Dancing Cockatoos and the Dead Man Test (book review)

I’ve just finished reading Marlene Zuk’s newest book, Dancing Cockatoos and the Dead Man Test: How Behavior Evolves and Why it Matters. Now, before we do anything else, can we stop for a moment and admire that title? Is there a human being on Earth who wouldn’t want to know more?

Dancing Cockatoos is a book about the evolutionary ecology of animal behaviour. More specifically, it’s a book that argues that behaviour doesn’t evolve the way most people think it does, with a kind of “nature or nurture” framing. “Nature or nurture” tempts us to imagine instinct, which is under genetic control, vs. learned behaviour, which is under environmental control. (If we’re feeling sophisticated, we might imagine something half-way in between, for instance behaviour where learning polishes or modifies a genetically encoded instinct.)

Zuk argues that this widespread framing is really the wrong way to think about the evolution of behaviour. Instead, the core argument in Dancing Cockatoos is that behaviour results from complex interactions between genes and the environment, just like every other aspect of an organism’s biology – and that this shapes its evolution. For example: foraging behaviour in the ant Ooceraea biroi* is influenced by levels of an insulin-like peptide, ILP2. Production of the peptide is genetically controlled, but influenced by the presence of larvae in the environment: take away larvae, and ILP2 goes up (and this drives the ants forage less, but lay more eggs). So is foraging behaviour controlled by genes or the environment? Using “or” in that sentence, Zuk would argue, makes the question essentially meaningless: it’s only the interplay of environment (larvae) with genes (ILP2 production machinery) that generates foraging behaviour.

Did you find that example a bit complicated? So do I, and so does Zuk, and that’s both her core point and the reason I’m not entirely sure that Dancing Cockatoos succeeds in making it. The proposition that behaviour is shaped by genes interacting with the environment is both too easy and too hard to establish. Too easy, in that pretty much any trait of any organism provides an obvious example (human height provides a great illustration). But too hard, in that fleshing out any example with detail quickly piles complexity on complexity. And it becomes tempting, especially if you aren’t used to thinking about gene-by-environment interactions, to either (1) retreat back to “yeah, but it’s mostly nature” or “yeah, but it’s mostly nurture”; or (2) to throw up you hands and decide that behaviour is just really complicated and the details don’t bear thinking about.** So will Dancing Cockatoos leave its readers better understanding how behaviour evolves? I’m not sure.

That last bit might sound like a vote against reading Dancing Cockatoos – but it’s definitely not! I enjoyed the book enormously, and if you’re at all interested in behaviour, or nature, or animal cognition, then I think you will too. While most books have a core argument, all books have more: a book has a journey they take you on. Whether Dancing Cockatoos succeeds in its core argument or not, it succeeds wildly in taking you on a journey that’s fascinating and fun. Among the questions Zuk tackles:

  • Are crows smart? And what does it mean for a species to be “smart” anyway?
  • Do plants or bacteria “behave”? What is “behaviour” anyway?
  • Is dosing zoo animals with Prozac a horrible practice that reveals the cruelty of zoos, or a completely appropriate acknowledgment that treating mental health is as important as treating physical health? And does thinking about mental health in humans help us decide?
  • Are cats really wilder, or less sophisticated, or smarter, than dogs? (Few things get people riled up more than comparisons of cats vs. dogs!)
  • Now that we know some animals use tools and some have language, does anything separate humans from other animals? And does it matter? (Zuk rather enjoys rebutting the notion that what separates us from our kin is frontal copulation. No, you’ll have to read the book to learn more about that.)

Along the way, we learn about bipedal goats, crickets whose songs attract both mates and parasites, spiteful octopuses, anxious crayfish, and a whole lot more. And Zuk’s writing is accessible and witty. Consider this tidbit:

“Truth be told, primates are a bit disappointing when it comes to language. They aren’t musical like birds or even whales, they don’t seem to have individual names for each other like dolphins, and while they have complex gestures…those gestures mean rather ordinary things like “let’s have sex” or “climb on me”. I suppose one could argue that the vast majority of human communication is equally prosaic, but one might have hoped for more from our closest relatives”. (pp. 195-196).

I started by admiring the title of Dancing Cockatoos. I am, sadly, terrible at titles (even though I’ve written about them and studied them.) – both of my own books were retitled in production by their publishers, and both benefited from it. So I admire Zuk’s deft hand with titles, be they of books, chapters, or even sections. Who wouldn’t want to read the section headed “Featherweight Brain and Assfish”, for example, or “Rules of Thumb for Creatures Who Don’t Have Any”, or (possibly my favourite) “Talk to Dogs and Listen to the Casual Reply”?***

Zuk has written half a dozen “trade” books (those for the general public)****. Having enjoyed Dancing Cockatoos, I’m definitely reading more. And since I gather that titles can’t be copyrighted…maybe I’ll steal some of Zuk’s!

© Stephen Heard  November 10, 2022

*^Vowels were apparently on sale the day this species was named.

**^Zuk offers this: “Sometimes I think the truism that ‘things are complicated’ gets less credit for its profundity than it deserves”. This made me both chuckle and think – it’s true! – but it doesn’t really help a whole lot if your goal is to understand the complications.

***^If you’re not quite as old as me, you might not realize why that last one sounds somehow familiar. This is why (and if you don’t have time you can skip right to 2:13).

****^In addition of course to her more technical output, papers and books of superb science. If you know the “Hamilton-Zuk hypothesis”, for example – that’s her, from 1982! I wish my early papers were as famous as this.



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