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Varieties of intersection: Specialties and collaboration networks. Presented at the meetings of the International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology, Exeter, July 2007. Elihu M. Gerson Tremont Research Institute San Francisco

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Varieties of intersection: Specialties and collaboration networks

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Varieties of intersection: Specialties and collaboration networks

Presented at the meetings of the International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology,

Exeter, July 2007

Elihu M. Gerson

Tremont Research Institute

San Francisco

Hyena biology

Hyena female external genital anatomy

  • The external genital anatomy of females simulates that of males.

  • The clitoris is enlarged and similar to the penis in appearance; it is also erectile.

  • There is no vaginal opening, and the labia are fused to simulate a scrotum.

  • Urination, intromission, and birth all take place through the clitoris.

Dominance hierarchies

  • Females are bigger and more aggressive than males, and dominate males in all respects.

  • Each clan has two dominance hierarchies: females and their sub-adult progeny, and adult males.

  • Males leave the clan shortly after puberty. They join another clan, where they must work their way to the upper part of the male dominance hierarchy before they can mate.

Competitive feeding

  • Hyenas hunt in ones and twos, but when they bring down prey, others come running.

  • They eat as much as possible, as fast as they can.

  • This encourages aggressive behavior.

Inheritance of rank

  • Adult females favor and defend their own cubs.

  • Cubs of higher rank females thus get more food and protection.

  • Maternal rank is inherited.

The unique characteristics of hyena female anatomy poses several broad questions

  • How and why did the species evolve this way?

  • What are the developmental pathways that lead to this unusual morphology?

  • What connections are there between the unusual genital anatomy and hyena behavior and social organization?

The Hyena Masculinization Research Network

  • These questions are addressed by a network of collaborators from many specialties that has developed over a quarter-century.

  • The network is centered on a hyena colony at UC Berkeley. Most of the field work of the network is based at Michigan State.

  • Currently, more than a dozen senior scientists at over nine universities participate in the collaboration in some regular way.

Hyena Masculinization Research Network

  • The network has representatives from many disciplines, including different branches of psychology, zoology, developmental biology, endocrinology, biochemistry, urology, anatomy, veterinary medicine, physiology, and neuroscience.

  • Some collaborators bring specialized knowledge of techniques such as radioimmunoassay.

  • Others add substantive knowledge from specific areas: neuroscience, developmental anatomy, endocrinology, etc.

Hyena Masculinization Research Network

  • New collaborators are recruited whenever a new problem arises and the relevant expertise isn’t part of the network already.

  • For most collaborators, participation in the network is unfunded, and their contributions are supported by other sources.

  • The primary motivation for most of the collaborators is the fun of the research.


  • The hyena masculinization network is part of a much larger group of intersections among specialties; in fact, it is part of two such larger groups, or junctures.

  • Junctures are research communities, but not organized disciplines with their own associations, meetings, journals, sponsorship, and training programs.

  • Instead, junctures exist at the intersection of multiple specialties, each with its own concerns, organizations, problems, and histories.


  • One juncture in which the hyena collaboration network participates is organized around comparative developmental reproductive vertebrate endocrinology.

  • The second is organized around the evolutionary ecology of behavior and social organization.

Comparative developmental reproductive vertebrate endocrinology

  • There is no single organizational home for this complex juncture of specialties.

  • Researchers come from medicine, veterinary medicine, endocrinology, vertebrate zoology, biological psychology, neuroscience, reproductive biology, molecular biology, physiology, morphology, developmental biology, animal behavior, and others.

  • No single institute or department covers all the relevant topics, nor does any single journal, association, or regular meeting serve as a common ground for all the players.

Comparative developmental reproductive vertebrate endocrinology

  • Many pairwise intersections have developed organizational homes (e.g., the journal Hormones and Behavior), and some journals and associations provide a natural setting for some of the intersections (e.g., the journal Placenta).

  • No single sponsoring organization recognizes this complex of intersections as a coherent field of study, although many such organizations will sponsor research in relatively narrow parts of the area.

