and we’re still actually feeling the effects of that,” he says. “What’s happening now is roughly the same, only the numbers are bigger.” 

Girig-Sverige, which won Cervenka Sweden’s most prestigious journalism prize last year, tells the story of how the decision to scrap a string of taxes on wealth and assets combined with years of zero or negative interest rates to make Sweden dramatically more unequal as a society, while turning its people and companies into the most indebted in the world after Hong Kong and Luxembourg.

For Cervenka, the Riksbank bears a lot of the blame for this depressing development.

“All parts of the state should be evaluated on their results. And the result is: have they fulfilled the target of inflation? No, in practically no period over the last 15 years have they been able to stabilise at around 2 percent. Has something else happened in society? Well, we have become the most indebted country in the world.” 

The bank, he believes, has been wrong to turn a blind eye to the extreme inflation in assets like property and equities, while focusing exclusively on consumer prices. 

“There’s obviously a lot of talk about inflation these days. But in fact, we have had inflation in Sweden for quite a long time, not in consumer prices, but in assets,” he explains.

“That’s rising prices of property, stocks, land or all kinds of financial assets, and that’s been quite explosive for a long time, which benefits people who own assets, and specifically people who own assets that they financed with debt.”

Normally, central banks only use negative interest rates as a last resort when the economy is in a deep recession, but the Riksbank has had them in place while the economy has been booming and unemployment low, changing the balance between rich and poor in Sweden.

“The central bank is supposed to be an apolitical institution. But low interest rates do create inequality in the way that they actually transfer money from people who don’t own things, who don’t have mortgages, to people who do. And that’s been a huge transfer of wealth.” 

The central bank has not acted alone, however. Parties of both left and right have acted to reduce the taxation on assets. 

“Sweden is still a very high-tax country when it comes to taxation of labour. We’re not number one in the world, but we’re still in the top five. But when it comes to taxes on assets and property, we’ve been abolishing a lot of taxes,” he explains.

Someone making a million kronor from dividends and rising stock prices would only have to pay about 7 percent tax on that income, he estimates, whereas someone making a million kronor in salary would pay about 35 percent. 

For Cervenka, it is not only the indebtedness in society which is a problem, but the way gross inequality slows economic growth and leads to rising crime and health disparities, while the near-impossibility of getting rich through earning a salary skews people’s choices. 

“The difference between a very high taxation of labour and relatively low taxation on assets definitely alters your incentives as a citizen,” he says. “It’s been much more profitable to own a house over the last 10 years than to work.” 

Soaring house price inflation has also led to segregation, with the young, immigrant populations, and other groups priced out of upmarket parts of Sweden’s cities. 

“If you look at the centre of Stockholm, you can almost have a sign saying, ‘If you’re young, don’t bother coming here, because you can’t afford it’,” he says. 

“It also affects, you know, ‘can you afford to have kids?’, ‘What kind of job should you be looking for?’ If you’re living in Stockholm, if you are a teacher, a nurse or a policeman, it’s almost like an economic sacrifice because the cost of living is so extremely high.”

“In the US, they talk a lot about gated communities, and in Sweden, we have that, but we have something much more effective than walls or barbed wire, we have high square metre prices.” 

Those who haven’t managed to get a mortgage or benefit from the low rates have ended up crammed together in the same segregated areas, he adds, fuelling some of the problems Sweden has had with gang crime. 

“The people who don’t own anything, they all stay in the same area and that creates some social problems and just this crazy tension in the fabric of society.” 

So will the economy have a hard landing? Cervenka believes the high level of indebtedness, both in the population and in the corporate sector, makes Sweden vulnerable. 

“I would say we are one of the most rate-sensitive economies in the whole world,” he says. “The Swedish state has very low debt, but the private sector is very highly indebted, so the rate increases have much more impact on Sweden than on a lot of other countries in Europe.” 

A huge proportion of many people’s income already goes to paying off their mortgages, he adds. 

“A lot of people in Sweden are practically working for their banks now, because that’s where the the lion’s share of their income goes. We talk a lot about how the price of eggs or butter has increased 20, 30, 40 percent. But interest payments have maybe gone up by 300 to 400 percent – four or five times what you used to pay – and a that’s a huge increase.” 

In the near future, Cervenka predicts, we will discover whether Sweden’s economy is in for a soft landing or a devastating crash.

“Right now, the markets are betting that we can avoid the worst-case scenario. But the jury’s still out, and I think the next six months will be quite crucial.” 

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