After a run of almost forty pieces, my natural history column for The Hindu Businessline’s BLInk is now on an indefinite (likely permanent) hiatus. Here are the last three columns I wrote:
About the human and biological history of an iconic little fish.
About the world of microbes, and how they change our perceptions of nature.
About the role of interdependence in the life of the Joshua tree.
I am so grateful to the editors at BLInk–Nandini Nair, Veena Venupgopal, Soity Banerjee, and Aditi Sengupta–for the opportunity to write this column and for their help and guidance. Writing Creature Feature has broadened my knowledge of the natural world, kept me interested in biology while my Ph.D. dissertation felt dreary, and forced me to become a clearer, more concise writer. Thank you to the many people who I’ve interviewed for pieces here–your enthusiasm for the natural world is infectious. And most of all, thanks to all of you for reading and responding to my pieces! This has been tremendous fun.
I’m not going to stop writing for general non-scientist audiences, though I’ve certainly gotten slower at it. I’m looking for new challenges–I want to write about weirder things, and get better at writing more abstractly. I want to learn how to craft longer pieces that jump more between topics in ways that can make sense. Do let me know if you have any ideas or advice–I’m wide open to suggestions!
Richard Prum has written a book in which he claims that female mate choice for arbitrary male traits, “beautiful” traits, is an underappreciated, revolutionary force in evolution. On the face of it, I should love this book. It appears to challenge standard sexual selection narratives, it emphasizes the importance of natural history, it even tries to be feminist! Why, then, do I dislike it? Because it is disingenuous.
How do you write a book on sexual selection and not even consider the idea that ornaments may signal environmentally-determined conditionand not just “good genes”? How do you manage to not cite Doug Emlen? How, as I’ve mentioned before, do you claim that Fisherian runaway selection is “ignored” by biologists and then not discuss research on sensory drive in fish or frogs or lizards? How do you write a book on sexual selection in birds and not even mention Hamilton and Zuk’s classic work on ornamentation and parasite load? Why, across your whole book, would you not distinguish between claims that are supported by the literature (you know, with a numbered footnote or endnote leading to a reference) and provocative statements pulled from thin air, making the reader repeatedly do the work of flipping to the end of the book to figure out which is which? After all this, how do you expect a reader to believe you when you say things like this:
Aesthetic evolution by mate choice is an idea so dangerous that it had to be laundered out of Darwinism itself in order to preserve the omnipotence of the explanatory power of natural selection.
I wanted to take this book seriously, but if it doesn’t engage with the literature it is seeking to critique, it does not deserve serious engagement. If, by failing to engage with others’ work on organisms that may not be birds, Prum ends up repeatedly reinventing all the wheels of our current understanding of sexual selection, it is not worth our time or effort to discern if he has in fact come up with something new. If, by setting out to prove himself an iconoclast, Prum mischaracterizes all of us who study sexual selection, he gains no credibility. Ironically, even as something of an adaptationist, I actually begrudgingly agreed with one of this book’s central claims–that we’d be better off considering runaway selection as a null model for ornament evolution–long before learning about any of Prum’s work. I don’t know what that says about Prum’s decision to be quite so combative in this book, and quite so dismissive of huge contributions from a large number of his colleagues.
Full disclosure: once this book started talking about feminism, I couldn’t bring myself to go on (I stopped after Chapter 5, a very mixed-bag chapter about Patricia Brennan’s wonderful work on duck sex). However, I made the mistake of skipping to the end, to see this paragraph:
On the other hand, feminists themselves have often expressed discomfort with standards of beauty, sexual aesthetics, and discussions of desire. Beauty has been viewed as a punishing male standard that treats women and girls as sexual objects and persuades women to adopt the same self-destructive standard to judge themselves. Desire has been viewed as another route to fining themselves under the power of men. Yet aesthetic evolutionary theory reminds us that women are not only sexual objects but also sexual subjects with their own desires and the evolved agency to pursue them. Sexual desire and attraction are not just tools of subjugation but individual and collective instruments of social empowerment that can contribute to the expansion of sexual autonomy itself. Normative aesthetic agreement about what is desirable in a mate can be a powerful force to effect cultural change.
