Skip to main content

The Wolf Within - Bryan Sykes ****

There's always the whiff of snake oil in the air when a publisher puts the author's academic qualification on the front of a book. Yet Professor Bryan Sykes wears his laurels lightly - in fact I wish there had been a bit more detailed science content in what turned out to be a real curate's egg of a read.

You don't have to be a dog lover to find this book on the development of dogs from wolves interesting (in fact Sykes claims he isn't, though his wife is), but it certainly helps - and I am. Probably the most fascinating sections concentrate on wolves. We discover that real wolves are nothing like the merciless killing machines of legend - not that they don't kill, of course, but their behaviour is much more nuanced. Sykes describes a hypothetical but convincing scenario for wolves to first begin working with humans as collaborative hunters, each benefiting from the others' skills.

Sykes argues that the wolves' pack behaviour makes them ideally suited to take on the costs and benefits of working with others. We then see how with time, wolves have become the incredibly diverse species - the most varied in form of all mammal species - that are modern dogs. Along the way, we inevitably meet the remarkable Belyaev experiments, which over decades of selective breeding for cooperativeness showed that arctic foxes became more and like dogs, not only in behaviour but in appearance.

There's also plenty on the breeding of dogs, the problems that emerge from the pedigree system of breeding from a small, related stock, and the genetic implications and potential solutions for some of the inbreeding problems.

This is all handled in a very conversational style, though as mentioned above, I wish there had been a bit more in-depth science. Of itself, this light approach is a good thing, but the dark side of the curate's egg is that the book is oddly structured, with some parts thrown in with no apparent thought for the way it reads. Some of the text, particularly a long set of interviews by Sykes' wife with dog owners seems not to add anything to the message of the book.

The four star rating is for the good bits, particularly the parts on wolves, the development of dog breeds and genetics. If you are interested in dogs (or wolves), it's well worth reading for these alone.

Hardback:  

Kindle:  

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Five Photons - James Geach ****

It is generally acknowledged that Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time is one of the most common books to be bought but not read beyond the first few pages. If you are the kind of popular science reader who found Hawking hard going, you can stop now - Five Photons is not for you. If, on the other hand, you found A Brief History of Time a piece of cake and wished you could get into more depth without resorting to heavy mathematics or a tedious textbook style, Five Photons could be just up your street.

Astrophysicist James Geach starts of fairly gently with a chapter on the nature of light that mostly sets aside quantum physics, leading up to the observation that light is our vehicle for for stripping back the history of the universe to its earliest times (or, at least, the point where the universe became transparent). From here on, the five photons of the title take us on different journeys, from the oldest surviving light of the cosmic microwave background radiation to that fr…