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Scientists' Nightstand: Alison Jolly

Alison Jolly is a senior visiting scientist at Sussex University.  Her two most recent books are Lucy’s Legacy: Sex and Intelligence in Human Evolution (Harvard University Press, 1999) and the just-published Lords and Lemurs: Mad Scientists, Kings with Spears, and the Survival of Diversity in Madagascar (reviewed in the July–August issue [ ]).

Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I first began to watch ring-tailed lemurs in Madagascar in 1963 after studying at Cornell and Yale. My study site was Berenty, a small private reserve of gallery forest set in the semi-arid “spiny desert” zone of the far south. Then I married and had four children, and, in frustration at not doing more fieldwork, wrote a textbook, The Evolution of Primate Behavior (Macmillan, 1972). I taught part-time at Cambridge and at Sussex, briefly at the Rockefeller University with Donald Griffin, and then at Princeton. I wrote about the challenges of conservation in Madagascar. When Madagascar finally took off as one of the most important programs of biodiversity aid, I could not make a full-time commitment to live in-country, so I went back to lemur research. I have returned to Berenty for the past dozen years during the birth season of September-October to monitor lemur populations in that forest fragment.

What books are you currently reading (or have you just finished reading) for your work or for pleasure? Why did you choose them, and what do you think of them? Alison JollyClick to Enlarge Image

For pleasure:

Adam Nicolson’s Bateman’s (1996)

The National Trust [a British conservation society] persuaded Nicolson to write their souvenir booklet for Bateman’s, which was Rudyard Kipling’s home in Sussex. The Sussex Weald was once an iron-making center that forged cannons for the first Queen Elizabeth. Since I also write about people in landscape, I am in awe of Nicolson’s prose:

Kipling … treasured the many Sussex ironbacks and firedogs that furnish fireplaces throughout the house. It was an industry that used every aspect of the country. The fast-running streams drove the hammers and bellows of the forges. The iron was to be found in thick clots embedded in the local sandstone. The widespread sweet chestnut and hornbeam coppices, still covering much of the hill south of Bateman’s, provided the wood from which the charcoal was made. On the gluey, impassable clay of the woodland tracks, the ironmasters threw down the spent clinker from their furnaces to make them usable in winter. … For Kipling, a self-made man drawn as much to newness, enterprise and technology as he was to the stable continuities and stoicism of the agricultural life, this intimacy of Bateman’s with Wealden iron added to its allure, an addition of flame and molten metal to the calming fields and "the woods that know everything and tell nothing" of his chosen valley.

Tim Ecott’s Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid (Grove/Atlantic, 2004)

A book I once thought of writing myself but realized I hadn’t the physical courage. Vanilla is a very profitable substance grown by very poor farmers—like cocaine, but legal, with current prices at a record high. Its taste flavors every swallow of Coke or Pepsi. I have read about the descendants of people who paid vanilla as tribute to the Aztecs, and 18th-century competitive gardeners of London. I am just reaching the chapter called “Murder in Madagascar.”

Annie Keary’s The Heroes of Asgard (first published in 1871)

This would only interest those whose grandparents left a copy on grandkids’ bedside table or else people who can’t get enough of Richard Wagner, J.R.R. Tolkien and Philip Pullman.


Michael Shnayerson’s “Hack the Vote” (Vanity Fair, April 2004)

The possibility of skewing the new electronic machines in the November U.S. election is a very nasty thought—especially since partisans of just one party are making the machines.

Pleasure plus work:

Steven M. Goodman and Jonathan P. Benstead’s The Natural History of Madagascar (University of Chicago Press, 2004)

A must-own for anyone who works in Madagascar, and a must-consult for anyone who is interested in the place. Since 281 of us have contributed to it, a high proportion of Madagascar’s biologists do own it, and the 56 Malagasy authors mean that at least 56 copies will actually reach the country. It is a tour de force: a mini-encyclopedia of authoritative information (and great photos). Not to be read in bed, though, without a pulley system to support the weight.

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

Everywhere, especially when I am supposed to be doing something else.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, of course.

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

Many, many, many.

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

Skip to grown-up books. If grown-ups can read Harry Potter and Heroes of Asgard, you can read anything you like as well.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

My current favorite is Andrew Brown’s In the Beginning Was the Worm (reviewed in the May-June 2004 issue:, because he actually conveys the passion of doing pure research. Back a bit, Richard Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker (W.W. Norton, 1986) for as good an exposition of Darwinian evolution as one is likely to find. Frans de Waal’s The Ape and the Sushi Master (reviewed in the May-June 2001 issue: shows the kinder face of primatology.

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

Primatology is a field defined by its subjects, not its theories. Probably the greatest single survey of a species is still Jane Goodall’s The Chimpanzees of Gombe (Harvard University Press, 1986), or try Bonobo, by Frans de Waal and Frans Lanting (University of California Press, 1998).

In the area of evolutionary biology, I recommend The Major Transitions in Evolution, by John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry (Oxford University Press, 1998). This takes you through the fundamental principles of assembling larger, more complex biological entities out of simpler ones, in systems ranging from the origin of life through the origin of language. (My own Lucy’s Legacy was a pale pastiche of, or maybe homage to, Major Transitions.)  If complex life isn’t what is important in the world, then what is?

In the area of conservation I can’t choose any one book, just the most recent newspaper articles. The need for conservation is running a lot faster than we are.

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