No. We do not need “aesthetic evolutionary theory” to patronizingly inform us women that we have sexual agency. And women’s sexual agency is not going to save the world–men, get your act together and learn about systemic power imbalances.
I firmly believe that how we study sexual selection needs to be shaken up, but Prum’s approach is most definitely not the way. Maybe there’s something profound in here that I’m completely missing. Maybe it’ll hit me in a few weeks or months or years and I’ll come back and finish this book. Until then, I’ll continue to hold in high esteem the women who have been pushing boundaries and asking difficult questions of the evolutionary biology establishment, women like Marlene Zuk and Sarah Blaffer Hrdy and Patricia Gowaty and Patricia Brennan and Holly Dunsworth and Joan Roughgarden and Erika Milam and Zuleyma Tang-Martinez. I recommend you do the same.
In a nutshell, the main difference between these two books is captured by their subtitles. While Schimel’s book is shorter, to the point, and very goal-oriented, Heard’s is longer, a bit more meandering, and more process-oriented. I think both books are worth reading if you work in science and write papers or grant proposals, and either could be a good textbook for the sort of class we were teaching. Below, I’ve listed some more comparisons between the two, with the caveat that I last read them back in September, and some points may be retrieved from a fuzzy memory:
Neither book is prescriptive, and both recommend following principles over rules. This makes sense for a writing guide, in my opinion, as there are a million ways to write something well.
Both books focus, at their core, on story telling. However, this emphasis is stronger and more present throughout Schimel than Heard. Schimel advocates for focussing on the story at every level of writing, from sentence to paragraph to whole paper. I personally find this a bit too much (I’m not sure I believe that every sentence has to tell a full story). However, it lends a coherence to the whole book that translates well into the classroom–whenever we got stuck in critiquing some writing in class, we could move forward by asking “what’s the story here?”
The discussion of narrative arcs and funnel- or hourglass-shaped stories (start and end broad, narrow in the middle) is very similar in both books.
While both books mix examples and principles, I learnt more from Schimel’s examples and Heard’s principles than the converse. I think this is an important way in which the two books complement one another.
In particular, Heard carefully thinks through all possible ways of approaching particular writing challenges. For example, he has a section titled “Three properties of good paragraphs,” in which one subsection titled “Making paragraphs coherent” has a list of seven possible ways in which to organize a paragraph. The whole book is peppered with such examples of comprehensive thought, which I really enjoyed.
Heard includes multiple chapters on the writing process, as well as the scientific authoring process. Schimel’s book doesn’t have equivalent chapters. We assigned chapters from Heard as supplemental reading, e.g. the chapters on outlines, tables and figures, and self-revision. With more planning, we would no doubt have added more, e.g. the chapters on coauthorship and review, both from colleagues and peer review.
I think this approach of mixing the two books is ideal for the classroom. A course taught entirely off of Heard’s book may become frustrating if students don’t care about the process of writing at all. With just Schimel’s advice, I think you could hate writing but still get the job done. Heard, however, is probably a bit more likely to get you to enjoy writing.
Whose advice you like better is going to be a matter of personal preference. I happen to like Heard’s choices and examples a bit more than Schimel’s, because my style happens to match Heard’s a bit more closely. But again, there are a million ways to write something well, and both of these books are impeccable guides to writing. This is one of those choices where you can’t really go wrong.
I was having coffee with a colleague recently, and we were talking, as academics are wont to do, about the problems with academia. These problems come in different shapes and sizes, and many are no doubt going to be difficult to address. But the most frustrating problems in academia, we agreed, are the ones that persist despite a solution being apparent.
On most days, the challenge of making academia more welcoming of people from diverse backgrounds seems like a difficult one, where progress will be made in the form of baby steps. But occasionally, I’m reminded that there are elements of hostility in academia to people from underrepresented groups, often unconscious or inadvertent, that would be easy to solve. Two examples I’ve seen recently fall into this category.
First, at a talk some days ago, a researcher wanted to make a point about hybridization between species of humans, Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens. This section of their talk was prefaced with a picture that looked like this:
By using a picture of mixed race children in this context, the researcher was (I’m guessing unconsciously) suggesting that mating between species in the genus Homo is similar to interracial unions that produce mixed-race children, i.e. that people from different racial backgrounds are basically as biologically different as members of different species. We can argue about species definitions until the cows come home, but anything that makes a non-white person in a majority-white audience think “Wait, do they really think I belong to a different species?” isn’t worth putting on a slide.
