Before They Were Scientists: Doug Emlen

I recently sat down with evolutionary biologist Dr. Doug Emlen when he was in town to give a seminar at NC State. We met at the Hunt Library, and after testing out a few of their famous chairs, we settled in for an interview that took us around the world. Read on to learn how Doug spent the first six months of sixth grade in Kenya with his dad studying birds, got singled out in science class and learned early on in his academic career that he would never be Indiana Jones.

Lea: We’re thinking about middle school — what’s the first thing that comes to mind when I say, “middle school”?

Doug: One of the things I remember most vividly from that time period was that my sister and I had an opportunity to spend six months living in Kenya with my father and my stepmother. I grew up in a family of biologists; my father is a biologist, his father is a biologist, and so now so am I. At the time my dad was studying these birds called white fronted bee eaters that lived on the mud-bank cliffs on the sides of rivers in Africa. They would drill these four to five foot tube tunnels into the banks of these cliffs on the sides of the streams. There could be three or four hundred of these tunnels all lined up. There are colonies of these birds with multiple different families. They nest at the end of the tubes and they cooperate. If an adult’s first attempt at mating and nesting fails, they go home and help their parents raise kids. They’re a very interesting species because they have these extended families and cooperative breeding. That’s what my dad was there to study.

I grew up in a family of biologists; my father is a biologist, his father is a biologist and so now, so am I.

I was in sixth grade, my sister was in fifth grade. We went to a British boarding school called Greensteds School right outside of Nakuru, Kenya. We weren’t used to the British system; it was totally packed with Kenyan kids with fancy uniforms, and all the words were different — they called pens “Biros”

[after the inventor of the Ballpoint pen, Laszlo Biro] and we were these clueless American kids from a totally different school system. We felt plucked out and stuck in this British boarding school; living in dorms with all these Kenyan kids — it was awesome. During the week we’d go to the boarding school and on the weekends we’d come home… “home”… to the house that we had in this national park where my dad was doing his work. This was special because there was an old stone building there that was leftover from colonial days in the middle of the park and as a scientist he had permission from the government to stay and work there. We were living, literally, in this tiny little house surrounded by the bush. Elephants, lions, zebras, waterbuck and the whole lot. We’d come home and get to spend the weekends living in paradise surrounded by all of these incredible animals.

We got to help with the research and that was really transformative for me.

Listen to Doug recount what it was like creeping around in the dark, in a river, in the middle of the Nakuru National Park, helping his dad capture and measure birds:

Were there any other field assistants or was it just you and your sister helping your dad?

I remember it was my dad, my stepmother, my sister and me. He worked with crews and students at Kenyan universities that he would train over the years, but at this point… it was a long time ago… so I don’t remember anyone else helping us then.

I definitely imprinted on biology at an early age. I knew fairly early on that I liked the detective work. I liked the mental challenge of trying to solve a problem. The animals are doing something you don’t understand and you want to figure out why. The trick was to design experiments that would let you tease apart what was going on. All that came back to asking questions in the right way and thinking really clearly about your system and thinking about what the alternative possibilities were and then working out carefully how you would discern between those possibilities. That kind of detective process, for me, is the magic that makes science exciting. I was hooked on that before I was out of middle school, for sure. I was also hooked on crazy places.

All of the field biologists I know also sort of imprinted on Indiana Jones or Laura Croft. We all sort of wanted that macho lifestyle… but already I knew it was possible because I’d lived a little bit of it for that time in middle school.

Where is the “craziest” place you’ve been?

Now I work on beetles with horns — so we’ve been to Africa looking for dung beetles where we had to have armed guards standing on the roof of the car to watch out for cape buffalo and leopards while we’re out there poking around in the dung… tipping over elephant dung and digging around and collecting beetles as fast as we can and then rushing back to the car. I spent almost three years living in Central and South America doing fieldwork. I’ve been to some beautiful and crazy places in Ecuador, tromping around on the sides of mountains in the cloud forest looking for rhinoceros beetles… that I didn’t find.

I had some incredible experiences in Panama working at a research station there. I’ve had a really good time doing fieldwork in Australia. I’ve been all over — that’s part of the joy of this profession.

