Working Life

Beetle horns and book writing

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Science  18 Dec 2015:
Vol. 350, Issue 6267, pp. 1578
DOI: 10.1126/science.350.6267.1578

By day, Douglas Emlen studies insect weaponry, but at night, military history is his preferred reading. Eight years ago, these interests merged unexpectedly. As a professor of ecology and biology at the University of Montana in Missoula, he had spent 20 years examining the mating and territorial behavior of dung and rhinoceros beetles, well known for their very large horns, to understand why some insects spend so much energy building big weapons. Asked to write a review about weapons systems across the animal kingdom, he dug into the file cabinets full of papers on the subject that he had collected over the years. The more he read about tusks, horns, claws, antlers, and other weapons, the more enthralled he became. So, when the journal made him cut 10,000 words from the manuscript, he decided it was time to branch out and write a book for a general audience.

“I wanted to do something different, something fun and accessible,” Emlen recalls. He gathered up the material that didn't make it into the review, wrote a book proposal, found an agent, and got a contract. It was a far more momentous decision than he realized at the time, one that would sweep him in new directions, both in his writing and his research.

ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

“I wanted to do something different, something fun and accessible.”

Writing a popular book while running a lab was a challenge. He scrambled to write grants, publish papers, and handle his teaching and administrative responsibilities while also squeezing in the many rewrites his editor requested to make him sound more like a storyteller than a scientist. “I thought I was a good writer, but I was in for a pretty rude awakening,” he says. His graduate students and colleagues took up the slack in the day-to-day operation of the lab, but he fell behind on reading about evolutionary development, his lab's current focus. One summer, he shelved research altogether and devoted his time to the book. His routine was to get out of bed, head for a coffee shop or the university library, work until he couldn't see straight, get home after dark, spend some time with his children, and then crash. Support from his colleagues, students, and family made it all possible, he says.

Yet far from compromising his science, Emlen says writing the book has enriched it. The book “started out as a way to tell the story of the science that I already knew to try to get people jazzed about science,” he explains. But as he wrote, he realized there are commonalities between animals' weapon systems and humanmade ones. History shows that war technologies–be they knights' armor, battleships, or missiles–got bigger and more expensive until new weapons, such as guns, submarines, and computer hackers, undermined them. After writing the book, he says, “I look at my science totally differently.” For example, it helped him see how, in his beetles, “sneaky” males that lack big horns and instead gain access to females by digging tunnels past the big-horned males guarding them could eventually make horns obsolete. In fact, he says, that's exactly what may have happened in some beetle species that have lost their horns.

Working on Animal Weapons: The Evolution of Battle, which earned Emlen the 2015 Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science, has also changed how he writes and edits. In his papers, he now aims for “crisp and clean, quick and active” writing. He keeps waiting for a journal editor to push back on this new style, but it hasn't happened yet. Meanwhile, all else is getting back to normal. He says it will take about a year to catch up on the research literature he missed while working on the book, but the grant he rewrote five times is now in hand, so the lab is bigger than it's ever been. His primary research goals are unchanged, but some of his fieldwork is inspired by the book, he notes, as is a more interdisciplinary approach overall.

He doesn't know if he will write another book like it, but, he says, “it's the most important thing that I've ever done, and the most fun thing.” And, by showing how animal studies can help us understand when and why our own weapons work–or don't work–as deterrents, it drove home the importance of basic research. “You never know where it will lead.”

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