Second, the biologist Dan Graur, posted an anecdote about a cladistics meeting, that included the sentence
It took me a few minutes to understand that the letter L stood for “likelihood,” which in the cladistic thesaurus serves as curse word akin to c**t or n****r.
I’ve added the asterisks in, but the asterisks are beside the point. The point is that the experience of one party in an academic tiff (and the side that’s clearly winning, at that) is being compared to the systematic denigration over centuries of women and African-Americans. The point isn’t about prudishness, as Graur seems to think (1, 2)–if all he wanted was an example of a curse word, then “asshole” or “fucker” wouldn’t have raised too many eyebrows.
The solution here is easy: when giving a talk or writing a blogpost, don’t use people as props in an argument unless you’ve thought about it really carefully. Don’t refer to groups of people, especially marginalized groups of people, to make a joke. Try to find a different way to fill your slides, make a different joke, because I can guarantee that your insight or humour is not worth more than alienating already-marginalized members of your audience. I’ve written about this before, and sadly, I suspect I’ll be writing about it again. But seriously, in the quest to make academia more welcoming of people with a range of identities and from diverse backgrounds, this is the easiest item to check off the list.
With the nostalgia that invariably accompanies year-endings, I’ve been looking over my writing in 2015, trying to pick out the pieces I like best. My personal favourite, by a long distance, is this post I wrote for Anole Annals, titled “Are Brown Anoles in Florida Really Driving Green Anoles to Extinction?” Here’s the first paragraph, just to give you a sense of what it’s about:
Tell almost anyone in Florida that you’re doing research on brown anoles (Anolis sagrei), and they’ll express some distaste for your study organism. “I don’t like them,” they’ll say, “they’re invasive. Aren’t they driving the native green anoles extinct?”* Everyone—literally everyone who has lived in Florida for a while—will tell you how their backyards used to be full of green anoles (Anolis carolinensis). Today, they report, these green anoles have disappeared and been replaced by the invading browns.
The rest of the post goes on to discuss why these “backyard tales” may be unfounded. The main takeaway of the post is that, rather than going extinct, it is possible that green anoles have simply shifted upwards out of sight in many habitats where they co-occur with brown anoles. I present some data from an informal, small-scale mark-recapture study we conducted in 2015, and make inferences from both the number and the sex ratio of the green anoles we caught to suggest that the green anoles in that site, and likely elsewhere, are still around.
Why do I like this post so much? Because it combines data and logic and story telling to challenge a rather prevalent notion, namely the “usual alarmist hysteria [about] green anoles being pushed to extinction” by brown anoles. Because it was born from observing animals in their natural habitats. Because it spurred comments from biologists and non-biologists, plus an accompanying post from Jonathan Losos adding an evolutionary dimension to the argument that green and brown anoles can coexist. But most of all, I like the post because it appears in the one location where people who are interested in this question are most likely to find it—a blog dedicated to the biology of Anolis lizards, a blog that is followed by a large number of professional and amateur Anolis enthusiasts.
That got me thinking about the best thing to do with datasets like the one I wrote about. Could it have been published as a short note in a natural history journal? Possibly, but only after much more effort from me into manuscript preparation and formatting, and months in review, demanding further effort from editors and reviewers. Does a study this small, this tentative, need peer review? Not really, and when published in a place like Anole Annals, readers are free to post comments clarifying or criticizing the methodology and conclusions. Would its reach have been wider, its impact stronger, as a published paper? Almost certainly not. Whether a blog post or a paper, people will reach it via a Google Search. Does any of this make these data inconsequential? No. I know my post is veryfar from earth-shattering, but it’s a thought-provoking dataset to people who care about Anolis lizards, and in it’s current location and format, it reaches those people efficiently. Of course, Anole Annals didn’t emerge overnight—I know that it’s taken time and effort from many contributers to establish and run—but I suspect that effort pays high dividends.