Comparative developmental reproductive vertebrate endocrinology

  • Researchers in this area are acquainted with one another and with each others’ work; they see one another at meetings where their separate interests overlap; they trade reprints, students, samples, gossip, and other vital resources freely.

  • Masculinization is an important problem in the juncture, but there are others as well.

  • Many of the collaborators in the hyena network also collaborate on research on other species.

Evolutionary ecology of behavior and social organization

  • Researchers come from several branches of zoology, animal behavior, ethology, ecology, biological psychology, conservation biology, biogeography, regional specialties (e.g., African studies), anthropology, and so on.

  • Again, there is no single department or center that covers the full range of the juncture, nor is there a single association or journal that covers the whole juncture. Nor is there an interested sponsor focused on the juncture.

Evolutionary ecology of behavior and social organization

  • It isn’t clear how much researchers in this area are aquainted with one another; my impression is that ties are looser and more attenuated than they are in comparative developmental reproductive vertebrate endocrinology.

  • The juncture thus appears to be relatively weak; perhaps it is in an early stage of formation and growth.

  • Siblicide (attacks on one litter- or nest-mate by another) is a research problem in the juncture; it plays a role analogous to masculinization in comparative vertebrate developmental endocrinology.


  • The juncture of evolutionary and developmental biology is another important juncture in the life sciences.

  • But the hyena collaboration network doesn’t participate in the juncture of specialties that makes up the world of evo-devo research.

  • Most evo-devo researchers are unaware of the hyena research, or other parts of comparative developmental reproductive vertebrate endocrinology juncture.

  • Even though much of the research in this juncture is relevant to evo-devo concerns.

Problems of cross-specialty collaboration

  • In specialties, credibility is determined by a researcher’s reputation in the “home” field, as known to, and reviewed by, experts with similar expertise and credentials.

  • Colleagues in the home specialty understand the technical details and subtleties of their work.

  • They also share a common history and network of personal relationships.

Problems of cross-specialty collaboration

  • Collaborations that cross specialty boundaries pose problems because:

  • Collaborators are less likely to know the relevant technical details and context of the home specialty;

  • Colleague evaluators in the home specialty are unlikely to know the relevant technical details and context of the complementary specialty;

  • Colleague evaluators are less likely to be familiar with collaborators’ reputations and track records.

Implications of cross-specialty organization

  • Collaboration with researchers outside the specialty thus brings some risk, because colleagues and referees in the home specialty may not see the value of the collaboration.

  • So it may be safer and easier to “stay home” and do something safe-- especially for the untenured.

  • So specialties impose barriers to collaboration.

Implications of cross-specialty organization

  • Credit and other resources must be allocated carefully among collaborators. A short-term view may result in less willingness to take the necessary risks.

  • Over time, collaborators build up a joint track record, and hence mutual trust.

  • So succesful collaborations tend to support and enrich intersections and junctures.

  • At the same time, successful collaboration weaken specialty boundaries as “outsiders” gain credibility.

Juncture effects

  • In a juncture, credibility cannot be based only on reputation and credentials in the home specialty, but must be based as well on reputation in the community formed by the juncture.

  • In contrast to the home specialties, this reputation focuses on complementary skills, rather than expertise in home specialties’ substantive topics.

  • Over time, cumulation of credibility among complementary specialists tends to strengthen the juncture.


  • Collaborations and specialties can trade off against one another. Collaborators must walk a fine line in balancing the demands of the different kinds of research organizations they’re involved with.

  • Junctures provide a larger field of common concerns than organized specialties do.

  • They provide a context for alliances that cut across specialty boundaries, and perhaps the basis for the formation of new specialties as well.

  • They can buffer some of the negative isolating effects of specialty boundaries.

Thanks to:

  • M. Sue Gerson for comments and continuing support.

  • Stephen E. Glickman, Mary Weldele, Elizabeth Coscia, and the staff of the Berkeley Hyena Project.

  • Kay Holekamp and colleagues at Michigan State, especially for photographs.

  • The collaborators of the Berkeley Hyena Project.

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