The science of scientists

Science studies almost anything you can imagine, from languages to pathogens and even science itself. It’s, therefore, a bit strange that there is little research on scientists themselves. Why should there be? After all, scientists are just like all other human beings, or aren’t they?

Well, certainly not in the perception of most people, who would consider them a weird subspecies of Homo sapiens. Due to the work of Joseph Henrich (The WEIRDest People in the World , 2020) we know that people in academia tend to be WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) indeed and that WEIRD people have certain tendencies, like being less in-group biased, less endogamous, less nepotistic, more rational as well as showing some other differences:

[…] there were two distinct populations in the world that were particularly field independent. The first were WEIRD people. Can you guess the other one? Mobile hunter-gatherers, who possess extensive (not intensive) kin-based institutions, are field independent. Consistent with this, anthropologists have long argued that, compared to farmers and herders who have more intensive kin-based institutions, hunter-gatherers emphasize values that focus on independence, achievement, and self-reliance while deemphasizing obedience, conformity, and deference to authority.

Let’s continue investigating the analogies between hunter-gatherers and scientists. Foragers typically are highly egalitarian. There are probably no studies here, but it is well-known that there is a strong liberal bias in academia and that liberals tend to be more egalitarian than conservatives. What about deference to authority? Many famous scientists, including Albert Einstein, have voiced their disdain for authority that is not based on competence. Richard Dawkins: “The habit of questioning authority is one of the most valuable gifts that a book, or a teacher, can give a young would-be scientist”. Judith Rich Harris: “What made me become a scientist and writer? Genetic factors are no doubt involved. I seem to have been born with the predispositions to love reading and to thumb my nose at authority.”

Foragers are also different from farmers and herders by having a lower reproductive rate (every 4 years vs every 2 years). So, do scientists have fewer children? Here is again the answer is yes:

According to census data, among the professions charted — faculty members, physicians, lawyers and chief executives, between the ages of 35 and 50 — women in academia, no matter how many hours they worked, reported fewer children than women in all other professional fields. Among female faculty members who worked between 50 and 59 hours a week, 41 percent reported children in the household, compared with a robust 67 percent for female doctors. ()

Foragers typically are also less sexually dimorphic than farmers and herders due to the fact that they also practice gender egalitarianism. Scientists tend to be both to be more androgynous as well as gender-egalitarian than the average person. Judith Rich Harris: [my parents] would have liked me to be more like other girls”. Mary Cathrine Bateson: “I had the still unusual experience of growing up in an egalitarian household, in which my two parents were strikingly different and both available as models, with no gender rules determining the choice.” Moreover, have found that gay people are overrepresented in academia.

Foragers tend to discourage alliances, as these are a potential threat to egalitarianism. Judith Rich Harris: “Strangely enough, I seem to be deficient in the motivation to ally myself with a group.”

These traits tend to have grave consequences for scientists when they are still children or teenagers. Many scientists report having been loners in childhood. Robert Sapolsky: “I was a fairly solitary, misanthropic kid, probably atypically likely to get caught up in some obsession”. Jaron Lanier: “In retrospect, I can see how clearly this dilemma contributed to the loneliness I struggled against in my childhood. My childhood continues.” Judith Rich Harris: “I became a social reject; none of my classmates would talk to me. During the four years we lived in Yonkers, I was an outcast.”

Being different, non-conformist, lonely, not forming alliances is a recipe for becoming the victim of bullying. Harvard scientist Todd Rose recounts in his autobiography Square Peg how he was bullied and that he found it a common occurrence among his academic colleagues.

There are many more weird things about scientists. Most academics are overworked and underpaid. Add the prospect of having fewer children, teenage bullying and childhood loneliness and suddenly becoming a scientist doesn’t seem very attractive anymore. It doesn’t stop here. Often scientists were that stereotypical nerdy and sickly child. Judith Rich Harris: “In infancy, I had rashes, in childhood unexplained fevers and joint pains. When the usual viruses came around, I always got sicker than anyone else”.

There are many more WEIRD things about scientists. They are more likely to have autistic or other neurodiverse children. They are much more included to pursue ideas (intrinsically motivated) than material goods, power or high status (externally motivated). Scientists are a bit like worker bees, giving up (some of) their own reproductive potential for the greater good. Unlike worker bees, they are, however, genetically less related (due to assortative mating) to farmer-herder types whose world they inhabit. Scientists have died for their convictions (Giordano Bruno), been ostracized (Andrei Sakharov), rejected monetary awards (Grigori Perelman) or died in poverty and as a virgin (Nicola Tesla). Scientists are certainly among the WEIRDest of all WEIRD human beings and deserve their own science (let’s just not call it Scientology).

Scientists aren’t made, they are born different and make themselves. They are great autodidacts, pattern-recognizers and reframers, and above all, they question conventional truths. Here are some traits scientists typically have which I have argued are common hunter-gatherer type traits:

For more information on hunter-gatherer minds, check out our book:

Originally published at on August 22, 2021.