As a natural history enthusiast, I love the possibilities that a blog like Anole Annals affords for changing how we go about collecting and disseminating the natural history observations that field biologists accrue. But anoles are a special beast—most genera of organisms do not have such an ardent following. Can this model be scaled upwards in any way? I wondered aloud about this on Twitter a while ago, and the consensus was that the Encyclopaedia of Life, or something like it, was our best bet (thanks to Felicity Muth for the suggestion!)
I don’t think I’m suggesting that we do away with natural history journals entirely, because there is certainly a need for more comprehensive and substantial natural history research, for which publication in a journal (and the associated credit it brings) makes sense. But I know that many of us field biologists have far more observations and datasets that don’t get submitted as papers to natural history journals. It seems a shame not to share these at all—if and when I stop studying lizards, I know I’ll miss the chance to talk about my study organisms’ natural history at a venue like Anole Annals.
*Fun aside: the quote isn’t made up; it’s from a conversation with the talented tattoo artist, Rich Mal, from Anthem Tattoo in Gainesville. I recommend that establishment highly, in case you’re interested.
The August 1st issue of The Hindu BLink carried a review I wrote a while ago of the book Sex on Earth: A Celebration of Animal Reproduction by Jules Howard. There have been some issues getting the review online, so in the meanwhile, here it is:
Of the many routes you might take into the lives of the animals, a route that takes you through the varied, weird, and thoroughly entertaining world of animal reproduction is perhaps one that you may not admit taking. But embarrassment surrounding the subject of animal sex is unwarranted. Because almost all creatures depend on it to reproduce persist, sex has been tremendously important in shaping the natural world, and any attempt to understand animals depends upon understanding sex. Contemplating animal sex can lead you to think about some of the most puzzling questions in biology, so set aside your prudishness for a while, and go read Sex on Earth: A Celebration of Animal Reproduction by Jules Howard.
Howard doesn’t travel far or wide to bring you first-hand accounts of the oddest animal sex on the planet, because he doesn’t need to. The woods, gardens, zoos, and museums of his native England are filled with plenty of organisms with fascinating sex lives, and this book includes the stories of ducks with explosive penises and corkscrew vaginas, the sex arenas of retired race horses, and chicks raised by a pair of male flamingos named Carlos and Fernando.
But investigating the “sex lives of the everyday” quickly leads Howard to the limits of our knowledge about animal reproduction. For example, while waiting to catch frogs in the act, Howard raises the question of how exactly male and female frogs decide when to migrate to the breeding ponds in which they mate with each other. Turns out this is a question we don’t really know the answer to. In examining the mysterious lives of bdelloid rotifers, which inhabit almost every corner of the globe and never have sex, he ponders why sex evolved in the first place, a puzzle that scientists have been mulling over for many decades but have only recently begun to solve. By balancing stories of what we do know about animal sex with constant questions about what we don’t know, by talking to and learning from the scientists who spend their lives asking these questions, Sex on Earth shows us how science really works. But don’t expect any large revelations about life on earth or the human condition when you reach the end of this book—it is better read as a series of essays, occasionally repetitive and some decidedly better than others, without a central narrative.
There are many, many articles and books about the science of animal reproduction written for people who aren’t biologists, which makes writing yet another one a risky proposition. I don’t think I’d recommend Sex on Earth to you if you know nothing about biology and aren’t willing to learn some of it on the fly—Howard doesn’t define some basic terms (expect to see words like “sexual dimorphism” and “sub-hominin”), and only quickly explains some fairly difficult concepts. What sets this book apart from most popular writing about the science of animal reproduction is Howard’s willingness to voice an opinion on some of the most problematic aspects of how people have studied and talked about animal sex. Foremost among these is our tendency to impose human values and insecurities about sex onto the animal world. Why else has it taken scientists so long to acknowledge that females play as important a role in sex as males? What’s with our abhorrent tendency to describe some animal sex as “rape”? And why do we speculate, on only the shakiest of scientific foundations, about the length of an erect T. rex penis? Howard takes on these questions forcefully but also funnily, and the result is a refreshingly different account of animal reproduction.
