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Jules Howard - Four Way Interview

Pictured with his dog Ozzy, Jules Howard is a UK-based wildlife expert, zoology correspondent, science writer and broadcaster. He is the author of four non-fiction books including Sex on Earth and Death on Earth, the latter shortlisted for the Royal Society of Biology book prize. Jules writes for The Guardian, BBC Wildlife an BBC Focus and appears regularly on TV. His latest book is Wonderdog: How the science of dogs changed the science of life.

Why science?

Years ago, I would have answered this question by pointing to the applications of the sciences – how science gives us things, tools, ideas, exciting techniques and inventions. But, since I began writing about zoology more than a decade ago, I realise it’s about more than that. Many scientists I meet pursue science because they are inherently interested in the boundary between known and unknown. Many appreciate that they are merely baton holders for future generations, who will continue to chip away at that boundary and develop the human understanding of the world. In a funny way, science is far closer to art than I used to appreciate.

Why this book?

In recent years, it’s become clear that dogs are one of the finest methods we have for understanding the minds of animals – what they think, feel and experience of the world. We know, through dogs, that mammals can feel powerful attachments with one another that differ only by degree to our own; that the emotional centres of their brains light up like ours do; that they can perform word-mapping tasks that outcompete most three-year-olds; that sociality is built into their genes. For me, dogs offer us a ‘gateway’ through which we can investigate animal minds in a broader context. I wanted to tell the story of how we got here: through Darwin, Pavlov, Skinner and into the modern cognitive sciences, courtesy of some spectacular scientists (and their dogs!) along the way.

What's next?

Dogs will continue to be my focus for a while yet, but there are other projects I’m working on. For instance, I am currently sat at my kitchen table surrounded by books and research papers about the Pre-Cambrian, researching a world before animals (as we know them) existed. I am hoping to put a new spin on the story of how animals evolved, re-framing animal evolution from a perspective not considered in most popular science books. The children’s books are continuing, too. I find writing for younger age groups keeps up my 'awe' levels and this enthuses and energises much of my other writing.

What's exciting you at the moment?

Since writing Wonderdog, I’m really enjoying connecting with scientists involved in animal cognition research and developing my relationships with them. What I love about these scientists is that they have such a true devotion to ensuring their research can be used to positively influence the way we treat dogs in society – shaping policies, procedures and best practice to ensure that dogs are provided with the best environment to flourish. It’s been such an amazing thing to connect with this community and every day I am over-awed by their knowledge, commitment and friendliness.

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