Duke scientist uses animal knowledge to explain human relationships

07/28/2014 8:00 PM

07/29/2014 4:47 AM

Duke research scientist Jennifer Verdolin has taken human relationships to a new level – by thinking like an animal.

The author of “Wild Connections: What Animal Courtship and Mating Tell Us About Human Relationships” has a Ph.D. in ecology and evolution, but specializes in animal behaviors. Verdolin uses her knowledge of animals to determine what humans are doing wrong when it comes to dating and mating. She talks about this in weekly segment called “Think Like a Human, Act Like an Animal” on D.L. Hughley’s syndicated radio show. We recently talked to her about her book and upcoming bookstore appearances.

Q: Tell me about “Wild Connection.”

A: I think of “Wild Connection” as “Sex in the City” meets “Animal Kingdom.” The idea was born out of my attempt to try and understand why we as people, including myself, have so many problems when it comes to our romantic endeavors. When I look at the species I’ve studied and all the literature I know, I begin to wonder if animals face the same challenges we face and if we can learn anything from them.

Q: And that led to the ideas in the book?

A: Well, I left a bad relationship in N.Y., so when I got here I thought of ways I could use my Ph.D. in animal behavior and my expertise in meeting systems and social behaviors of other species to figure out human relationship problems. I spent two years dating from an animal’s prospective.

Q: How did you use the mindset of an animal on your dates?

A: If I was on a date I would say, “If I was a chicken how would I be reacting to what’s happening in this situation or how would I be evaluating to this potential mate sitting across from me?” Over time I learned what is important to a female, and that made me think about what’s important to me. I realized that we need to figure out what’s important to ourselves, individually, so we would know what we are looking for in a mate.

Q: What is one fault humans have that animals ignore?

A: I always think in an animal’s mindset, so if I’m a cockatiel bird, my attraction to you will not be the deciding factor for a future. It’s how compatible we are together. We get swept up in attraction to individuals, and then we sort of ignore the issues and problems. I mean, physical attraction is important and there is a biological basis for why we are attracted to certain people and certain traits, but animals that form long-term relationships look beyond that. We can’t let chemistry sweep us up. It’s important and a necessary ingredient, but it’s not a predictor in long-term success.

Q: How did you meet D.L. Hughley?

A: I met him two times at Goodnights (Comedy Club). The first time he stayed after to meet and talk with the audience. He asked everyone what did they do, and I said that I study animal behavior, and he goes “Really?” I was the last person in line so we just started talking about animals for about 30 minutes. Then last year, I didn’t know if he would remember me but I wanted to see if I would have the opportunity to meet with him again. He didn’t stay after the show like the last time, but when he was walking down the aisle, he remembered me and was like, “You’re the animal person. Don’t go anywhere.” So I stayed and we talked for a while until he said that I should do a segment on his new radio show.

Q: What do you do on the show?

A: I have a segment with him called “Think Like a Human, Act Like an Animal.” People write in their questions and we give advice through animal’s prospective. We cover all kinds of topics.

Q: What are the craziest topics you’ve covered?

A: It’s hard to say what’s crazy, because they’re all crazy. We’ve covered everything from infidelity to homosexuality to violence and controlling behavior. Last week, we were talking about a woman who caught her partner looking at same-sex porn. She didn’t know what this meant and whether or not this was unusual or weird. So that gave us the opportunity to talk about homosexuality among animals. For example, up to 25 percent of black swans have homosexuality pairings. Black Swans lure females to have threesomes and then kick them out once they lay eggs. It’s fun because D.L. is a comedian, so things have gone in all types of directions.

We’ve had a person write in a concern that their partner had changed physical appearances by gaining weight. The person wanted to know if it was a problem or was superficial, so that got us talking about appearance and if it matters. Like certain fish really prefer plus-size partners, so there is something out there for everyone.

Q: What do you have planned for your appearance on Thursday?

A: I plan on talking about why I wrote the book and give a bit of advice – I call it my animal pocket guide to dating. Then I will open up for discussion. I find that my book opens a doorway to have discussions about anything. It can be masturbating cats. Lots of animals masturbate, it’s pretty much known throughout the animal kingdom. It’s not just the birds and bees, cats and bears do it. But dolphins do it all the time, they are the most sex-crazed animals next to turtles. But I love having these discussions because it’s a great way to talk about sensitive topics with common human problems.

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