I have a piece in the Hindu BLink’s latest themed issue. The theme is loneliness, and my piece is about “lonely” ideas, which I define as “ideas that deserve to have an impact, but don’t,” ideas that are “ahead of their time and threaten established ways of thinking.” Click through to read about two lonely scientific ideas, and how they recently met on my Facebook page.
If you’ve written a scientific paper recently, I’m willing to bet that, during the writing/editing process, someone told you to avoid writing in the passive voice (unless you’d already heard this advice before, and avoided it from the start!). This suggestion is usually mentioned in reference to the Methods section, which seems to be where the passive voice is most often employed.
I’ll admit that my first instinct is to write Methods sections wholly in the passive voice. I’m not sure why this is—most likely, it’s just a habit I’ve picked up from reading scientific papers, or perhaps I was taught to write this way in high school science lab reports. And I suspect that I get annoyed when commanded to write in the active voice partly because I’m stubborn. But for the longest time, I’ve found something about the advice to abandon the passive voice fishy. I recently realised that my doubts lie in the most popular reason I’ve heard for ditching the passive voice—that it’s incompatible with story-telling.
“I hold that good writing is basically good storytelling. To tell a story well, we need to clearly identify our characters and then show the reader what those characters do. The passive voice makes storytelling more difficult because it hides the characters deep in the sentence—if it shows them at all.”
When I first read that the passive voice may hinder storytelling, I grew quite concerned with my unwillingness to abandon it, because I firmly believe in the power of stories. But my concern turned to skepticism when I realised that storytelling in a scientific paper is so different from other types of storytelling that this complaint becomes nearly meaningless. And I think this boils down to an unusual divide, in scientific writing, between the characters we care about (the organisms, the molecules, the ideas…) and the characters that act (the scientists).
The Methods section of a paper has a very definite purpose—to convey the series of actions taken to collect and analyse the data in the paper (or the equivalent series of actions in a theoretical/modelling paper). We don’t spend any time describing the characters taking these actions (the scientists), we don’t even stop to distinguish members of this cast of characters from one another. We don’t care about the characters’ emotional states, memories, or imaginations while they perform these actions, and we don’t care too much about the physical setting in which the actions take place. But these are exactly the sort of details that story-tellers use to write engaging prose in the active voice. To illustrate this point, here are some examples from Purple Hibiscus, a moving novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which I happen to have just read twice through.
This novel is narrated in the first person by Kambili, a teenage girl with a rich and influential but oppressive and abusive father. A visit to her aunt’s home changes Kambili’s life, leading her to discover herself and happiness. One of the threads in this story is how Kambili learns to do household chores; at home, she lives according to a strict schedule, imposed by her father, that includes nothing but studies and prayer. In her aunt’s house, however, she is expected to help, and her inexperience only exacerbates an already-tense relationship between Kambili and her cousin, Amaka.
Aunty Ifeoma got one of the huge yams we had brought from home. Amaka spread newspaper sheets on the floor to slice the tuber; it was easier than picking it up and placing it on the counter. When Amaka put the yam slices in a plastic bowl, I offered to help peel them, and she silently handed me a knife.
“You are wasting yam, Kambili,” Amaka snapped. “Ah! Ah! Is that how you peel yam in your house?”
Later on, Kambili returns to her aunt’s home, to recover from a terrifying interaction with her father. Kambili has changed in many ways since her last visit.
I went to the verandah, still coughing. It was clear that I was unused to bleaching palm oil, that I was used to vegetable oil, which did not need bleaching. But there had been no resentment in Amaka’s eyes, no sneer, no turndown of her lips. I was grateful when she called me back later to ask that I help her cut the ugu for the soup. I did not just cut the ugu, I made the garri also. Without her eyes still bearing down on me, I did not pour in too much hot water, and the garri turned out firm and smooth.
Both these paragraphs are primarily composed of a series of actions, not too different from a Methods section. But the actions do not themselves make these paragraphs interesting—they’re also about the relationships between the characters taking the actions, and how the characters and their relationships evolve between one paragraph and the next. All of these details help make these paragraphs part of a compelling story. These details also contribute to making these paragraphs good writing. Having the option of incorporating these details into the series of actions allows the author her to vary the structure of her sentences. Variation in sentence structure—in length and rhythm and tone—is essential to lively writing.
