Was the writing always effortless?


[No.] It's easier to be a good scientist than a good writer. It's like playing a musical instrument; the elements of writing become automatic. Like any mental endeavor, you're running on automatic, allowing you to concentrate on the scenery.

Tell us about your career

My career was substantially based on three mental qualities. One, I love detail, especially in natural history. I actually read technical monographs on obscure groups of plants and animals and have practically memorized field guides for the sheer pleasure of them.

The second: methodology. I get bored solving problems.

But you've solved many puzzles

I would rather learn more about nature than [have] the satisfaction of solving abstract problems. There are many good scientists who ignore the details and spend time solving abstract problems, but I am just the reverse.

The third quality?

I have a talent for synthesis; it made...

What are you working on now?

I'm working on a new book with Bert Hölldobler, who won the Pulitzer Prize with me in 1991 for The Ants; he and I are updating the entire subject of insect sociobiology.

Has sociobiology evolved the way you thought it would?

Yes, it did. The whole point about sociobiology is not what the critics later thought it to be, which is the idea that human social behavior has a biological connotation. Of course, that has turned out to be true. But sociobiology is the systematic study of biological foundations of all forms of social behavior, in all kinds of organisms. It was the plan that I helped to devise in the 1960s, and first published in 1971 under the name of sociobiology in a book called Insect Societies. But who reads about bugs?

But your timing wasn't great

To bring out Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, in 1975 was almost, not quite, the worst possible time because of the political climate on campus. Furthermore, most researchers in the social sciences and humanities at that time still believed, as they had for decades, that the brain is a blank slate and that biology has little to do with the mind. But intellectually, there was no better time to publish.

Why would be exempt from evolution?

The critics never came to that conclusion. Given that human beings evolved from primates, who had complicated instincts, then how did our relatives' brains turn into blank slates? ... I didn't press the matter at the time.

Did you learn anything from that experience?

Caution. When I published Sociobiology, the plan was to go back to social insects and biogeography. But the heavy assault made it seem necessary to clear my name, because these attacks were personal. The result was On Human Nature [which took the Pulitzer].

What makes you angry?

Fraud. I dislike intensely the dishonesty in scientific reporting, particularly when prompted by an ideological agenda.

What do you do, unscientifically speaking?

My wife and I listen to music. I'm now in my middle 70s; I tend to run out of steam. After dinner, I watch TV – mostly the Discovery Channel and the History Channel – and read mysteries.

What's your favorite personal work?

Biophilia, because it really is a new idea and the first fully literary effort in which I tried to write evocatively.

Any guilty pleasures?

At my age, few.

What is the toughest lesson you learned about science?

Political ideology can corrupt the mind, and science.

What was your toughest personal lesson?

To learn to look around and ask others before you make a major move. I assumed I was right, but I was very naïve in surmising the reactions of my colleagues.

What is stress?

Living with uncertainty about important matters. I suppose that helps make one a good researcher – I can't stand not knowing the answer.

Christine Bahls can be reached at cbahls@the-scientist.com.

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