The Thoughtful Animal

7 Questions with… Eric M. Johnson

Here at The Thoughtful Animal, we are conducting series of seven-question interviews with people who are doing or have done animal research of all kinds – biomedical, behavioral, cognitive, and so forth. Interested in how animal research is conducted, or why animal research is important? Think you might want to do some animal research of your own someday? This is the interview series for you.

Eric M. Johnson (twitter, blog) is pursuing a doctorate in the History and Philosophy of Science focusing on evolutionary biology. He is especially interested in how cooperation and morality were explained from an evolutionary standpoint ever since Darwin. Until recently he wrote The Primate Diaries here at Scienceblogs, but you can still find his (fantastic) posts by following the Primate Diaries in Exile tour.

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So jump behind the fold for the interview, and enjoy!


1. To start out, could you tell my readers something about yourself? Could you tell us a little about your academic and/or scientific career trajectories?

About midway through my undergraduate training while attending film school in Los Angeles I switched course in order to study my real passion, human evolutionary biology. At that time I wasn’t interested in a career in science (I guess I’m still not) so I often took courses in multiple science departments depending on what questions I had that year. I took every biological anthropology course I could and convinced the department Chair to allow me to substitute chemistry, physics, and biology courses for the required cultural anthropology classes. One semester I took an advanced cosmology course along with microbiology. I was the only anthropology student I knew who also worked in a neuroscience lab culturing hippocampal neurons in the search for mechanisms of memory formation.

I took this same interdisciplinary focus into my graduate work. I did my masters work in bonobo behavioral ecology while, at the same time, gaining the laboratory skills I would need to complete a PhD in behavioral endocrinology. My graduate advisor at Duke was involved in research seeking to decipher the olfactory communication in ring-tailed lemurs and I assisted her in this work collecting material from lemur scent glands for chemical analysis. I also published a paper with three of my colleagues (in the Journal of Human Evolution) looking at lemur brain size as a means to test hypotheses about the evolution of primate sociality.

2. Some people decide that they want to work with animals, and then find a particular research program they like. Others are interested in a particular empirical question, and discover that animal research is one of the best ways to approach that question. Why did you decide to become involved in animal research?

I wanted to understand human origins (especially human sociality) by comparing human behavior with the behavior of our closest evolutionary relatives. There had already been a great deal of work looking at chimpanzee behavior but the behavior of bonobos was still largely unknown. Bonobos are a species equally related to humans and both Pan species shared a common ancestor with us between 4-6 million years ago. Given the exciting reports of bonobo sexuality, sociality, and female dominance I thought that bonobos could offer an important balance to the comparisons often made between our species and chimpanzees. So, once I decided what my research questions were going to be, there was never any doubt that I wanted to work with animals nor which animals I wanted to work with.

3. What have been some of the most interesting or challenging projects you’ve worked on, in the course of your animal research?

The most interesting project was certainly my work on bonobo sociality. In the preliminary stages of my field work I noticed a common tension between the demands placed on high-ranking mothers with nursing infants. In order to maintain their high rank, females needed to spend lots of time grooming other members of the troop. The physical act of grooming forms social bonds and builds alliances. This is an activity very similar to social grooming in humans (but which we employ somewhat differently, for example through gossip). But infants are extremely time consuming. There would numerous cases I observed where a high-ranking female would have to interrupt her grooming session in order to retrieve her infant who had wandered off. Since social grooming was a kind of career track for the mother I was interested in how the conflict between career and family would play out in our bonobo cousins.

4. Some years ago, bonobos were relatively unknown. Now that they are becoming better known, and public awareness of our “other” closest cousins is increasing, do you think they are suffering from a stereotype of the hypersexual primate? Is the fact that they use sex as a social tool being misused – or at best, misinterpreted – for political purposes?

I don’t think so. Some people certainly latch on to the idea of the “hippie chimp” because it justifies their own lifestyle, but overall I think it’s been a useful corrective to the biased understanding of human evolution that the frequent comparisons to chimpanzees had generated. There is a fair amount of overlap in their behaviors, as Christophe Boesch has documented, but the extremes of behavior do exist and they’re fascinating. For example, whereas chimpanzee males will patrol their territory and attack males from other troops, bonobos aren’t so territorial and if they encounter another troop are likely to engage in mutual grooming or sex to diffuse tension. That’s a significant difference. A similar difference exists in chimp and bonobo sexual behavior (as I wrote about recently on The Intersection blog at Discover). Are these differences primarily genetic or are they learned behavioral differences influenced by different environments? It’s a fascinating question. It forces us to think about how we have structured our own society and whether some conditions bring out more chimp-like behaviors while other conditions bring out our bonobo side. It’s a useful debate and I think that so long as solid evidence is brought to bear I have no problem with it.

