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Dancing Cockatoos and the Dead Man Test: How Behavior Evolves and Why It Matters (Paperback)
Longlisted for the 2023 PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award
A lively exploration of animal behavior in all its glorious complexity, whether in tiny wasps, lumbering elephants, or ourselves.
For centuries, people have been returning to the same tired nature-versus-nurture debate, trying to determine what we learn and what we inherit. In Dancing Cockatoos and the Dead Man Test, biologist Marlene Zuk goes beyond the binary and instead focuses on interaction, or the way that genes and environment work together. Driving her investigation is a simple but essential question: How does behavior evolve?
Drawing from a wealth of research, including her own on insects, Zuk answers this question by turning to a wide range of animals and animal behavior. There are stories of cockatoos that dance to rock music, ants that heal their injured companions, dogs that exhibit signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and so much more.
For insights into animal intelligence, mating behavior, and an organism’s ability to fight disease, she explores the behavior of smart spiders, silent crickets, and crafty crows. In each example, she clearly demonstrates how these traits were produced by the complex and diverse interactions of genes and the environment and urges us to consider how that same process evolves behavior in us humans.
Filled with delightful anecdotes and fresh insights, Dancing Cockatoos and the Dead Man Test helps us see both other animals and ourselves more clearly, demonstrating that animal behavior can be remarkably similar to human behavior, and wonderfully complicated in its own right.
About the Author
Marlene Zuk is Regents Professor of ecology, evolution, and behavior at the University of Minnesota and studies animal sexual behavior and communication. The author of Paleofantasy and Sex on Six Legs, among other works, she lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.
[Zuk] watches and writes with a sense of wonder, curiosity, and the abiding recognition that our own human lives only make sense in light of the behavior of other species…Zuk’s lovely book feels like a cabinet of curiosities whose details remind us to pay attention to the behaviors around us every day.
— Rob Dunn - Science
This book is a joy—a provocative, highly entertaining exploration of the roots of our behavior. Marlene Zuk dispels the murk and misconceptions about how our sex roles, language, intelligence, even our mental illness came to be, offering a fresh and invigorating view of animal behavior illuminated by her deep knowledge and warm humor.
— Jennifer Ackerman, New York Times best-selling author of The Genius of Birds
With Dancing Cockatoos and the Dead Man Test, Marlene Zuk, a master of scientific storytelling, presents the natural world as a source of powerful insights for understanding behavior across animal species, including our own. With authority, clarity, and wit, the author guides readers on a revelatory journey into the connected nature of behavior across the tree of life.
— Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, coauthor of Zoobiquity and Wildhood
In Dancing Cockatoos and the Dead Man Test, Marlene Zuk uses a light touch to probe heavy questions: What is behavior? How is it related to intelligence? Does domestication make one dumb? Over the course of her investigation, she introduces readers to Lesser Black-backed Gulls that lie in wait to steal student sandwiches, crayfish that experience anxiety, and sea slugs that decapitate themselves (all the better to grow a new parasite-free body). The book, sparkling with humor and curiosity, is a pleasure from start to finish.
— Kim Todd, author of Sparrow
Zuk has a knack for weaving in complex scientific theories without ever slowing down the pace, and her vivid descriptions render her wonder contagious…This one's full of fun.
— Publishers Weekly
Consistently entertaining…Fascinating stories from a knowledgeable, humorous guide. Another winner from Zuk.
— Kirkus Reviews