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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.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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