Did you expect that you would go to so many different places all over the world when you entered science?

I guess I did. Again, because of my dad. I supposed I didn’t have an “average” upbringing in the sense that my grandfather was a biologist and he had worked with students that had done research all over the world. He had been to every single continent doing research in one way or another, including Antarctica. He actually had to lie on his medical forms and sneak onto the plane to get to Antarctica because he had open-heart surgery and they didn’t want someone who had open-heart surgery at a field station in the middle of nowhere. I grew up knowing that this was a life where you don’t make a ton of money, but you spend your life tackling interesting questions or pushing the intellectual envelope — and that is exciting. Depending on who you work with and what you work on, your research can take you to some pretty incredible places. I guess it wasn’t an accident that I ended up working in the tropics — I kind of picked animals that lived in the tropics so that I would have an excuse to go to the tropics…

Loading...

I do have another experience I need to tell from middle school.

This is a less enjoyable experience than the time I got to go to Africa.

One of the defining moments, and it’s interesting how when thinking back, there aren’t that many memories that latch on and stay with you. The ones that do probably are there for a reason. One of the memories that is very vivid for me is when I was in middle school. At that time I was going to middle school in Halls Crossings, Tennessee — just north of Knoxville. I remember my science class and my science teacher, Mr. C, for one particular incident. One morning we showed up for school and Mr. C went up in front of the board and he drew a stick figure of an ape and a little arrow pointing at a stick figure of a person. There was a bitter scorn in his voice and he said, “I’m now required by law to teach this stuff.” And he continued, “Well, there are actually people out there that believe that we have evolved from apes.” (Which, incidentally, is a misconception that’s not the way it works, but that’s the way he said it verbatim).

He turned around and said, “We actually have a student in our school that believes in evolution. Doug? Would you get up and explain to the class how we evolved from the apes?” It’s funny. That one sentence that took all of 30 seconds and I remember it after all these years like it was burned into my brain. I don’t even remember what I said. I don’t remember what we were doing as a unit at that time. I don’t remember who my science teacher was a year after or the year after that… but I remember what he was wearing that day, what he looked like. And all those years later when I finally finished graduate school and I was holding my PhD in evolutionary biology from Princeton University in my hand, the first thing that flashed through my mind is I really want to go down there and stick this is Mr. C’s face. That is one of my most memorable instances from middle school, for better or worse.

He turned around and said, “We actually have a student in our school that believes in evolution. Doug? Would you get up and explain to the class how we evolved from the apes?”
What was your biggest worry in middle school?

I don’t remember worries. When I think back to that age at that time in my life, my parents had divorced and remarried. I had one set of parents living in Ithaca, New York, and the other set living in Tennessee, which is why I was going to middle school in Tennessee. My sister and I would go back and forth so we were traveling a lot. We would go to school in one place and then fly to the other place for winter and summer breaks and then turn around and fly back. In that way we experienced one of the early joint custodies, and we got to grow up with both sets of parents and so we did a lot of traveling. But it did have repercussions that affected us socially. At that time all the sports and activities that everyone was into, none of them were just during the school year or just during summer vacation —  they all wrapped around. So you either had all the practices in the summer and then the games would start in the fall or vice versa. I was never able to do any of the sports or the typical things that boys at that age could do. For that reason I ended up … I wouldn’t say I was a loner… but I ended up falling in love with things that I could do on my own. I spent a lot of time in the woods exploring. I was absolutely obsessed with early explorers and trappers and early Native American warriors. I spent a lot of time outdoors making my own little lean-tos. My parents tell a crazy story of me going out there in the middle of winter and breaking through the ice and stripping naked and sitting in the water because I was going to “toughen myself” so I could “make it” in the wild. I wonder what they thought. Now that I’m a parent, I can’t imagine what I would do if my kids did that!

I spent a lot of time outdoors and a lot of time one-on-one with nature. Probably, in part, as a by-product that I wasn’t doing a lot of the team sports and a lot of things the other kids did. I’m not sure that was necessarily a bad experience. That’s what I remember. I remember traveling back and forth a lot. I remember spending time in Africa. And I remember Mr. C, my science teacher.

How did he know to single you out?

I wasn’t shy about being a biologist and having parents connected to the field.

