Tag Archives: nonfiction

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog)

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): How the Silver Fox Became a DogHow to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): How the Silver Fox Became a Dog by Lee Alan Dugatkin

To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world . . . One only understands the things that one tames, said the fox. Men have no more time to understand anything.

— The Little Prince

One of the obvious and forgotten wonders of the human experience is our domestication of other species. “One only understands the things that one tames,” the fox explains in De Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince. “Men have no more time to understand anything.”

Domestication transformed both domesticator and domesticated, and indeed some scientists believe homo sapiens should itself be considered a self-domesticated variety of primate. Yet the mechanisms, history, and genetic implications of domestication are poorly understood. Why is it possible to domesticate some animals (horses), while close relatives (zebras) remain untamable? Why were so few species domesticated in our history, and how was this accomplished?

For the past sixty years, a remarkable experiment has been underway in Siberia to understand this process by recreating it with foxes. In just over a half a century—the blink of an evolutionary eye—Russian scientists have succeeded in domesticating foxes to the point where they live with humans and behave remarkably like dogs. Along the way, this has illuminated genetic changes unlocked when animals are unnaturally selected for calmness and tameness.

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) is the story of this experiment, documenting its history from its inception under the reign of Lenin to today. It is a popular treatment co-authored by an American evolutionary biologist and the Russian scientist who currently heads the project. The authors use the work to examine a variety of scientific issues, including evolutionary genetics, the role of hormone production in wild versus tame species, genetic coding, and primate evolution. Along the way there is also plenty historical context revealing what it was like to navigate a large, enduring experiment through the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Yet there are flaws with the book as well, specifically related to its awkwardly hagiographic tone regarding the founder of the experiment, the Soviet geneticist Dmitri Belyaev, as well as an un-self-conscious neglect of the ambivalent ethical background of the experiment carried out against the background of the Soviet fur industry and entailing generations of thousands of foxes raised in cages to be euthanized for their fur. The authors gloss over these implications for their research, focusing instead on the innate appeal of the idea of being able to take a fox home for a pet.

Victoria: the Queen

Victoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an EmpireVictoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire by Julia Baird

I remember an evening class session my first semester as a history PhD student at Notre Dame held in the living room of a professor who has since passed away in which this incredibly erudite historian made a case for empire. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but the crux was a contrast between the relative peace that prevailed between various peoples who saw themselves as part of a single empire against the contemporary strife of nationalism among the ashes of collapsed empires. I remember that many of us were still young enough to find this idea shocking, distasteful, and certainly heretical to our American ideals of democracy. The democratic, in-fighting cities of Greece were the good guys, after all. The absolutist, domineering emperor of Persia was the singular Bad Guy.

Because that’s the problem with empire, isn’t it? You need an emperor. It never seems to work to unify a disparate collection of nations or peoples under the authority of an elected body. (Or at least, it didn’t work for the Romans for long, and one could argue whether the United States is in some respects simply a relatively young experiment in democratic empire-building.) It doesn’t work because an empire doesn’t really want all its constituent pieces represented. It just wants them unified, and the best way to do that is to place them all under the authority—perhaps only a symbolic authority, though sometimes that’s the strongest authority of all—of an emperor.

We’ve forgotten what a Christian idea this is. Christianity was not born in democracy, nor does it tend toward it. Every day, Christians around the world pray for the coming of a kingdom, an empire with a benevolent Prince of Peace as the ultimate, un-democratic authority. This was an ideal I was first introduced to in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, when the ghost of Severian’s tutor walks his pupil through what Severian assumes are progressively higher and more developed forms of government until the tutor asks in what relation Severian stands with most loyal, obedient companion. Democracy, Wolfe seemed to be saying, does not have a monopoly on virtue and loyalty. Indeed, these might flourish more easily in an empire ruled by a worthy leader. (And much of the plot of this five-volume epic is the story of Severian becoming a worthy emperor.) Famously atheistic Terry Pratchett makes a similar argument in the character of Lord Vetinari, the benevolent dictator of the Discworld’s most fabulous city.

This isn’t an argument against democracy, or even an argument that one form of government is better or worse than another. But it is an argument that to understand other peoples and periods (and maybe even our own theology) we need to at least consider giving up the notion that democracy is inherently and without question the best or the natural progression of all states. When we do, we might be in a position to understand the life and significance of someone like Queen Victoria.