Because most of these situation- and character-related details have no place in the Methods section of a scientific paper, the ways in which we can vary sentence structure are severely curtailed. Moreover, the characters central to our scientific stories are, in the Methods section, largely being acted upon by the minor characters (us, the scientists). From the perspective of both good writing and good story-telling, therefore, we should be allowed to use the passive voice in scientific writing. It offers us a tool to vary sentence structure, and allows us to focus attention on the important characters. Of course, a Methods section written entirely in the passive voice will likely be boring, because it will have limited variation in sentence structure. But the same can be said of a Methods section written entirely in the active voice. The solution, clearly, is to abandon all proscriptions and strive for variation.
Also, none of this is to say that we should never care about the scientists who collect or analyse data. Our identities matter, and influence the stories we tell. But this means we should be telling more and varied stories about science, in a wide variety of venues and targeting a range of different audiences. Some of these stories need to be focussed on the science. Others should make visible and celebrate the people involved in science, in ways that are more substantial than writing our Methods sections in the active voice.
I’m fairly new to Twitter, and given my inability to express thoughts concisely, I don’t tweet too often. I mostly just retweet things I find interesting, and use Twitter to publicize my articles and blogposts. But every now and then, I compose a tweet to add my voice to a hashtag movement. Most recently, I tweeted with #scishirt, because I feel strongly that our clothing shouldn’t objectify anyone, and with #IAmANaturalist, because I believe academia doesn’t value natural history enough. For both of these hashtags, I imagined the primary audience of these tweets to be other scientists.
But social media doesn’t get more public than Twitter, and there now seems to be a sub-genre of online journalism that is devoted to collating tweets into articles that likely reach a broad audience. Also, I’d imagine that at least some scientists see Twitter as a medium for engaging with non-scientists about science. Given that, I think it matters how scientists come across on Twitter to non-scientists, and I’ve been thinking about this after a recent hashtag, #IAmAScientistBecause.
Initially, I didn’t bother tweeting with #IAmAScientistBecause because I didn’t have anything new to say. I’m a scientist because I like nature and logic and figuring things out, and because I was privileged enough to be exposed to science as a career option. Almost everyone was tweeting about being motivated by curiosity, and I didn’t want to add more of the same into the pile. But as I read more and more tweets, in which some cast their lives as scientists as “quests for the truth” and contributing to “saving the world,” I started to dislike the picture of scientists that was emerging from this trend. There’s obviously nothing wrong with an individual scientist being motivated by curiosity or by wanting to make the world better, but when scientists say again and again and again that they were compelled by curiosity (or some sort of saviour complex) to become scientists, it starts to sound as though we think curiosity (and saving the world) is the exclusive domain of scientists. It’s striking to me that the hashtag was started by @naturejobs, and lots of the people who found it “inspiring” were also scientists. Did we stop to think how these tweets might look to people currently outside science?
Then Buzzfeed collated some of these tweets into a listicle, and I started to get really uncomfortable with how we were portraying ourselves. Included among the “29 Reasons You Should Be A Scientist” was “because regular jobs are boring.” And we wonder why the “public” doesn’t like us? Most of what’s distressing about this listicle comes from Buzzfeed’s commentary, but I think it’s worth thinking about how a collection of tweets celebrating ourselves to ourselves can end up looking like this to a broader audience. Perhaps ironically, I turned to Twitter to see if anyone else shared my discomfort. Some did, and they expressed it better than I could.
@ambikamath The "smug superiority" to "childlike wonder" ratio is a little too high overall. Too many "other jobs suck" implications.
As I see it, neither the relationship between scientists and non-scientists nor the relationship between the academic scientific establishment and the people who choose to leave it are doing particularly well. #IAmAScientistBecause may actually have hurt both these relationships, and I think it’s worth pausing a bit before jumping onto a largely self-congratulatory bandwagon to consider its effects on the people we need to engage and improve our relationships with.
UPDATE: Here is a post from Stephen Heard who, as you can see in the tweet above, has enjoyed this hashtag and explains why. As Dr. Heard put it:
@ambikamath Thanks, Ambika! I think our two pieces together are stronger than either alone. An accident, but a happy one.
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 mediaattention, 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.