Did you play any instruments when you were younger?

I remember playing the violin, but I don’t remember being very good at it. I wish I had stuck with it because now my children are becoming quite musical. I have a fifteen-year-old son who’s playing the bassoon and the clarinet and I have an almost twelve-year-old daughter who loves the clarinet. They can read music so much better than I can and they’re getting more and more involved in music. It’s like this part of my life that I let go of and now it’s gone.

If you could give your middle school self some advice what would it be?

Stay true to yourself. That might apply more to high school than middle school, but it’s a tough time. Other kids tend to be really judgmental. It’s a time when everything about your being is screaming that you need to belong. But at the end of the day I don’t think there’s any evidence at all that you actually do need to belong. It almost seemed to me that the people who were cool in high school flamed out early and lived really boring, dull lives and didn’t do anything with themselves. And the people who might have been nerdy and geeky early on, who were definitely not cool in high school (of which I was one), a lot of those people really went on to do really amazing things. I guess they’re late bloomers, but I my advice to kids would be:

It’s good to think about the long game and plan for the future. Think about where you want to be much later on in life and don’t worry at all about whether you’re cool or not on the day to day when you’re in middle school. Even though, at that time, it feels like your whole world — it’s nothing. It’s a tiny little slice of your life that you’re going to have trouble even remembering all these years later. It’s what you do with those experiences and what you do with the things that you learn down the road that really matters. 

That’s probably the most important thing I can offer. The people who were thinking about the future and were interested in the long game really did stuff. The people who were all about being cool and on the football field in high school, you know… they’re not changing the world.

What was the hardest transition from when you came back from Africa — going from your very traditional British boarding school and back into middle school in Tennessee?

It was a rough transition in a couple of ways: one of them was that the school systems were doing totally different things. The curriculum was utterly unrecognizable. That meant that I was absolutely unprepared when I went to Kenya; I was years behind the other students. Not because U.S. schools are terrible, but because their schools are focusing on different things. The stuff that they were doing in class was building on years of prior work and I hadn’t done any of that, so they had totally different ways of teaching. We did much more writing and journaling, doing exhaustive detailed pieces of research — things that I had never done in the states. It was a big adjustment just to not fail and get up to speed and get “marks,” as they called them, that were salvageable. On the one hand it was fantastic because we learned about Kenyan history, but there was a cultural and language adjustment. Going from being, essentially, a majority — a young white kid in a pretty white area — to being the only white kids at all, it was very healthy and humbling. It absolutely changes the way you look at the world. It was transformative for me and awesome. People in Kenya were incredible. The new school system, the new words for everything, the cultural diversity, the suddenly being an oddity and a minority so that everybody is checking you out as this unusual weird kid… was really important and scary and overwhelming. And then, right when we started to get all of those things figured out [whisking noise] we went right back and had to switch to a totally different school system and start all over again. It really was starting all over again because I was switching from going to school with one set of parents to switching to going to school with the other set of parents. It was starting cold. Not knowing anybody. I remember it being a rough transition, but… kids adjust. They’re surprisingly malleable.

Did you collect anything?

So, yes, the problem is what I collected in middle school is not legal or politically correct these days. I spent a lot of time walking in my neighbor’s tobacco fields looking for arrowheads. It was one of my all-time favorite things to do. And then in Africa we were biologists in the middle of a national park and it was before any regulations and before anybody worried about any of this stuff so we brought back flamingo bills, bright dried-out flamingo wings with pink feathers, snake skins, an impala skull with big curly horns that I’d found in a field, all kinds of things… you can’t do that now.

I spent a lot of time walking in my neighbor’s tobacco fields looking for arrowheads.

We brought live chameleons back in a little jar! People on the airplane freaked out when my sister and I brought them out of their cages and started handling them on the airplane. Apparently there’s a lot of mythology in Kenyan culture associated with the chameleon. I don’t remember the details, but they’re supposed to have been some messenger of the gods that was like the Pandora’s box story. The chameleon didn’t succeed in his journey and that’s why all the evils are in the world. It’s not an animal that a lot of the Kenyans particularly like, and here we were pulling one out on an airplane! People freaked. That was back in the 1980s — things were different back then.

