Book Review The Cat's Meow: How Cats Evolved from the Savanna to Your Sofa by Jonathan B. Losos

My point of view, and that of many other die-hard cat lovers, is that the Internet exists primarily to circulate photos and videos of cats. It might surprise you to learn that dogs can also be found on the internet, but strangely enough they tend to stay stuck in remote corners of cyberspace. Cats Feed Wildly Viral Memes; dogs rarely go beyond that family vacation photo on Facebook (with just three likes, all from elderly relatives). Both cats and dogs, especially the younger versions of both, have a fuzzy, wide-eyed appeal, but dogs seemingly lack what it takes to engage a global audience. As the New York Times arguedcat images are “that essential building block of the internet.”

One leading theory to explain this disparity between cats and dogs suggests that it’s the residual savagery of cats that makes them so special. This explains his infinite capacity for distancing. Cats were only domesticated around 10,000 years ago, when humans were busy inventing agriculture. And DNA tells us that the ancestor of all domestic cats is the African wildcat. Felis silvestris lybicawhich closely resembles a domestic tabby cat.

We don’t know exactly how the human-cat connection was forged, but the process likely had input from both sides. Wildcats with genes that made them less wary of humans had access to an endless supply of juicy rodents drawn to food reserves produced by agriculture. Our ancestors, in turn, encouraged and rewarded feline rodenticide, and an eternally strained relationship was born.

It is fitting, then, that an evolutionary biologist write the definitive book on the biology, ecology, and evolution of the domestic cat. That would be Jonathan Losos, who, while best known for his lizard studies, also has three cats. He discovered that these cats were just as interesting as his lizards, but they had a marked advantage over reptiles: Losos did not have to leave his home to do field work. The result, “Cat’s Meow: How Cats Evolved from the Savannah to Your Couch,” is a readable and informed exploration of the feral cat he lurks inside Fluffy.

The first sign of a cat-human connection is the skeleton of an eight-month-old cat buried alongside humans in Cyprus some 9,500 years ago. The relationship developed quickly: cats were fully domesticated in Egypt 4,000 years ago. Surprisingly, given the ancient Egyptians’ lack of the internet, their cats were even more viral and culturally indispensable than they are today: they were actually deified in the form of cat gods like Bastet and Mafdet. Despite this, being a cat in ancient Egypt had its drawbacks: millions of them were killed and mummified as sacrifices to the gods. Meanwhile, with the help of humans, cats were spreading rapidly. 2,000 years ago, supposedly accompanying human migrants, they had spread throughout Europe and even reached China. At the same time, Egyptian paintings show cats of various colors and patterns far removed from the familiar tabby: the products of artificial selection by breeders who crave novelty.

The final phase of selection, by us, in cats was very recent: the creation of recognized breeds, now around 75, starting in the 19th century. Hence the current diversity of cats on the Internet: fluffy cats, skinny cats, tricolor cats, floppy-eared cats, hairless cats. But this is one area where dogs definitely outshine cats; Artificial selection from their wolf ancestors, of course, has produced a dizzying array of sizes, shapes, and behaviors. Think Lhasa apso vs. Great Dane.

So, we come to a question that all cat lovers have surely asked themselves: Why are cat breeds so similar to each other while the differences between dog breeds are so great? Even the most unusual cats (Losos points to Persians) aren’t really all that different from other breeds.

The most obvious explanation is that many dog ​​breeds originated as working animals. They have been selected, both in bodily form and behavior, to retrieve dead ducks, herd sheep, pull badgers out of their burrows, haul sledges, and even deliver brandy to avalanche victims. Cats, on the other hand, can’t be easily trained to do anything at all except listen to can openers, and they tend to haughtily resent any attempt to change that.

This difference is probably a legacy of the wild ancestors of each species. Except for a single species of wildcat, the lion, all others are solitary, including the African wildcat, the ancestor of domestic cats. By contrast, almost all wild dogs, including the gray wolf (the ancestor of domestic dogs) are social, so they have already evolved to cooperate. Look at pictures of African wild dogs hunting in packs and you will be impressed by the degree of coordination, communication and division of labor between individuals. Dog breeders have simply capitalized on these pre-existing propensities.

Losos imports some of his lizard interests into his study of cats, devoting page after page to analyzing the roaming behavior of cats, something we can now study using GPS tracking devices. The results are not surprising: domestic cats don’t roam much, while feral cats go farther, probably because Fluffy has a safe supply of food at home, while Macavity the mystery cat has to roam farther in search of food. dinner. At the risk of sounding malicious, I might add that Losos sometimes gets carried away with the arcane details of these experiments, the professional risk of data-enamored scientists, but this is only a minor distraction in an engaging and far-reaching narrative.

Many mysteries remain. Did meows (produced solely by domestic cats) really evolve, as has been seriously suggested, to resemble the cries of an anguished baby, to turn a programmed human response—”I must care for an unhappy baby”—into a clever ploy? to get tuna? What is the actual difference in life span between a cat that is allowed to roam outdoors and one that is kept indoors? The traditional answer is five versus 17 years respectively, but as Losos points out, “I have not been able to find the basis for this statement, and the discrepancy seems extreme to me.”

And we’re still abysmally ignorant about my two most pressing questions about cats: why do they shake their butts just before they pounce on prey, and why do they “chatter” when they see birds. All they seem to be doing in each case is alerting your potential meal to their dangerous situation, surely not a good idea. One of the lessons of the book, in fact, is that mysteries abound in cat science. One of the biggest is how many times cats were domesticated in the Middle East. Did domestic cats evolve in one place or in several places at the same time? We don’t know, and the genetic data is ambiguous.

Like any good scientist, Losos admits there are many questions that will keep cat research going for years to come. Writing as a confirmed and longtime cat lover, I look forward to a growing understanding of kitty and enjoying, in quiet moments, the joys of an endless supply of images, memes and online videos of the most charismatic cats. and seduction of all domestic animals.

Jerry A. Coyne, emeritus professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, is the author of “Why Evolution Is True” and “Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible.”

How cats evolved from the savannah to your sofa

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