Skip to main content

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.


Popular posts from this blog

Sentience - Nicholas Humphrey *****

The first seventy-odd pages of this book are absolutely phenomenal (pun intended, though still true). We start with a near-stream of consciousness prologue - very appropriate for a book on sentience - and then go on to have a description of the early part of Nicholas Humphrey's career in a wonderfully approachable fashion with a writing style somewhere between a deep conversation and a thought process. I particularly loved Humphrey's description of his heading off to Elba to investigate the paranormal claims of the eccentric Hugh Sartorius Whitaker and his experiences with Dian Fossey (not always pleasant) when visiting to study the 'natural psychologist' ability of gorillas. The book then takes a change of tack, signified by the author heading the next chapter 'To work', as he sets out to build for us his theory on the nature of sentience and 'phenomenal consciousness'. This too is very interesting, but lacks the same storytelling verve. It's also a

The Magick of Matter - Felix Flicker ****

This is a book about condensed matter physics, surely a particularly boring-sounding name for one of the most interesting parts of the subject. It's about the physics of things we encounter. When you think about it, it's quite odd that most popular physics books are about things like quantum physics and cosmology and particle physics that don't deal with things we can put our hands on or see. Of course quantum physics impacts lots of everyday objects through electronics etc., but it's still driven by particles we can't see or experience in a normal sense. Felix Flicker introduces us to two key aspects of the physics of tangible stuff - emergence and chaos (though in practice, chaos only gets a passing mention). Because, as he points out, the problem with purely looking at the particle level is that stuff really is the more than the sum of its parts. The chaos and uncertainty part was handled excellently in Tim Palmer's recent The Primacy of Doubt , but this book

How Your Brain Works - Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo ***

As soon as you see the cover of this book, it feels like it's going to be light hearted and super fun (or at least it seems the authors want it to be this). In practice, it's not. It might have big, Joy of Sex style line drawings and an odd shape with cheap feeling paper, but the content is fairly straightforwardly serious.  In the introduction Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo tells us that 'There are many examples of how amateur scientists add to our collective understanding of nature.' This feels a dubious statement at best - it's obviously true historically when professional scientists didn't exist, but these days amateur contributions are distinctly niche. If you think of any of the really big scientific breakthroughs of the last 100 years, there isn't a lot of amateur input. And using this book certainly won't add anything. Once we get into the book proper, it delivers on at least part of the subtitle 'neuroscience experiments for everyone' - the