There is a lot wrong with how scientists and the “public” perceive one other, and no shortage of commentators lamenting the state of this interaction. Just the other day, a survey showing substantial gaps between the opinions of scientists and non-scientists in the US on crucial issues of science and science policy revealed some real-world consequences of the misperceptions and miscommunications between these two groups of people.
I spend quite a bit of time thinking about widespread stereotypes of scientists, and what troubles me the most is this notion that we scientists are an antisocial bunch, that the best science is the work of lone geniuses toiling away in dark basement laboratories, emerging only to yell “eureka!” This stereotype obscures the complicated, fortuitous, and very human connections upon which science depends. Ask almost any scientist about almost any project he or she has worked on, and I’ll bet they’ll mention something—a chance conversation with a colleague, a collaborator’s unexpected talent, an offhand remark from a family member—that influenced their research. But these somethings that go beyond the staid, linear, and overwhelmingly solitary manner in which science is thought to progress aren’t often mentioned in the stories we tell about science. Would acknowledging the humanness of science help or harm the public’s perception of science? I don’t know, but at least we’d be telling it how it actually is.
Back in 2009, I was in college, looking to become a full-fledged field biologist. The best way to progress along this path is to learn on the job from someone further along than you, so I spent two summers working as a field assistant to a Ph.D. student conducting his dissertation research. This project, led by now-Dr. Yoel Stuart, was seeking to document the process of evolution by natural selection in action. The project was published last October, to much well-deserved media attention, and the results are already making their way into textbooks on evolutionary biology. This project is, by any standards, a scientific hit. And from my position on its periphery, I could see not just the hard work and good ideas but also the human interactions that were central to its inception and execution.
Peruse this publication’s list of authors, and you’ll see six names—already, the notion that important scientific advances are the fruit of a single mind is starting to crumble. Flip to the last page and look at the acknowledgements, and you’ll see a further twenty-four people (including me!) and six institutions that played a role in creating this piece of work. But these lists give you little sense of how interactions among all of these contributors—some planned, others spontaneous—lie at the heart of science. To build you a picture of some of these interactions, I spoke to the person at the centre of this project, lead author and my long-ago boss, Yoel Stuart. Before we get to his thoughts, however, we have to talk about the science (a slightly more technical description of this research can be found here).
The science of this project is built around an interaction too, between two species of lizards competing with one another. One lizard, the green anole (Anolis carolinensis), has spent millions of years in the southeastern United States with little interference from any competitors. Just a few hundred miles away in the Caribbean, however, dozens of closely-related species of anoles have battled with one another for generations, fighting for space in the trees, Some of these species have evolved to become very good at dominating a small portion of vegetation—twigs, tree-trunks, or narrow branches in the canopy, for instance. Ruling a small piece of arboreal real estate means becoming, through the process of natural selection, the best at surviving in that habitat—lizards that perched high in the trees, for example, had to get really good at clinging to what they were perching on, so that they wouldn’t crash to the ground. Individuals that perched high but weren’t great at clinging likely fell to death or injury more often than those that clung. The ones that lived and had babies, the ones whose genes persisted, were the ones with bigger, scalier toes—all the better for clinging with.
Sometime in the last hundred years, one of these Caribbean lizards, the brown anole (Anolis sagrei), made its way to Florida, where it came into contact with the green anole. In the arboreal turf wars, brown anoles had come to dominate at low perch heights, on tree-trunks and the ground. Brown anoles were therefore able to outcompete green anoles at lower heights and push them up into the canopy wherever the two species overlapped. The ability to cling suddenly became a lot more important for the green anole. Isn’t it thus likely that green anoles would evolve bigger, scalier toes in places where they perch higher due to the presence of brown anoles? It certainly is—that’s exactly what Stuart was looking for, and that’s exactly what he found.
But take a second to think about the story I just told you—it’s historical, invoking events in the past to explain patterns we see today. Today’s pattern is simply this: green anoles perch higher and have bigger, scalier toes where they co-occur with brown anoles compared to where they live on their own. Are there stories other than the one I just told you, stories that don’t involve competing and clinging, that could explain this pattern? Absolutely. Maybe green and brown anoles co-occur only in weird environments that somehow cause the perch height and toes of green anoles to change. Maybe all the green anoles in populations where they co-occur with brown anoles are closely related to each other, and share some genetic quirks bequeathed to them by their ancestors, giving them funny toes and an unusual fear of the ground. Maybe the pattern is simply a consequence of chance. Disentangling these many possibilities took a huge amount of work, and explains why so many people were involved in this project. It also explains why it was over twenty years in the making.
