Books interview: Julia Fischer

The behavioural scientist on the call of the wild, Jane Goodall, research in remote places, and her waiting-to-be-read pile

February 2, 2017
Julia Fischer
Source: Oliver Moest

What sort of books inspired you as a child?

My all-time favourite children’s book is Winnie-the-Pooh. The first book I read myself, aged 7, was Enid Blyton’s The Castle of Adventure. I was immediately hooked and I still love a good crime novel. But I also cherished a book about famous early scientists such as Galileo, Anton van Leeuwenhoek and Johannes Kepler who attempted to understand the world using experimentation and novel empirical methods. My very worn copy has a special place on my bookshelf.

Your latest book, ‘Monkeytalk’, draws on your experiences of studying primates in the wild. What led you to become a field researcher?

I discovered that I loved being outdoors relatively late, in my twenties, when I joined my best friends on a sailing trip to Iceland. More or less at the same time, I took my first course in animal behaviour as part of my studies of biology. My interest was spurred by the theoretical debates more than romantic ideas of following primates in the wild. I then took an advanced course in animal behaviour, observing a group of Barbary macaques in an outdoor enclosure in France. They just overwhelmed me and I am very lucky that I can still go back to the same population where some of the individuals I watched as youngsters are still around.

Which books would you recommend as accessible analyses of animal cognition, communication and social structures?

The first book I read about primate behaviour was Frans de Waal’s Chimpanzee Politics, and then of course Jane Goodall’s accounts of her life with the chimpanzees. But the book that really changed my life was How Monkeys See the World by Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth. It laid the ground for all my later research. This continues to be the “must-read” in our field, along with Baboon Metaphysics by the same authors.

Which books give the most vivid accounts of doing research in remote places?

Anyone who wants to know how arduous field research can be should pick up I’ve Been Gone Far Too Long, edited by Monique Borgerhoff Mulder and Wendy Logsdon. It’s hilarious. Tristes Tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss remains a classic. Another book that gives a good idea about the fascination, but also the perils, of field research is Craig Packer’s Into Africa.

What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?

Christoph Ransmayr’s novel, Cox oder Der Lauf der Zeit, to a dear friend of our family. Set in the 18th century, it describes English watchmaker Alistair Cox’s journey to the court of the Chinese emperor Qianlong.

What books do you have on your desk waiting to be read?

Having finished Didier Eribon’s Returning to Reims, I am looking forward to rediscovering Hans Fallada’s Little Man, What Now? – but there is a stack to choose from, including Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend and Patrick Garrett’s Of Fortunes and War, about his great-aunt Clare Hollingworth, the first female war correspondent.

Julia Fischer is professor in the German Primate Center and head of the department of cognitive ethology, University of Göttingen, Germany. Her latest book is Monkeytalk: Inside the Worlds and Minds of Primates (University of Chicago Press).

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