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Scientists' Nightstand: Sarah Blaffer Hrdy

Frank Diller

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy graduated summa cum laude from Radcliffe and received her Ph.D. in anthropology from Harvard. She is a former Guggenheim fellow and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the California Academy of Sciences. She is currently professor emeritus at the University of California, Davis, and the recipient of the 2003 University of California Panunzio award, honoring outstanding scholarly work and service achievements since retirement. Her books include The Woman that Never Evolved, selected by the New York Times as one of its Notable Books of 1981, and Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants and Natural Selection, which was chosen by both Publisher's Weekly and Library Journal as one of the "Best Books of 1999" and won the Howells Prize for Outstanding Contribution to Biological Anthropology. She is the mother of three children and lives with her husband, a medical doctor, on their farm in northern California.

Sarah Blaffer HrdyClick to Enlarge Image

What books are you currently reading (or have you just finished reading) for your work or for pleasure?

I just finished L'énigme de la Vénus Hottentote, by Gerard Badou, because it was the only available account of the life of Sarah Baartman, a Bushman woman who was brought to London in 1810 and from there to Paris, where she died in 1815. I needed a dictionary and help from French friends. I am currently listening to a tape of Ayala's Angel by Anthony Trollope—starts sappy, gets better. Trollope offers insights into the highly constrained options women in 19th-century England confronted. This book is about orphans; elsewhere he deals with heiresses, authors like his own mother, or spinsters, like Miss MacKenzie.

When and where do you usually read (specific location, time of day, etc.)?

Unless I have to, I rarely read books for pleasure anymore. If available, I listen to them on tape, while walking, or at night with the lights out before I go to sleep. Companies like now have the most astounding assortment—books like Iris Origo's marvelous Merchant of Prato that I would be hard put to find in a bookstore. I listened to C. P. Snow's entire Strangers and Brothers series and all of Trollope's Palliser Novels and The Way We Live Now (a preview of the Enron scandal) this way. With books on tape, no one minds time spent commuting—just the exhaust from burning so much gas.

Who are your favorite writers (fiction, nonfiction or poetry)? Why? And what are the three best books you've ever read?

Twenty years ago, I probably would have answered Gabriel García Márquez, Miguel Angél Asturias or Margaret Drabble (because of Realms of Gold, a 20th-century novel which actually had an admirable heroine). Today, my hands-down favorites—perhaps it's permanent this time—include two by George Eliot, Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda, and Homer's Odyssey, probably at its very best listened to rather than read. My favorite version is Robert Fagle's new translation read aloud by Ian McKellen (available through Penguin audiotape).

All three offer intimate windows into past worlds, exploring human nature in the context of extremely patriarchal societies. If George Eliot were alive today, with the opportunities in science now available to women, I imagine she would be reborn as an evolutionary anthropologist or cognitive neuroscientist. Instead, she worked on the margins of science, becoming her own kind of expert on how nature and nurture interact (see The Mill on the Floss!) as well as her era's greatest living novelist. As for Homer, I have no idea who this person was, but anyone who dismisses Homer as just another "dead white male" is making the mistake of a lifetime.

I am an old-fashioned anthropologist who sees her field as the study of human nature in all its diversity. That leaves lots of room for overlap between fiction writers and science writers. Two recent explorations of human nature that I have particularly admired are Ian McEwan's novel Enduring Love and Matt Ridley's nonfiction Origins of Virtue. It would be hard to say which of those two books about altruism and morality begins with the more gripping narrative—McEwan's scene in the park where a couple of good samaritans are on the verge of being hoisted by a hot-air balloon, or Ridley's depiction of the escape from prison of the biologist and anarchist Prince Kropotkin. Both are marvelous.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

Indirectly, Darwin's The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex because of his influence on those who have influenced me. But in terms of direct influence, I would have to say John Bowlby's Attachment and Loss because of his insights into infant psychology and development; E. O. Wilson's Sociobiology, because Wilson did so much to convince us of the analytical power of broad comparative approaches; and Patricia Adair Gowaty's writings (see her essays in Feminism and Evolutionary Biology), because she made us think harder about constraints on female choices.

Name three books you want to read but haven't gotten to yet.

Along with Natalie Angier, the journalist whose articles I most enjoy reading is Judith Thurman of the New Yorker. Her biography of Colette, Secrets of the Flesh, has been on my list for months, as has the second volume of Janet Browne's biography of Darwin, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place, and Mary Jane West-Eberhard's monumental Developmental Plasticity and Evolution. Alas, all are long and none are available on tape.

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

Two wonderfully illustrated classics for children of all ages are D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths and Robin Lister and illustrator Alan Baker's retelling of The Odyssey, both available in paperback. For older children, and all adults, I would recommend Ed Wilson's memoir Naturalist. I used to read aloud excerpts from it—especially Wilson's ill-advised adventure with the cottonmouth—to my reptile-loving son Niko.

For a children's introduction to anthropology, I would recommend Mary Batten's Anthropologist: Scientist of the People, which describes the work of a Venezuelan woman who becomes a human ecologist. Two unforgettably beautiful children's books that are almost impossible to obtain today (but which I wish someone would decide to reprint) are Adventures of King Rama—a monster-filled introduction to Hindu mythology illustrated with Indian paintings from the Freer Gallery—and The Story of Naughty Kildeen, by Marie, Queen of Romania, illustrated by Job—about a spoiled princess who is sent to live with the eagles and comes back the better for it. For their parents I would recommend Meredith Small's Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

Jonathan Weiner's The Beak of the Finch should be required reading for every undergraduate. I would also recommend books by Matt Ridley, Jared Diamond and Ed Wilson.

Name one book in your discipline that you would recommend for scientists outside your field. Explain your choice.

I really admire Frans de Waal and Frans Lanting's Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape, beautiful and informative while humbly reminding readers that in science, knowledge is a work in progress.

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