We used to keep chameleons as pets. We would go out to the bushes and find chameleons walking on one of the fences or eating. We would break off a branch of one of the pepper trees in the yard and we would hang it from a thread. Then we’d have the branch hanging over our table and we’d put the chameleons on it. The chameleons would just stay there. They couldn’t really jump off the branch. They made amazing pets because they changed color depending on their mood so you could go poke them or go up close to them and they would hiss at you and flatten their bodies out and go really dark. Then you’d walk away and they’d get soft and green again. They have these crazy tongues — these long, sticky tongues that they curl up in their mouth. When a fly lands on a bush near them, their tongue just goes WHAP — and this whole thing sticks out and slaps the fly, picks it up in this goo and whips back. We were middle school kids – that was the coolest thing in the world. Another cool thing is that their eyes can move independently, like little volcanoes with these little dots that stick out of little cones that they can swivel in different directions. You can have one eye tracking you on one side of the body and the other eye is looking a totally different direction following a fly. Then, if they see a food item both eyes zero-in and lock in on it. But the fact that they could move their eyes and swivel them independently was so bizarre and so cool. Pretty much the whole time in Kenya we kept chameleons as pets. We’d have them on branches in our bedroom or dining room — after we’d had them for a while, we’d let them go and go look for another one and repeat the process.

I still have most of the crazy things we brought back from Kenya.

With collecting arrowheads or other historical objects, I’ve discovered that some people get it and others don’t. If you’re one of the people that gets it… that when you pick up something, like an arrowhead, there’s this electric rush. There’s this electric feeling of touching the past. You pull this thing out of the mud and you’re the first person to touch that since the person that made it… like 5,000 years ago. I used to get this incredible feeling and I’d try to imagine what that person looked like, why they dropped whatever that was… I’d been hooked on that for a long time.

That’s the same way you get addicted to gambling or you get addicted to fishing or looking for fossils… it’s the idea that If I just cast my line in one more lake or If I just pull the slot machine one more time, I’m going to hit it big! And you have this sort of anticipation and then you get something and get a rush. Like a rat pushing a little lever and getting a little reward.

I love history and I love archeological things like that. When we were in Africa, the father of a girl who went to school with us ran a big mine. It was a diatomite mine. They lived in in the next town over and we went visit one weekend. Before we got to the mine, there was a pull-off for an archeological exhibit that had been setup. It had displays with these incredible hand axes and other artifacts made by some of the earliest ancestors of humans — 750,000 year old! They were just sitting out there on a table and I went nuts! We had to pull over the car and I had to touch these things, read all about them and read all the signs. Finally, we finished and went to meet the father of my sister’s friend. I go into his office and he’s got these hand axes, these artifacts, everywhere. They’re on top of the filing cabinets, they’re on the window sills, they’re stacked in the corner on the floor. My eyes bugged out of my face and my jaw dropped. He explained that there was the archaeological site on the surface that had been carefully excavated.  But down underground in the mine shafts, the equipment kept popping these things out of the diatomite. There were these white-walled tunnels in the mines and the machines would kick these out. They weren’t perfect anymore, they’d have a knick out of the side where the blade hit it, but the workers would just keep giving them to him.

So, he reached over and grabbed one of these things off of his windowsill and gave it to me. It’s a 750,000 year old hand axe. I still have it safely locked away. I’ll give it to a museum eventually, but I love this thing so much. It’s one of the most prized things I’ve ever had and that I’ve ever been able to touch in my life.

That’s a cool story, but it’s probably illegal… I was a kid and he gave it to me and it was amazing. It’s pretty special. I’m going to donate it to a museum eventually, but I’m not dead yet.

So, he reached over and grabbed one of these things off of his windowsill and gave it to me. It’s a 750,000 year old hand axe.
Your book is called Animal Weapons and you’ve talked about these axes that you collected and how Kenya was incredibly formative for you. What took you from being a 10-year-old in Africa with a hand-axe in your hand to writing a book on animal weapons?