5. You mention that you aren’t necessarily interested in a career in science. What have you been doing career-wise since you finished your Masters?

During my program in Evolutionary Anthropology I began taking courses in the history of science to provide context to my work on the evolution of cooperative behavior. I thought that the early discussions by Darwin, Huxley, Wallace, etc. could help give me some guidance as I carried out my own work. But what I found was that cooperation was largely ignored as 19th century naturalists primarily emphasized competition as the driving factor in evolution. Those who did look at the evolution of cooperation, such as the Russian naturalist Peter Kropotkin, were largely dismissed as being political radicals. It wasn’t until fairly recently that this topic began to be seriously studied by evolutionary researchers. I became fascinated with this history and made the decision to change departments (as well as change universities and even countries, since I’m now a PhD candidate in history at the University of British Columbia). I miss working in the sciences but I feel that this was the best decision I’ve ever made and greatly enjoy the interdisciplinary nature of my current work.

6. What made you decide to start blogging? And how has your blogging impacted on the rest of your life, professionally or otherwise?

I started blogging three years ago because I was tired of having my query letters rejected. I had some early success as a freelance writer and had an article I wrote on the biology of humor published by Discover magazine. But the life of a freelancer was extremely frustrating. I would come up with what I thought was a great idea for an article and carry out a bulk of the research in order to mail my proposal to a magazine editor. Weeks would pass and, in the meantime, I would do the same thing on a dozen other article ideas. I think my average was about fifty query letters for each writing job. It’s not how I wanted to spend my time. I just wanted to write and share ideas that I hoped others would enjoy. I didn’t even know what science blogging was at the time but when I did some internet searching I realized that there was a lively community of researchers and writers who were just as excited about science as I was. I opened a Blogger account right away and got to work.

Blogging has been incredibly helpful to me professionally. I’ve been able to make contacts in the scientific and publishing world that I never would have otherwise. Plus I’m able to explore ideas that I may want to incorporate in my later work and try them on for size to see how they fit. The interaction with readers is extremely beneficial for a writer. In a way it’s like being a stand-up comic. Very few comedians make a name for themselves by practicing material alone in their room. They need the interaction with an audience to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Blogging has given me a chance to experiment with different material and to (hopefully) improve my ability to communicate. It’s been a wonderful experience and I would recommend it to any aspiring writer.

7. What advice would you give to an aspiring scientist who would like to become involved in animal research?

Form your research question first (or at least the big idea that you want to explore). This will often determine the animal model that is best suited for your work. It would do little good to study elephants if you want to understand how speciation occurs; for that you’d be better off looking at aphids or African cichlid fish. But if you’re dead set on studying a specific species (like naked mole rats, for example) make sure you read every paper you can find about them in order to form a question that hasn’t been studied before. The quality of your science is in large part its originality. Then seek out those researchers whose work you’re most interested in. Graduate work in the sciences is one of the last examples of the old apprentice system. In many cases your graduate work will be one small part of whatever your advisor is working on, so make sure that it’s work that you want to be doing. Completing a PhD is hard enough without working on a project that you have no investment in. Other than that, just focus on forming a fascinating research question that your experimental protocol can answer. A useful approach is to target a leading figure in your field with the intention to prove one of their pet hypotheses wrong. That’s the only way science moves forward, by rigorously interrogating past assumptions and improving our ability to test these assumptions in the natural world. A well known aphorism in my department summed up this basic philosophy of science best of all: Go after the sacred cows and have a barbecue.

Thanks for your time, Eric! I hope my readers find your thoughts and experiences and interesting as I have.

Comments

  1. #1 razib
    September 3, 2010

    awsim interview.

  2. #2 Animal Annie
    September 9, 2010

    Fascinating research on the bonobos, especially the part about raising children interfering with social grooming.

    I wonder if higher ranking females tend to have fewer children, which would make the bonobo females situation similar to the situation that occurs in different social classses of humans. (Wealthy people tend to have fewer children; poor people tend to have more children.)

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