Animal power, and how to perpetuate wonder: Books in brief

Power in the Wild

Lee Alan Dugatkin Univ. Chicago Press (2022)

While visiting a wolf research park in Austria, animal behaviourist Lee Dugatkin was startled to see one male sitting on top of another, clamping its snout in its jaws. The park’s director assured him there was no harm involved, only a display of power. This theme defines Dugatkin’s engaging book, which is based on the work of many scientists with a huge range of animals from around the world, including baboons, dolphins, mongooses and ravens. “Power pervades every aspect of the social lives of animals,” he says.

The Language Game

Morten H. Christiansen & Nick Chater Basic (2022)

Charles Darwin noted in 1871: “The survival and preservation of certain favoured words in the struggle for existence is natural selection.” But he did not claim that humans evolved a specific biological capacity for language, say cognitive scientists Morten Christiansen and Nick Chater in their study spanning continents and millennia. They argue that language speaking has no genetic basis. Languages evolve too quickly for genes (or computers) to keep up — through cultural evolution, as speakers play verbal charades.

Wonder

Frank C. Keil MIT Press (2022)

Psychologist Frank Keil opens with his children asking about small fossils found near their house. “We are intrinsically driven to wonder about the world and to address those wonders.” How to perpetuate wonder — and respect for science — in adulthood is the heart of his appealing book. He recalls anthropologist Margaret Mead’s observation in Papua New Guinea: children explained how a roped canoe had drifted away overnight because its rocking loosened the knot; adults invoked moral and supernatural causes.

The Invisible Siege

Dan Werb Crown (2022)

To blame a Chinese laboratory leak for SARS-CoV-2 is like blaming a fire department for blazes caused by climate change, remarks epidemiologist Dan Werb. The real reason has to be the accelerating emergence of human pathogens because of the globalized world’s drive for expansion. Coronavirus specialist Ralph Baric, the focus of Werb’s well-informed, powerfully written study of the pandemic, agrees, despite his personal reservations about China’s refusal to share more data.

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