Photo: Belding’s ground squirrel, by Yathin S Krishnappa via wikimedia.org; CC BY-SA 3.0.
I think I’m typical as a scientist in that I spend a lot of time doing things that don’t seem to add to my research productivity – in fact, they take away from it. Yesterday (as I write) I gave a guest lecture about writing in somebody else’s grad course. I review manuscripts and grants, serve as an Associate Editor, sit on grad student supervisory committees, consult with colleagues about stats, serve in academic administration, and on and on. Actually, our whole academic system depends on us doing these kinds of things – things that (at least on the surface) seem altruistic. For an evolutionary biologist, apparent altruism always raises a question: Why? Why do academics do things that seem to benefit others, not themselves? There may be a variety of reasons, but increasingly I’ve come to understand my own career as heavily influenced by academic inclusive fitness.
Ground squirrels (like Belding’s ground squirrel, Urocitellus beldingi, pictured) seem altruistic, too. When a squirrel sights a predator, it gives an alarm call, to which other squirrels respond by freezing or ducking into their burrows. But why call? Calling seems costly in two ways: first, the caller may attract predator attention, and second, by making other individuals less vulnerable, calling increases the probability that the caller is the predator’s best target. But we understand this as an example of evolution via inclusive fitness: a gene coding for calling behaviour is favoured even though it causes risk for its bearer, because calling protects gene copies present in other individuals in the colony. What seems like altruism, if you do the accounting right, is actually just a more integrative way of a squirrel optimizing production of descendant genes.
Academic inclusive fitness works the same way, except that rather than tracking gene copies contributed to the next generation, I track (conceptually, at least) new findings contributed to our body of science. I take time to review manuscripts, teach grad students about writing, and so on because I see the results of that: science done by others that’s better for my involvement. I took satisfaction from serving as Department Chair and as acting Dean of Science because I saw young scientists I hired and mentored publishing papers they might not have published without me. On a smaller scale, I’ve sat on a couple of grad-student committees where I’m quite sure that without my efforts, the students would have sunk in the rough water of difficult projects and difficult supervisors*. Their papers are, at least inside my own head, my papers too, although you won’t see my name on them.
Maybe the most obvious example of my (intended) academic inclusive fitness is my soon-to-be-available writing book, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing**. Imagine that this book sells 2,000 copies (half its print run), and let’s imagine that a quarter of its purchasers actually find it useful. Imagine further that as a result, each of them writes just one additional paper (on average, over their career; if an average career is 50-100 papers, this is only a 1-2% increase in their productivity). The academic inclusive fitness accruing to me from this: five hundred papers. Five hundred! For comparison, I’ll likely publish about 100 of my own before I retire. Even my not-very-ambitious calculation suggests that three years writing a book could give me an inclusive-fitness contribution to science far bigger than my entire career’s direct contribution.
This inclusive-fitness thinking is why I (and I think many of my colleagues) do all those things I’ve mentioned: why we review, and edit, and mentor, and so on. But the calculation in my last paragraph pushes me towards a conclusion I’d never conceived of, and that I find quite shocking. If it’s anywhere close to correct, I could make a far bigger contribution to science by quitting my own research and spending all my time on the “altruistic” stuff***. Wow.
But I’m not going to act on that conclusion. I’m going to keep doing my own research. Why? Because as much as I take satisfaction from my academic inclusive fitness – from seeing others do science because I’ve helped – there’s one thing I don’t get from that. It’s the single thing I love most about doing science, and I explained it this way in a post arguing that I Have the Best Job on the Entire Planet:
…[Every now and again] I realize that I understand something about the way the universe works that nobody else in human history has ever understood before. Think about that: I’m a biologist, and at that moment, I know something about biology that Darwin didn’t know, that Hutchinson and MacArthur didn’t know, that Crick and Franklin didn’t know… That thing that I, uniquely, understand may not be momentous – I’ve yet to discover a Grand Unified Theory – but at that moment I’m the only one who understands it, or ever has. It’s hard to express just how exhilarating this is.
So, like most of my mid- to late-career colleagues, I’m going to keep doing a lot of apparently altruistic things; and I’ll take satisfaction in the academic inclusive fitness they bring. But I’m too selfish to go all the way. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some data to analyze – my own data. I’ll get to reviewing your manuscript tomorrow.
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) January 26, 2016
- So you’re not interested in being Department Chair?
- The compensations of academic service
- Why would anyone want to be an Associate Editor, anyway?
- I have the best job on the entire planet
- The book I have such modest hopes for: The Scientist’s Guide to Writing
*This sounds a bit arrogant as I read it back to myself, but it’s true. You wouldn’t believe a couple of the situations I’ve been recruited to help with. Or maybe you would.
**I know, I mention this a lot. But look: I spent three years writing it – living it, really. I’m going to keep bringing it up.
***You may doubt my calculation. I certainly do. But even if it’s too high by a factor of 10, my point stands, and that’s a bit scary.