Birds are drawn to the Goulds’ spring garden. Created over the 37 years that they have lived in Princeton, it is lush with flowering shrubs, hellebores, woodruff, begonias, peonies, and irises. The first hummingbird of the year flits up to the feeder that Jim Gould, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University, and science writer Carol Grant Gould put out in expectation of the bird’s arrival.
The Goulds’ latest book: “Nature’s Compass: The Mystery of Animal Navigation” looks at the astonishing ability of animals from tiny ruby-throated hummingbirds and even tinier Monarch butterflies to gray whales and numerous bird species to journey long distances, describing the internal clocks, calendars, compasses, and maps that allow them to do so. The authors discuss their book on Tuesday, May 22, at 7 p.m. at Princeton Public Library.
The book explains why such animal abilities are so amazing to humans, whose brains don’t have a built-in navigational module. Humans can walk in a straight line through a forest, but only if given both landmarks and the sun. “If you test this out in the desert where there’s the sun but no landmarks, or on a cloudy day in the forest where there are landmarks but no sun, people walk in circles,” says Jim Gould.
“Nature’s Compass” shows that the size and direction of the circle are specific to the individual. Some people do tight right hand circles, others do very open left hand circles, but without the combination of both landmarks and sun everyone walks in a circle. Having taken part in some of these experiments, Carol Gould attests that humans rarely believe the results. The closest thing we humans have to a navigational module is GPS, but then you have to have a smart phone.
“Nature’s Compass” also looks at the effects of habitat destruction and global warming on migratory paths. Animals migrate because of past climate change, so the question is whether current change is unusually fast. Is it too fast for natural selection to keep up with? And are there still places where migrating birds can stop to rest and feed? For a curlew that flies 7,000 miles non-stop this isn’t a worry, but for a sparrow that flies a couple of hundred miles between rest stops, habitat loss can be devastating.
The Goulds, who come originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma, bring almost 40 years of research into aspects of animal behavior to bear on such questions. They’ve been married since 1970, when Carol was 21 and Jim was 23. They met when Jim was home for Christmas from the California Institute of Technology where he was an undergraduate studying biology. Carol was an undergraduate at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.
“Meeting Carol was the turning point of my life,” says Jim. “She was beautiful, smart, and funny, and if you’re going to spend your life with someone, funny is important.” The couple saw a few movies together, wrote to each other from college, and soon made plans to marry.
“I thought Jim was amazing, so smart and so sophisticated, at least he seemed so to me. He talked about academic stuff and it just blew me away, besides, he was very good looking,” recalls Carol.
Jim Gould has been an outdoorsman all his life. His father was an engineer, and his mother taught second grade. Before his family moved to the big city of Tulsa, he lived in the small town of Hominy. “It was supposed to be Harmony,” Jim explains, “and it was Harmony Mission to the Osage, but when it was registered as a town the name was misspelled, and so it’s been Hominy ever since.” There he hunted and fished and explored — “latent” learning that would later influence his choice of career.
Once married, the Goulds moved to New York City. Carol enrolled at New York University for a Ph.D. in Victorian literature (her thesis was on William Makepeace Thackeray), and Jim went to Rockefeller University, then the best place for animal behavior. The subject had become his passion after serving in the U.S. Army Signal Corps in Germany for a couple of years and after reading Konrad Lorenz’s influential book “King Solomon’s Ring.” Lorenz, the famous Austrian zoologist who shared the Nobel Prize in 1973, is well-remembered for his highly readable adventures with the geese he raised by hand and which imprinted on him. First published in English in 1952, it is still in print.
When Jim got a job offer from Princeton University they settled in Princeton Township. Their two children, Grant, born in 1977, and Clare, born in 1980, went to Princeton Day School. Grant is an MIT graduate and computer scientist working for Oracle. Clare went to Princeton University and now has her own tutoring business, Bright Tiger Tutoring, for grades 6 and up. When Carol finished her degree, she transitioned into a career as a science writer.
