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Anderson's knowledge is encyclopedic, according to Morrison. “He has a truly remarkable ability to bring together diverse facts from different areas and synthesize them into incredibly creative ideas.” That brainpower may come from Anderson's parents. His father is a retired theoretical astrophysicist, who lettered in chess at the University of Chicago. Every year, he traveled the family from Teaneck, New Jersey, to Woods Hole, Massachusetts, because he was interested in learning more about fluid mechanics. Anderson's mother, a professor of Latin American literature, still teaches at New York University.
The younger Anderson says he takes inspiration from many sources, among them Charles Darwin's 1872 monograph, “The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals.” This dense work, overshadowed by Darwin's writings on natural selection, asks why emotions take on physical expressions—why people smile when they're happy or cringe when they're afraid. Darwin posited that opposite emotions produce opposite behavioral manifestations, as well: a smile will turn up the corners of the mouth; a frown will turn them down.
For most principal investigators, the moments for real science are crowded by constant meetings and nagging administrative duties, articles to read, lab notes to review, grants to write, and both scheduled and unscripted mentoring moments.
Anderson loves his time with students and colleagues—“I would not do well in a scientific monastery”—but he also has a deep longing for his lab bench, where he can work alone, dirty his hands, and fill his own lab notebook with observations and results. In early 2006, he got his wish, taking a six-month sabbatical at Germany's University of Würzburg.
In Germany, Anderson was able to immerse himself in the lives and biology of fruit flies. Period. There were leads to ponder, behavioral experiments to design, and always a single question to answer: “How can we determine in an objective way whether flies have emotions or not?”
The problem was—and remains—vexing. For example, when flies scatter as a shadow passes over them, are they truly afraid?
Of course, to detect an emotion requires first defining the term, a task that Anderson agrees can be subjective, if not downright emotional. His choice? Emotion is something that places value on behavioral options and that reveals itself in grades of intensity and that produces internal states with similar ranges—from mild apprehension to terrorizing fear, for example.
Studying fruit flies long enough and hard enough, as Anderson did in Germany, enables one to detect some intriguing emotion-like clues, he contends. During courtship, for example, male fruit flies extend their wings horizontally as they sing to their mates. Flies engaged in aggressive behavior, on the other hand, elevate their wings straight up in the air.
“When you look at their wings and the two perpendicular axes associated with two activities of opposite emotional valence, it makes me wonder,” says Anderson. “Maybe the wings of the fly are the best way to read its internal state.”