Scientifically inclined dog lovers will find this a trove of information and provocation.

ONCE A WOLF

THE SCIENCE BEHIND OUR DOGS' ASTONISHING GENETIC EVOLUTION

How did wolves evolve into dogs? Sykes (Genetics/Oxford Univ.; The Nature of the Beast, 2015, etc.) reviews the state of the art on matters canine and lupine.

Past studies of canine evolution have relied on osteological and archaeological evidence, but since 2005, the fully sequenced dog genome has been available, allowing, among other things, for “re-drawing the evolutionary tree of dog breeds constructed with mitochondrial DNA over twenty years previously.” Five years later, writes the author, a new family tree was published, with all 64 breeds—even the Chihuahua—pointing back to the wolf. Some of those breeds are “ancient,” such as the Basenji and Samoyed; others are quite recent. Making those breeds required domestication, for which Sykes finds no evidence before about 50,000 years ago—still far earlier than previous studies have projected. Like other scholars, the author locates that origin in shared hunting, a process that may have altered humans as much as dogs in “the unstoppable current of natural selection.” Scholarly argument persists over whether the original raw materials of the dog were really wolves and not coyotes, jackals, hyenas, and other canids. Sykes charts the development of the Carnivora before settling, persuasively, on the scenario of Paleolithic hunters working in concert with wolves to bring down large game such as bison. The author goes on to examine some of the mutations that subsequently allowed human breeders to select for certain characteristics, whether the ridge of the ridgeback or the pigmentation of the bull terrier (with a passing nod to the heterochromia exhibited by David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust). Melanism, hyperuremia, progressive rod-cone retinal degeneration: The author’s discussion can be densely technical at times but never enough to render the text inaccessible to those without a background in genetics and population dynamics. Moreover, he closes by looking outside of nature to find the nurture connected to our love of dogs, that “amazing psychic symbiosis."

Scientifically inclined dog lovers will find this a trove of information and provocation.

Pub Date: March 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-63149-379-9

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: Dec. 9, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2019

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The Stoics did much better with the much shorter Enchiridion.

THE LAWS OF HUMAN NATURE

A follow-on to the author’s garbled but popular 48 Laws of Power, promising that readers will learn how to win friends and influence people, to say nothing of outfoxing all those “toxic types” out in the world.

Greene (Mastery, 2012, etc.) begins with a big sell, averring that his book “is designed to immerse you in all aspects of human behavior and illuminate its root causes.” To gauge by this fat compendium, human behavior is mostly rotten, a presumption that fits with the author’s neo-Machiavellian program of self-validation and eventual strategic supremacy. The author works to formula: First, state a “law,” such as “confront your dark side” or “know your limits,” the latter of which seems pale compared to the Delphic oracle’s “nothing in excess.” Next, elaborate on that law with what might seem to be as plain as day: “Losing contact with reality, we make irrational decisions. That is why our success often does not last.” One imagines there might be other reasons for the evanescence of glory, but there you go. Finally, spin out a long tutelary yarn, seemingly the longer the better, to shore up the truism—in this case, the cometary rise and fall of one-time Disney CEO Michael Eisner, with the warning, “his fate could easily be yours, albeit most likely on a smaller scale,” which ranks right up there with the fortuneteller’s “I sense that someone you know has died" in orders of probability. It’s enough to inspire a new law: Beware of those who spend too much time telling you what you already know, even when it’s dressed up in fresh-sounding terms. “Continually mix the visceral with the analytic” is the language of a consultant’s report, more important-sounding than “go with your gut but use your head, too.”

The Stoics did much better with the much shorter Enchiridion.

Pub Date: Oct. 23, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-42814-5

Page Count: 580

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 31, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2018

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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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