“As the result of marrying a field biologist, I learned a lot of science,” she says. “And I realized that if I wanted to see Jim, I had to get involved.” They spent the first year of their marriage studying whales in Patagonia after a honeymoon of camping across Canada. “We read Jane Austen all the way,” says Jim.
Reading together is a habit the couple maintains to this day, listening to recorded books: detective stories by Sue Grafton or Scottish novelist Alexander McCall Smith, whom they enjoyed hearing speak at the Princeton Public Library recently. They also enjoy McCarter Theater events and classical music at Richardson Auditorium. For recreation, they hike along the D&R canal, in Smoyer Park, and along the Delaware River.
Having picked up biology on field trips, Carol, whose father was a petroleum engineer while her mom looked after the family, took a job as a laboratory technician at the university and took courses in biology. The Goulds’ first collaboration was a biology textbook: “Ethology: The Mechanisms and Evolution of Behavior.” To satisfy their publisher, the book’s cover shows a cute family of cheetahs. “Back then you couldn’t select from digital archives, you had to search through thousands of slides, and this warm and fuzzy image was extremely hard to find,” Jim recalls. “Cheetahs are solitary animals so a group shot is rare, most of the slides were of cheetahs asleep or covered in gore, so this was a lucky find,” he laughs.
Together the Goulds have written 10 books. Carol also wrote a biography of William Beebe, the first person to go down into the deep ocean in the “Bathysphere,” an undersea vessel he invented with Otis Barton. Beebe, who inspired James Cameron’s undersea explorations of the Titanic, was fun to write about, says Carol. “The Remarkable Life of William Beebe: Explorer and Naturalist” is among the complete Gould collection that includes translations into Chinese, Turkish, and other languages.
In 2007 their “Animal Architects: Building and the Evolution of Intelligence” was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for science and technology. The cover of the Chinese version shows an otter in a yellow hard hat. Had the Goulds been consulted before it was printed, they could have pointed out that the otter pictured is not the otter who famously builds lodges but rather a sea otter, who doesn’t build anything.
Over the years Jim has become the world expert on bee communication. He’s also become allergic to their sting. “I’ve retreated from them, you might say,” he laughs. Currently he is interested in the mechanisms and logic of mate choice: why females choose one male over another. “That’s always intrigued me,” he says, citing the influence of his thesis advisor Donald Griffin, who discovered bat echolocation, worked on bird navigation, and pioneered interest in animal cognition.
According to Gould, Griffin was regarded as a heretic when he first started publishing on animal planning and thinking because his terminology seemed to imply consciousness. Now his work is accepted and it is thought that planning and thinking need not imply consciousness in animals, and by extension, according to Gould, in humans. “It seemed at first that animals were a lot smarter than we had thought, but now it looks as though humans are not nearly as smart as we thought. There’s a part of the brain that does this route planning (the hippocampus) and it has nothing to do with conscious thought.”
The evolutionary biologist Gould is not saying that humans don’t have conscious thought but rather that the list of things once thought to be uniquely human has gotten shorter. People started asking if animals “map read.” The question was once taboo, but now the list of things that animals do automatically has grown. “As far as animal intelligence goes, so much depends on how questions are framed,” he says. “If you focus on echolocation, bats come out as extremely intelligent; humans not so much.”
“Even human language is facilitated by innate mechanisms,” claims Gould. “We think of language as the most complex behavior, and yet everybody learns language and pretty much at the same time as everyone else. In fact, it’s hard to stop it. The average six-year-old is learning 25 words a day; we are sponges designed to do this.”
The instinct to learn might well be the subject of the Goulds’ next book. “We tend to think of learning as a great human achievement, but it seems to be pretty well programmed, which is why it’s easy to learn some things and not others,” says Jim. “Children pick up language effortlessly, but addition and multiplication have to be taught. Some complicated things are easy to learn and some simple things are difficult to learn. Why?”
Jim Gould and Carol Grant Gould, “Nature’s Compass: The Mystery of Animal Navigation,” Princeton Public Library Community Room, 65 Witherspoon Street. Tuesday, May 22, 7 p.m. www.princetonlibrary.org or 609-924-9529.