As Julia Baird sets out in this sweeping biography of the life of the queen (and empress), Victoria reigned over an empire that during her lifetime grew to encompass a quarter of the world’s inhabited landmass and hundreds of millions of subjects—arguably the largest empire in history. Yet her life and reign (second in British history only to the currently-reigning queen) spanned the industrialization of her empire and a growing tide of liberal reforms. Under her rule (though not always with her support), Reform Bills expanded the voting franchise, and new laws began modernizing women’s rights and protection of children and workers and even animals (through anti-cruelty laws). Throughout a reign lasting from 1837 to 1876 (she came to the throne at the age of only eighteen), Victoria balanced being a figurehead and yet a real, forceful symbol of devotion to empire with the exercise of true political power.

Baird does a tremendous job mining primary sources and balancing her treatment of Victoria as a person with the context of the political and social world that was being transformed around her. From her stormy relationship with her mother to her adoration of husband Prince Albert and her veneration of his memory after his death decades before her own, to stubborn battles of will with the various Prime Ministers she outlasted and outlived, to her (previously often censored) relationship with her Highlands servant John Brown, Baird shines the light on Victoria the woman—often stubborn, selfish, and self-interested, but just as often stubborn, indomitable, and compassionate. Throughout, Baird highlights what it meant, for men and women, to have a woman as sovereign in a period when the rights of women in Britain were still developing.

This treatment of her personal character is balanced with enough context to help the reader place Victoria and her family in the center of shifting European politics and historical developments. Her children and grandchildren were scattered across the royal families of Europe, with repercussions up to the time of First World War. The ultimate fate of her granddaughter, wife of the doomed Tsar, in the Russian Revolution is well-known, but I had not realized the intricacies of what the rise of Prussia in the late 1800s (eventually ruled by Victoria’s grandson Kaiser Wilhelm) implied for family loyalties even before the Great War. Baird does a good job giving an overview of these complexities (and among the German kingdoms this could easily become dizzying) without getting lost in the details.

Finally, Baird finds a balance between the civilizing aspects of empire and the brutal realities this often entailed—usually for subject peoples. She doesn’t shirk from outlining the forgotten wars that played out on the fringes of the empire, like the Taiping Rebellion in China that she says cost millions of lives. At the end of Victoria’s reign, the Boer War in South Africa was pitting British imperialism against descendants of Dutch settlers in a conflict that put to rest ideals of empire as a benevolent force in light of the realities of forced relocation, concentration camps, and a naked bid for mineral wealth. Tangentially, Baird’s account outlines the true magnitude of the “Scramble for Africa”, in which colonial powers carved the continent between them and laid the groundwork for conflicts that would explode across Europe in the First World War. It made me wonder whether a more nuanced exploration of the conflicts that have shaken Europe might usefully recast them in light of the consequences of exploitation on the edge of empire, which historical treatments have often kept off the primary stage of history.

In my own fiction, empire often functions as a monolithic background in my fantasy. Empire is an easy background for epic. Allegiance to a distant, aging, perhaps half-forgotten emperor has something of romance, and I’ve looked at what loyalty to a larger ideal embodied in the person of an individual in a few of my published stories—”The Glorious Revolution” and my Wizard’s House sequence. I’ve also explored what the character of an empress forced into power might be like, in “Deathspeaker,” which is forthcoming in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. But all fiction is only a mirror, and it is only as rich as the history that informs it. I’m coming to realize that books like Baird’s and the characters like Victoria who return to life through them are essential for literature and that the interplay between history and fiction– even fantasy– might be closer than I realize.


Octopus!: The Most Mysterious Creature in the SeaOctopus!: The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea by Katherine Harmon Courage

Octopus! is a fascinating exploration that is less about the creature itself (the plural of which we are told not more than a few pages in, is octopuses because of the word’s Greek origin, not octopi) as it is humanity’s relation with it. The book begins with a look at how these creatures are caught and from then goes on to examine everything from the role of the octopus in our cuisine to how the organism is informing studies of camouflage, robotics, and artificial intelligence. A large portion of the work is about those who are working to understand the cephalopod’s physiology—from the fluid mechanics of how it jets around in water to the distributed intelligence that likely helps control its arms to how cells in its skin detect the surrounding conditions and allow it to camouflage itself so quickly (not simply changing color but also texture and even the polarization of reflected light).