It’s a long and crazy journey. I initially thought I wanted to be an archeologist. I fell in love with the lifestyle — think Indiana Jones and Laura Croft. I fell in love with the detective process; that challenge of pushing the envelope of what we understand by asking your questions in the right way. Good archeology works that way, too. So, I started out as an undergraduate training to be an archeologist, but I had a couple really bad teachers that took all the fun out of it… and they absolutely detested people like me that were in the field because we’d fallen in love with finding things like arrowheads. We were the problem. It’s not like I was up at night looting archeological sites, or digging up graves, I was looking in places that had no stratigraphy or archeological value, anyway — we’re talking about plowed fields. But, it didn’t matter. Coming at it, I was the bad guy and all of the stuff that made me fall in love with the field and all the back reading I’d done and the studying I did on my own — it just didn’t matter, the teacher was so biased. After a couple of classes it was clear that this wasn’t what I wanted to do. At the same time I’d always loved biology. I was born into biology. I just thought I should be a little original and do something different. When I realized archeology wasn’t going to cut it, biology was right there screaming in my ear. It was a really easy decision. The problem was — I was at Cornell, which was where my dad was on the faculty! So I was there going, Crap! I’m at the wrong school! Now I have to take classes with my dad.

There I was, suddenly, having to take classes from my dad when I realized I wasn’t going to be an archeologist and I was going to be a biologist.

I fell in love with biology and I wanted to look at animals with really crazy body parts (morphologies). I didn’t know it was going to be weapons at that point, but I did know it was going to be bizarre. I wanted animals that had things jutting out from them that looked like they shouldn’t be possible.

There I was, suddenly, having to take classes from my dad when I realized I wasn’t going to be an archeologist and I was going to be a biologist.

My dad has pictures of me as a kid in museums — I guess I went nuts over Triceratops and fossils from a very early age! I liked fossils with horns or tusks or crazy spines. At least I’m consistent…

But as a graduate student I started digging in and looking across taxa. I thought, OK, where’s a group of animals where we don’t know very much and there’s opportunity for lots of discovery? That kind of unknown is really intoxicating. You don’t want to go in and ask the twenty-seventh question out of a string of twenty-nine questions — you want to go into uncharted territory and go into the unknown. Well? Insects are a pretty good place to start. There’s a whole heck of a lot of them and a very small proportion of them have been studied. My dad had done birds… I figured I could do insects… that’s different enough… I was in love with animal behavior and I started looking through the insects and fell in love with beetles really fast. Honestly, I’ve never looked back. There are so many kinds of beetles and there are lots of beetles with crazy things sticking out of their bodies… big horns on their head, curved horns, straight horns, branched horns. There are beetles with horns coming off of their thorax, there’s beetles with four legs that are so long that they look like they should bump into trees when they fly, there’s beetles with huge mandibles — like stag beetles — that are so big they should tip over… I mean, the beetles are just full of extremes. That’s what I wanted. Then I had to figure out how I would study these things. My first attempt was to look at rhinoceros beetles — big, charismatic, they’re the megafauna of the insect world. They’re like the mastodons of insects. They’re a couple inches long, and they’ve got really cool horns… I can saw them off and glue them on and mix and match and start to do experiments with them to see if they matter. There was all kinds of possibilities… I could paint numbers on the back of them just like my dad had painted numbers on the bird tags… I can watch populations and figure out what they are doing. That’s what I wanted to do.

The problem was that most of the rhinoceros beetles aren’t very easy to study. Darwin had written about them, Wallace had written about them… I probably should have seen the writing on the wall that if people have known about these things for 200 years and nobody had really studied them, there was probably a reason for that… It turns out most of these species live in the tropics and live in and fly at the tops of the tree canopy… they fly during torrential downpours at night. How are you going to study beetles that live 160 feet off the ground in the middle of a tree canopy in the dark in the middle of a rainforest during a torrential rainstorm? That’s why nobody had studied them…

How are you going to study beetles that live 160 feet off the ground in the middle of a tree canopy in the dark in the middle of a rainforest during a torrential rainstorm? That’s why nobody had studied them…