The research in this paper includes at least two distinct parts, the first of which is an experiment conducted by co-first author Dr. Todd Campbell in the 1990s. Campbell introduced brown anoles onto small man-made islands that already had green anoles on them, in a place called Mosquito Lagoon in Florida, right next to the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. He tracked the perch height of these green anoles for a few years after the brown anole introduction, and saw that they shifted to higher perches. Green anoles on islands without any brown anoles, however, continued to perch low, so Campbell could attribute the shift in green anole perch height to the presence of brown anoles.
Campbell’s research set the stage for Stuart to come along ten years later to almost the same islands, to measure the lizards’ morphology. Brown anoles had invaded some of Campbell’s “green anole only” islands by then, making further comparisons among his islands meaningless. Stuart had to find the few islands left in Mosquito Lagoon with green anoles but no brown anoles on them, as well as nearby islands with both species. With the input and hard work of the other authors (Liam Revell and Graham Reynolds, anole biologists from UMass Boston, Paul Hohenlohe, evolutionary genomicist from the University of Idaho, and Stuart’s [and now my] Ph.D. advisor, Jonathan Losos) as well as assistance from everyone mentioned in the acknowledgements, he set about measuring the green anoles’ toes and ruling out explanations other than the competitive interaction between brown and green anoles for the changes in the green anoles’ habitat and morphology.
Fundamental to this project’s success is the collaboration between Campbell and Stuart. Each of their research makes the other’s more compelling, elevating the complete project to top-notch science. In describing their relationship, Stuart emphasizes how open Campbell was to sharing his understanding of these islands and their lizards. And because his research followed so directly on the heels of Campbell’s, Stuart felt an added sense of pressure. “It’s this amazing system that he was very generous in sharing, and so I wanted to make sure that I did the work right and I did it well” Stuart said, when I interviewed him in October.
Consider the “amazing system” that Stuart and Campbell worked in. The islands in Mosquito Lagoon are similar in age, size, plant life, and animal life, as close to experimental replicates as one can hope to find in nature. This replication is important—a pattern of higher perches and bigger, scalier toes in green anoles on five islands where they co-occur with brown anoles compared to six islands where they live on their own is far more convincing than a comparison of just a couple of islands of each type. This island system is therefore as crucial a player in this story as any of the people. Stuart recalls how, in their first few interactions, Campbell tried to assess if he had the skills and temperament to work in this system. Fieldwork on these islands involves manoeuvring a small boat through often-choppy waters, in soaring temperatures and sweaty weather, in a lagoon named for its mosquito population. Campbell’s first question to Stuart was, “Are you a boat guy?” He wasn’t.
Notwithstanding the difference in their nautical capabilities, the two scientists began to see themselves as collaborators. As Stuart put it, “those early days we sort of clicked quickly because I think we had a good sense for how you do field ecology. It’s messy, you don’t always get the sample sizes you want, nothing’s ever perfect, but we both quickly developed a sense that despite that, we still thought this system would be promising.” Their continued interactions in the field proved invaluable to Stuart. “One of the best parts about our collaboration was that [Campbell] was usually able to spend a week out there every summer, and be somebody to bounce ideas off of in the field. Given how often the field experience is different from what you envision when you’re sitting in your office, having somebody out there with a lot of field experience to chat with is really helpful.”
That scientists collaborate so closely, sharing their thoughts, skills, and knowledge with each other to build better science, may not form part of the popular narrative of science, but such collaboration is certainly not surprising to those of us within science. However, when I asked Stuart if there was any one person whose contribution made this project substantially different, his answer initially took even me by surprise. “Jimmy,” he said emphatically “he let us use his boat!” Jimmy McCrae happened to have parked his trailer opposite the house we were living in, next to a boat dock in Mosquito Lagoon. In addition to inviting us to several dinners with his girlfriend Kay, taking us offshore fishing, and giving me a ride on his Harley-Davidson, Jimmy lent us his boat. Stuart’s boat, a small, rusty metal shell that chugged placidly across the lagoon with its rim often terrifyingly close to the water’s surface, could only take us so far. Compared to this precarious vessel, Jimmy’s boat was positively shark-like in speed and whale-like in stability. “I think if we were stuck in that small boat we wouldn’t have gotten as much data. We probably would have had smaller sample sizes per island, and I don’t think we would have [sampled on] Pine,” the furthest island, and one of the few in the lagoon with only green anoles and no brown anoles on it.
Being able to borrow Jimmy’s boat had trickle-down effects on my own path through science. It meant I could use Stuart’s small boat to go by myself to the nearby islands on which I was conducting a little project of my own, on the behaviour of green anoles. This first taste of independent field work made me a bit more confident that I had what it took to become a field biologist, and someday when I tell the story of how I became a scientist, I’ll make sure that the corporate lawyer from Orlando makes an appearance in my tale, as he should. I suspect most scientists’ stories include a Jimmy, but how often do we hear about them? Not often enough. I have a feeling that if non-scientists realised that science is an inherently social and collaborative enterprise, and that they too are often an integral part of its narrative, we might all get along a bit better.