Fascinating stories from a knowledgeable, humorous guide. Another winner from Zuk.

DANCING COCKATOOS AND THE DEAD MAN TEST

HOW BEHAVIOR EVOLVES AND WHY IT MATTERS

Why do animals, including people, behave in certain ways? It’s complicated.

Zuk, a professor of ecology, evolution, and behavior at the University of Minnesota, clearly loves her work. She has written several interesting books in her field, including Sex on Six Legs. As in previous works, she casts a wide net, examining recent research to reexamine the long-running nature-vs.-nurture debate. In fact, writes the author, the argument has become rather meaningless, with the evidence now suggesting that it is the interaction of genes and environment that determines an animal’s behavior. Zuk shows how genetic structures are not as immutable as once thought—there are cases where they have been changed by environmental factors or repeated actions—and evolution is a far more complex process that its early adherents understood, with paths leading to odd places. Why does a cockatoo called Snowball dance so well to the Backstreet Boys? Is there an evolutionary advantage in collecting YouTube likes? Academic researchers argue vociferously about such issues, with protracted fights over definitions and data interpretations. Many of the problems, writes the author, stem from the tendency to assess behavior against standards based on a hierarchy of sophistication. But does it make sense to measure an animal’s intelligence according to its likeness to humans when that might be of little importance to the animal? Zuk devotes a chapter to the social evolution of dogs, but she also has interesting things to say about tool-using crows, innovative bees, and clever sea slugs. Particularly intriguing is the chapter on how parasites change the behavior of their hosts (such as making mice unafraid of cats) to work their way up the food chain—although many animals have developed effective anti-parasite techniques as well. Consistently entertaining, the book is also packed with provocative questions and useful insights.

Fascinating stories from a knowledgeable, humorous guide. Another winner from Zuk.

Pub Date: Aug. 9, 2022

ISBN: 978-1-324-00722-7

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2022

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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