But I had found one species that I thought would work and that I could study. They grow on bamboo shoots in the cloud forest on the sides of mountains in Ecuador and Colombia. I had gone to museum insect collections and looked at the details on the labels and I’d written to the collectors and systematists. I figured out that Ecuador looked like a really practical place to go study them. So I saved up all of my money that I had as a graduate student and went down to Ecuador and spent a month learning Spanish in a crash course… I spent three months traipsing around looking for beetles. I tracked down every darn one of the locations that was on the labels in the museums and I couldn’t find the beetles. And I’d walk around with pictures of these beetles and the kids would run out and help me and climb trees and climb bushes… every one of them wanted to help and they’d all take me somewhere… but none of them had ever seen the beetles. They didn’t know what I was talking about and I never found the beetles. Finally I ran out of money and I had to go back … by the time I had to go back to grad school I’d spent four months down there and I’d found thirteen beetles, and eleven of them were female. The horns are only on the males — so I’d only found two beetles with horns in four months of looking. It was a disaster.

It turns out they only come out during torrential rains… and the rains were late that year. If I’d stayed down there just two more weeks I would have found them. My friends sent me packages of smashed up and broken beetle bodies with notes, Is this what you were looking for? They were sweeping them off the streets and using windshield wipers on the cars to get them out of the way!” I missed it. That’s what I tried to work on… on the way back, I realized it was pretty obvious that I had failed and that my committee was not going to go for it and that I’d have to find something else. I stopped off in Costa Rica and had a chance to visit with a biologist there, Bill Eberhard, who’d done a lot of the really groundbreaking work on horned beetles. He was super kind and really helpful. He was like, “You need to work on dung beetles.” I said, “No way. I’m not working on dung beetles.” He looked at me and said, “Seriously, you need to work on dung beetles.” He opened up this box–  [whispers] it stinks — I looked in there and it’s filled with these little tiny black dots.

I’d been working on elephants of beetles… and these are little tiny black beetles that are the size of an eraser on a new pencil. And he insisted, “This is what you want to work on.” Honestly my first reaction was, “Not a chance in the world!” And he said, “You’re a fool. These are perfect. There are thousands of species. They’re super abundant. They have a really short generation time, so you can do the kinds of experiments you want to do on them and they breed in a month! You can breed them in flower pots! And when you look closely they have really wild horns.” When you pull out a magnifying glass and look, the horns on these things are incredible — and they were totally unknown. My first reaction was still “No.”

I went back to grad school and my committee said, “Well, your project stinks. You need to start over. Start thinking!” I spent a month going through this stuff and made lists about what I wanted to do… and Bill Eberhard was right. All arrows pointed to the dung beetles. I still remember the phone call; calling him back in Costa Rica. “I’m sorry… I reconsidered… can I work on the dung beetles, please?” It was a really good move and I spent the next fifteen years working on dung beetles. They’ve taught me almost everything I know about biology.

I wanted to write this book because I had some crazy stories I wanted to tell about the cool things that animals do. These animals do some crazy things.

Listen to the clip below to learn more about Doug’s process for researching and writing Animal Weapons:

What was the most frustrating rule that your parents had?

That’s an interesting question… I remember there was a time when I was in a phase of asking a million questions about everything and it was driving my mom and my stepdad absolutely crazy. I remember my stepdad limiting me. I was allowed twenty questions per day. “Use them wisely!” It drove me crazy because I wanted to ask questions about everything. I remember saying, “Can I ask you a question now?” and he would say, “That’s one.” On the one hand, he was a scientist too… how in the world could you restrict your kids from asking questions? But he points out that I was asking idiotic questions that I should have been able to figure out answers to on my own. It was taken to such an extreme that they had to reign it in. I had to make lists and think it through and it drove me crazy.

When I decided I wanted to be a biologist, my dad made it hard on me. He wasn’t mean, but he finally explained years later that he didn’t want it to be a path of least resistance. You have to want it and be in it for the right reasons. He didn’t want me to just be doing it because it was the most familiar track — I had to want it.

But he singled me out. I had to take his big animal behavior class — this was 250 students in a huge lecture hall. I showed up for his class and I sat way in the back of the room, hunkered down to be inconspicuous. And darn if he didn’t single me out on the first class. He gets up in front of the room and he’s like, “Look, this is a class on animal behavior. We’re going to talk about things like kin selection and helping relatives, nepotism, widespread things in the animal world. So [claps] let’s just get this out of the way right now. My son’s in this class, he’s right there [points out into an invisible lecture hall to his past self hunkered in the back of the room]. I openly encourage you to check on his papers and exams at any time that you want. I give you my word right now that for the same amount of work, his grade will be lower.” And he goes on with his lecture. It was a phenomenal class, I loved it, and he did grade me harsher on everything.