All of this means that as much as Courage wants us to take the octopus on its own terms, throughout the book the animal is continually seen through the lens of its relationship (and usefulness) to humans. In this respect, the title needs the exclamation point, because despite the fascinating topic, the book itself reads at times like an extended Scientific American article, or a series of these articles put together (and it did, admittedly, start as something like that): a ride-along on an octopus fishing boat, a visit to a robotics lab on the Italian coast or an octopus-processing plant in NYC, complete with a cascading cast of experts and scientists who add their perspective to the author’s account. It makes for a lot of information but not necessarily a cohesive narrative.

Besides the octopus and our interactions with it (on boat, plate, and lab) the book lacks an organizing or overarching theme. We’re not given a clear picture of Courage’s own story regarding the subject: how did she develop such an interest in the octopus that she was driven to seek out experts around the world? This might have helped tie things together, if the author herself played a larger role in the narrative. Courage’s writing style was also at times uneven, moving abruptly from expert scientific exposition (which was usually clear and sharp and detailed, as when, for instance, she offers an extensive discussion of editing in the octopus gene sequence) to random allusions of octopus depictions in comics, pop culture, horror films, and even erotica. A more structured discussion of any of these topics would have added to the treatment, but presented as they were without context or discussion (at times it seemed just for comedic effect) they seemed abrupt or even jarring. Despite these flaws, the book was rich with fascinating detail regarding these amazing invertebrates.

Seeing Trees

Seeing Trees: Discover the Extraordinary Secrets of Everyday TreesSeeing Trees: Discover the Extraordinary Secrets of Everyday Trees by Nancy Ross Hugo

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Thinking is more interesting than knowing, but not so interesting as looking.

What does it mean to see something, to learn to really look? I have colleagues who do this with stones, who can look at something that would be utterly overlooked by most people– a loose tumulus of rocks beside a road, say, or the exposed side of a hill– and name the minerals, put together the pieces of geological history on display, and tell the stories of the stones. Other people can do this with clouds, perhaps, or stars, with texts on a page or paintings or the way people speak or interact. Is this part of what education is, simply extending one’s knowledge so that new aspects of the world become interpretable? This is likely where the humility of education comes in: the realization that however much one knows or sees, it is only an incredibly small sliver of the overall picture, and sight can go so much deeper in so many different directions.

But there’s an art to simply looking and seeing as well, something that complements and yet remains distinct from simply having knowledge. Something that moves observation closer to aesthetics and philosophy than pure objectivity. The prose of Nancy Hugo and the photography of Robert Llewellyn combine in this book to do this with trees.

They succeed extraordinarily. This is quite simply a stunning book. It opens up a new world, but it does this for a world that we’ve lived alongside, without seeing, for our entire lives. Hugo and Llewellyn examine the properties of ten species of trees common to America: oak, maple, tulip popular, white pine, and others. Most people– myself included– know and love trees in a general way. But the images and text in this work reveal that even the most common trees are almost utterly unknown. On some level I’m sure I knew that any plant producing seeds must have flowers (or cones, on evergreens), but who has seen the flowers of a maple or an oak? But there they are, hidden in the upper branches or the unfolding leaves of spring, captured in this book and shown for the delicate and alien things they are, looking as though they belonged on the waving fronds of some undersea creatures rather than the limbs of trees along my street.

To read this book is to see trees for the first time. I am stunned and stirred awake. To see these forms that seem so staid and unmoving, the background to our daily lives and the shade to our fortunate streets, as dynamic, changing, sexual organisms. People who think Groot in the new Guardians of the Galaxy movie is cool have no idea how alive and alien these common trees really are, from the antenna-like flowers of the red maple to the dangling tendrils of the oak male catkins.

You think there are aspects of the world you have a pretty good handle on, things that you can identify and then safely ignore for most of your life. It’s terrifying and refreshing to realize how much life and newness there is in the world around you. And then you’re struck– how much else am I missing? Not simply in the living, green world around me or taking place under my nose in the garden, but what about in the faces of my family, or the unread texts on pages, or a thousand other everyday occurrences?

The greater part of the phenomena of Nature . . . are concealed from us all our lives. There is just as much beauty visible to us in the landscape as we are prepared to appreciate, and not a grain more. . . . A man sees only what concerns him.

A Crooked Line

A Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of SocietyA Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of Society by Geoff Eley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What does it mean to be a professional historian today? What does the landscape of the profession look like? What are the big ideas or transformations over the past half-century or so that have shaped how historians work and think? In A Crooked Line, Geoff Eley, a European historian at the University of Michigan, provides a personal answer to these questions from the perspective of a historian who has lived and worked through the shaping of the profession during this period. A Crooked Line is not quite a memoir, not quite a historiography, and not quite a manifesto for political and social engagement among historians. It is a little bit of all of these things, blending and transcending them to become something quite unique: a historian’s reflective survey of what the field looked like from the vantage point of a young historian just beginning a career in the sixties to what the field looks like today.

