My Family and Other Mammals | Liam Drew
Becoming a new parent is without a doubt, life-changing. Add to the mix the opportunity to write about your mammalian experience of parenthood, and you’ve got a Bloomsbury-published book on your hands. Scientist, father and Somerset native, Liam Drew, discusses his first book, I, Mammal and how it felt to release that baby into the wild.
For most, a soccer-related testicle injury might be something to nurse in private. But instead of simply keeping his wounded pride (and privates) to himself, Liam Drew decided to put pen to paper. “I got struck with a football during a match, and after much complaining to my wife, she asked why my essential reproductive organs hung outside my body. This conversation led me to investigate why testicles must be kept below body temperature, or whether they were exiled for other reasons and so adapted accordingly.”
It also led to a 5000-word essay, published by Slate in 2013, which grabbed the attention of Bloomsbury. As a new father, a process he had found, “profoundly transformative”, Liam decided at the book’s inception that he wanted to discuss how his mammalian biology had shaped his experience by peppering it with personal reflections on fatherhood, and life in general. A daunting task, to take a list of traits such as milk, hair, certain brain structures – and turn them into a cohesive, engaging blend of serious science, historical anecdotes and amusing observations. “I remember speaking to a friend early on, and saying, ‘I hope I haven’t bitten off more than I can chew’. She replied, ‘Do only mammals chew?’ I laughed. Then a week later, I emailed her to say, ‘Yeah, only mammals chew…’
Enmeshing research and writing into work and family life often meant grabbing time to read and scribble on the train or in the library, but there were occasions when things came together in perfect synergy. “We took my two girls (aged three and six) to Down House, Charles Darwin’s old family home in Kent – it’s such a wonderful place, where myriad experiments and investigations were undertaken. The kids loved it. A few weeks later, I opened a magazine on the train and the girls yelled out, “There’s Charles Darwin!” The guy opposite was very impressed.”
So have his thoughts on inspiring kids about all-things science evolved? Or how we, as time-poor, knowledge-hungry parents can shoehorn personal development and reading into busy lives to guarantee our own grey matter doesn’t get preserved at homo neanderthalensis levels? “Above all else I want my kids to grow up as inquisitive people who value knowledge. It’s amazing watching my daughters learn. I don’t want them to see science as an abstracted, academic pursuit – something apart from everyday life that only happens when the teacher gives you the test tubes."
“The basic foundations of scientific thinking are simple; if X happens, what are the consequences? How are things related? I think you can do that with kids from a really early age, ask them to ask the question.”
“As for my own reading, it's important to read for pleasure and to experience other thoughts and viewpoints. But it’s hard since becoming a parent! I still buy the books - but then I tuck the kids in, have dinner, maybe a glass of wine…and that big intellectual novel sits there unread. Consequently – and ironically for a mammal – I’ve become more of a magpie! I gravitate towards shorter forms, like essays, articles and short stories.”
While it would be crass to compare the publication of a first book to the birth of a first child, it’s clearly been an, ‘emotional’ experience. Liam confesses to finding the public aspects of promoting it, ‘fun’, with inscribing copies his new ‘favourite thing’. The fact that some readers have laughed at the jokes and provided meaningful feedback by handwritten letter has moved him to tears – another profoundly mammalian response.
And as an, ‘And finally’, I couldn’t let him sign off without asking for his favourite mammal?? “I have to say, I quite like the Tailless Tenrec, a Madagascan animal that looks like a shrew dressed in a hedgehog costume. It hibernates for 9 months.”
All Words © Debra O'Sullivan 2018. All Rights Reserved.