Does any of your childhood rules inform how you parent now?

Something interesting is that my parents, as I mentioned, had been divorced and remarried. It’s commonplace now, but I think it was less common a generation ago. What was particularly rare at that time was the idea of joint custody. That took both my parents getting along and working together constructively so they could work out all of the logistics. It took a lot of money at the time… neither of them was rich, but they had to be able to fly us back and forth when they were in two different states.

The joint custody had its downside in that our lives were disrupted and we were constantly moving and unable to do traditional sports, but it also had an advantage. I look around me now and I see people who I remember from when I was a kid and see them now as adults and parents themselves. It’s astounding the extent to which they end up parenting exactly the way that their parents did… even if they hated what their parents did. They duplicate even the bad things that their parents did. It’s like they don’t know there’s another way.

My sister and I were always going back and forth, and we didn’t appreciate it at the time, but it used to drive us crazy that there was one set of rules at one place and a different set of rules at another place. And we just had to adjust on a dime. It was like, “Alright, we’re in Tennessee now, Tennessee Rules. Go.” Saying, “But in Ithaca we can do this…” That was never going to fly, ever. You walk in the door, you live by those rules. The most important lesson of all was that there were different sets of rules; that was it — that was the most important thing. Realizing that there is more than one way to parent. I think we all know that intellectually; you look around you and see parents who you think are idiots and are doing it all wrong, and you see parents doing a great job. We all have opinions and are quick to judge, but I think at some visceral level we don’t actually recognize that we have choices and you don’t have to do what your parents did.

So the fact that my sister and I got to see two styles of upbringing as we were raised was transformative. I do think that it helps me as a parent because I can pick and choose. I can try to avoid the things that I think didn’t work and I’m aware that those are choices I can make because I learned that there is more than one way to be brought up. I think I can try to pick the best of the things that my parents did. That doesn’t mean that I don’t make plenty of mistakes with my own kids, but I do feel like I had a more balanced perspective going in because of the joint custody upbringing.

If you could have any superpower what would it be, why would you want it and what would you do with it?

Is this supposed to be an easy question?

Some scientists answer that they would like a superpower that would help them do research…

I know, and some of them would change the world and make it a better place.

There are a lot of things that I would like to do to make the world a better place… and there’s a lot of selfish things I’d like to be able to do. Somehow I feel like being able to fly would be pretty awesome.

You could get up to the top of the trees and find your beetles —

And chase them when they fly!

[long pause]

Do you know what I’d like to be able to do? I’d like to be able to touch the past. The same way that I implied when I pick up an arrowhead… I would really really like to be able to go back in time and see what some of these places that are special to me, or special to the world, were like. I’d like to actually be a fly on the wall and watch. See these civilizations in action. Look at what people are doing while eating dinner, where they get their water, what they do during the day. Just to see what these places and civilizations were like.

It’s not going to save the world, it’s not noble, but I would never stop. I’d want to check out all of these different time periods. I’d like to go back to the Clovis people and see what a village and family life was like for them in the northwest Rocky Mountains.

I would love to be able to touch the past.

Dr. Doug Emlen is a Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Montana. His latest book is Animal Weapons: The Evolution of Battle

By | 2016-11-22T13:46:54+00:00 October 17th, 2014|

About the Author:

Lea Shell
Lea Shell is an entomologist and educator who devotes her time convincing others just how wonderfully important insects and microbes are to our lives. She enjoys playing with slime mold, ants, GPS units, climate loggers and interviewing scientists about their middle school experiences.

One Comment

  1. Laissez Passer - Easy Easy Easy December 27, 2014 at 1:39 pm - Reply

    […] well, easy.  Now we just have to come up with some really cool themes and get some poster board.  Does anyone else remember doing projects for school when they were young?  It sometimes feels like you as the parent are doing the project.  At least this one was easy […]

Leave A Comment