As a historian of science—and one who came to the field from outside history—I sometimes feel cut off or at least rather uninformed about the broader debates and transformations that have shaped the historical profession as a whole. I felt a bit out of my depth—or at least out of my fit—at a recent workshop at Bielefeld University rubbing shoulders with historians pursuing a very theory-laden sociological approach to history while I presented a talk on John Herschel’s stellar spectroscopy (or lack thereof). I had only a dim inkling of the importance of the Bielefeld School in the history of history. (On the other hand, the history students I interacted with there only asked whether Herschel’s hesitation toward spectroscopy was evidence of his resistance to a Kuhnian paradigm shift.) Clearly, we did not share a great deal of historiographical ground. I asked my roommate, a Latin American historian, for a good book that would give me a broad overview of historical theory and provide some touch-points for connecting that theory with practice. He recommended Eley’s book.

I’m sure A Crooked Line didn’t go all the way toward addressing my ignorance, but it certainly helped. Eley tells the story from his own perspective as a historian coming of age at the eve of history’s first large shift from building traditional narratives to using the tools of sociology to address large-scale questions of the development of society and class relations. This is the portion of the book he titles “Optimism,” chronicling his own excitement as a historian realizing the possibilities of the social sciences to help answer big questions in history, primarily from a Marxist, materialist perspective. Here, the work that he cites as indicative and exemplary of this approach is Edward Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963). British Marxist historians led the way with utilizing the empirical tools of social science to provide an explanatory framework for the evolution and the conflicts in society at large. For a historian, this held the promise of understanding, engaging, and perhaps even shaping social change.

In the second portion of the book, Eley focuses on the particular challenges of German historiography and the ways in which it illustrated the limits of a materialist approach. In particular—and here the section of the book is called “Disappointment”—the historiographical puzzle of Nazi Germany, the failure to explain the atrocities of World War II using the materialist, structuralist tool bag of social history, tempered early optimism regarding this approach. Tim Mason’s studies of Nazism in the 1970s, according to Eley, illustrated the difficulty of building up a complete history of the Third Reich from the foundation of class relations.

In “Reflectiveness,” the third portion of the work, Eley discusses the “linguistic” or “cultural turn” in history that took place in the 1980s as the field of history became influenced (or infiltrated, depending on your point of view) by anthropology, literary and art studies, oral histories, and the prioritizing of the unique, local, or small-scale, resulting in a historical approach much more open to cultural studies. This was tied to the realization that categories such as gender, race, and colonialism could be used in new and important ways for understanding history. Eley touches on the culture wars that resulted, as traditional historians cleaved to more social historical approaches and resisted what they saw as a “dissent into discourse.” Here the keystone text is Carolyn Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman (1987). Eley takes a bright view of the efflorescence of such cultural approaches, asking why such tools and methods should not be used to compliment the historian’s work. Cultural studies, he convincingly argues, bring new questions and methods to the table and moreover make heard historic voices that have been silenced in the past.

Throughout the book, in his survey of the two great turns in history of the course of the second half of the twentieth century—first the turn toward the social sciences and then toward cultural studies—Eley wants to map these changes to outside influences, particularly political. One of his primary claims is that history should be politically engaged. Perhaps though because of my own hazy grasp on the political history of the 1960s-80s it wasn’t always clear to me how this was the case, either proscriptively or descriptively. History as an explanatory tool for society, a critical self-remembrance, and as a counterpoint to flawed and potentially destructive global narratives, yes, but Eley seems to claim that the influence was often the other way—the political situation influenced the sorts of questions and methods the historical field itself pursued. I needed these dots connected more clearly for me.

The big omission (for me) in this historiography was the history of science. Where does Eley see the history of science as playing a role (if any) in the turns he’s outlined? Historians of science certainly played a role in the culture wars, and cultural studies of science abound today, as in an earlier generation did social studies of scientists and their research schools. I would love to find a similar survey of the field written from the perspective of a historian of science. The closest thing I know of is Helge Kragh’s An Introduction to the Historiography of Science, which, while helpful, lacks the personal flavor and the evident passion that made Eley’s book such a pleasure.