Dieter Lukas

     Causes and consequences of sociality

My main site
Blog: press interactions
Blog: how to find data
Blog: resources

5) What did I learn from interacting with the press?

For future publications I need to prepare not only the key findings, but also:

- How did I obtain the results?
- What was my personal motivation for the study?
- How do I think these results will be perceived?

How did I obtain the results?

I need to have few sentences that explain the method. Ideally, this will visualize what we did. For example, saying that when we compared chacma baboons to mouse lemurs we observed these differences is already a first description of the comparative approach I use.

What was my personal motivation for the study?

This question ties in with the format of news reports, which state that my findings resolved a controversy. I usually start a study because I am interested in resolving an outstanding issue that attracted my curiosity. For example, for the infanticide study I was interested in finding out whether the behaviour of males might lead to fundamental changes in the behaviour of females, and vice versa. Infanticide was a great case to see to what extent behaviour is influenced by ecology (for example food) or by other individuals.

But there are broader motivations to consider
as well, for example why I am interested in the study of evolution. Any public outreach provides an opportunity to state that evolution is the sole process that explains the diversity of life we observe. During the press interactions for the infanticide study, I encountered the following statements:

“Male infanticide on the surface would seem to weaken a species”

“The female strategy reduces the rate of infanticide and ensures the species prospers”

This is in contrast to all evidence thus far that shows that individuals behave in ways that maximize their own reproductive success, and that they only consider other individuals if it leads to a benefit to themselves.

Outreach, even on a very specific topic, offers the opportunity for broader science education.

How do I think these results will be perceived?

One easy answer is to consider what I or others will do next now that we have these results.

The broader issue is to consider what these results mean for someone that does not work on the same topic. In many instances, there will only be a limited, if any, direct applicability of results in the daily lives of people. It might be more appropriate to think more generally, for example, what does understanding the evolution of mammalian behaviour mean for our understanding of human behaviour?

I was actually asked about what these results mean for human behaviour less often than I expected. Many people seem to genuinely be interested in animal research and they value insights into how the natural world functions without the need to find applications for the results.

When I was asked about humans, I made evasive statements:
“cultural diversity of humans means it is hard to make blanket statements about them”
“even very aggressive behaviour can disappear if social circumstances change”

These are true, but do not really say anything about the link between my research and human behaviour.

This is partly because I was not prepared. There is literature on human behaviour, including infanticide. Reading this literature shows that the behaviour we investigated does not appear to be present as such in humans (something that Sarah Blaffer Hrdy pointed out in this news report). This is interesting too, because it tells us that our social system (including our cultural norms) differs from those species in which males commit infanticide. Infanticidal behaviour in humans might have parallels with behaviour in animals, but more detailed studies are needed to establish these, if any, links.

I will try to remember the following for future statements about how my results apply to humans:

My research shows that behaviours have evolved under specific circumstances
Individuals might be more likely to exhibit certain behaviours if they have particular experiences

My research shows that even in animals aggression is not inevitable: individuals have flexibility in their behaviour
Decision and responsibility for a behaviour rests with the individual taking action

Behaviour in animals is not right or wrong, it is adaptive
Evolutionary perspective might inform, but can never determine moral judgement

(see also Carl Zimmer's follow-up on the infanticide story)

Main message
I need to be aware of the press' desire for controversy, and make use of it.

Go back to the overview on my experiences with the press.

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