Skip to main content

If Dogs Could Talk – Vilmos Csányi ****

Sometimes a truth is so close under our nose it’s difficult to spot. We are so used to dogs and their behaviour that we don’t really notice just how remarkable they are. Vilmos Csányi challenges us to think about the canine mind. Once you do, it’s obvious that dogs are quite remarkable.
This is an animal which, with human help, has become so modified from its natural form that it prefers the company of another species – humans – to its own. We are familiar with the concept of the dog as “man’s best friend”, but this book challenges us to think more about the mental processes required to enable a dog to do the remarkable things it does.
Remarkable, dogs? Surely all they do is mess on the pavement and bark a lot? Hardly. Csányi, a confessed dog lover, shows us with a combination of personal anecdote and the outcome of a wide range of experiments just how flexible the dog’s mind can be, giving it capabilities that no animals other than humans – not even the other primates in some cases – are capable of. This isn’t so much about the impressive ability of dogs to follow commands, but rather the way they can communicate with humans, appear to have a model of the mind to make deductions, and generally share a surprising amount of our nature, when isolated from the heavy duty thinking we alone can do.
If you are a cat lover and don’t particularly like dogs, by now you might be cringing a bit. There isn’t going to be a lot of solace for you here. You can argue as much as you like about what good pets cats make, but they simply aren’t capable of most of the actions and thoughts that make dogs unique. If there’s any doubt, ask a cat to fetch your slippers, see how excited it gets at just the mention of walkies, or ask a cat “where?” when it shows the intention of doing something and see how much intelligent response you get. The fact is, cats may be loveable, but by comparison they are practically brainless, and lack the unique cross-species bond of the dog.
If it weren’t for a few practical irritations, this would be a solid, five star, best of breed book. Firstly it’s a translation, and there’s a slightly unnatural feel about the language, especially when Csányi is being humorous. Translated jokes always creak. Then there’s a large section that seems to forget dogs altogether, talking about apes and people. I think this is supposed to be so we can relate the dog’s mind to a better understanding of the human, but it’s too far off track and loses the whole impetus of the book. Oh, and throughout the word “ethology” is used (on practically every page) as if it’s a word we’re all familiar with. Sorry, never heard of it. I don’t even know if it’s pronounced ee-thology (as in ethos) or eth-ology (as in ethnic). Even the OED isn’t awfully helpful, as it could be the portrayal of character by mimic gestures, the science of character formation, or the branch of Natural History that deals with the actions and habits of animals. With this topic, it could be any of these that was meant, though I suspect it was the third. At the very least the word should have been explained – better still, it should have been avoided. (One last moan – the chapter on “how to be a dog owner” at the end seems weak and out of place.)
Never mind that, though. What’s certainly true is you won’t look at dogs the same way again. This is a truly fascinating book on the unnatural canine minds behind a unique inter-species relationship. Good boy, Vilmos! Good boy!
Hardback:  
Review by Peter Spitz

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…