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The Character of Cats by Stephen Budiansky.

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Title: The Character of Cats: The Origins, Intelligence, Behavior, and Stratagems of Felis silvestris catus.
Author: Stephen Budiansky.
Genre: Non-fiction, animals, science, history, mythology, zoology.
Country: U.S.
Language: English.
Publication Date: January 1, 2001.
Summary: There are no seeing-eye cats, guard cats, or sled cats, and for very good reason. Cats are intractably independent, defying all rules about how and why animals become domesticated. Now a scientist combines breakthrough scientific research, fascinating lore, and his own infectious fondness for all things feline to elucidate the mysteries of these amazing creatures. Cats are the least tamed and yet the most successful domestic species. Drawing on new research into cat genetics, brain chemistry, evolution, social behavior, and interaction with humans and fellow felines, Budiansky explores exactly how and why cats are unique. The book also covers the full spectrum of feline fact and lore, from history to superstition, from hunting patterns to religious imagery, and from sexual behavior to preferred colors.

My rating: 8.5/10.
My Review:


♥ Dog science, inevitably, is about shattering myths. Cat science, rather more happily, is about explaining mysteries.

♥ Cats are not so much pets as fellow travelers, and we impose our hopes and wishes and expectations upon them to our peril. They have their own biological niche and destiny, their own rule of social interaction, their own ways of ordering and perceiving the world. Their astonishing adaptability has found them a place with us, but that one foot is ever in the jungle. Understanding the true nature of cats, with all that science has to offer, is enlightening to us, and good for cats.

♥ But the relevance of the behavior of these social cats to that of the domestic cat is just about nil. The big cats branched off from the evolutionary line that led to the domestic cat some 9 million years ago; by way of comparison, that was several million years before the chimpanzee and human lineage diverged.

♥ We commonly think of domestication as a consummately human act. Yet the evidence suggests just the opposite: Domestication was for the most part a natural process propelled by forces of climate change, geography, and evolution far bigger than anything man could engineer - or, for that matter, prevent.

♥ People were just being people, and just being people is in itself a mighty selective force in the course of evolution. As much as we like to think of ourselves as having been terribly bright for having come up with the idea of capturing and breeding wild animals for our own ends, the evidence suggests it was in fact usually the animals who took the first step. Many species have found it in their interests to associate with man, even species we actively attempt to discourage (with notably little success) such as rats, mice, starlings, and pigeons, which have all spread throughout the world in the company of human beings, brilliantly exploiting our settlement and food disposal habits.

♥ Cats were not in evolutionary trouble in the wild; they did not need to throw in their lot with man to survive; they did not undergo the rapid and automatic genetic transformation that broke down the barriers between the wild and the tame in the case of other wild beasts that became malleable and accommodating partners of man. Primitive man succeeded in taming wolves, cattle, sheep, and other true domesticates largely because these species had the inherent genetic potential to tame themselves genetically once people appeared in their environment. Cats refused to play this game.

♥ All of this, of course, dovetails with lines of feminist scholarship popular in the world of academe these days, and also with the more-than-a-little self-serving insistence by certain practitioners of literary criticism that metaphor is reality, which conveniently saves one the bother of having to learn anything about science or history.

♥ For much of the cat’s modern history, scarcity, rather than the myriad magical beliefs that people have held about cats, has determined their fate at the hand of man.

♥ In the 1940s the renowned biologist J. B. S. Haldane suggested that it would be quite easy to carry out a worldwide research project on the population genetics of cats just by taking a census of cat colors in cities all over the world. His idea was taken up, and over the following three decades scientists from many countries published dozens of papers reporting gene frequencies of cats in various far-flung locales. (At one conference some researchers did note that it wasn’t necessarily quite as easy as Haldane had suggested, as in a number of cities biologists prowling about the streets and peering down alleys and up at balconies through binoculars attracted the unwanted attention of the police, who took them for spies or peeping toms.)

♥ Unlike pigs, horses, chickens, dogs, goats, cows, and sheep, the differences between cat breeds are little more than skin deep.

♥ The ties that cats from in social groups can be deep and lasting, but they are ties that arise from the sum of individuals acting as individuals together.

♥ To human beings, communication is a means of expressing ideas. To cats, it is, too. The major difference is that for cats, the principal idea that is usually in need of expression is, “Get out of my face.”

♥ Eugene Morton of the Smithsonian Institution, a leading researcher in animal communication, has long argued that the key to understanding how animal communication systems evolved and what purpose they serve in an animal’s life is to ask not what a particular sound means but what it accomplishes.

The overriding thing that the communication system of most nonhuman animals accomplishes is to avoid bloody fights whenever they can be avoided. As all school yard bullies and international negotiators know, getting what you want through the mere threat of violence is a much better deal than actually having to fight it out.

♥ I include this last example in particular because it is a good illustration of a fact often overlooked in considering animal intelligence: Just because something the brain does is instinctive, universal, and apparently effortless does not mean that it is any less part of intelligence than the things that require a lot of groaning, furious scribbling on pieces of paper, and cups of coffee. We don’t normally think of it as a sign of particular brilliance that a baby learns to speak English without any formal instruction; all babies who grow up around people speaking English do that. Yet language ability is clearly a major component of the overall intelligence of our species and part of what sets humans apart from other animals.

♥ Even more striking is the statistic that only about a quarter of cat owners say they deliberately made an effort of acquire a cat: Their cay acquired them. Cats are not a global fact of nature, every bit as much as the tides that rise and fall each day, the barn swallows that return each spring, and, for that matter, the cockroach and the common cold. Human beings were the original vector for that cat’s conquest of the world, but even today, four thousand years later, human beings have only a limited power or desire to control what they unwittingly unleashed. The ancient Egyptians were the sorcerer’s apprentice of this tale; they knew enough to capture a wild animal and bring it up in a strange new world; they could tame the cat but not its destiny. A hundred coincidences in the makeup of Felis silvestris determined that once brought into the company of man the cat would take the world by storm, with scarcely a glance back, and certainly without a word of gratitude.

♥ I don't think it is the cat's stereotyped aloofness and independence that appeal to us, so much as his uncompromising otherness. The beauty and fascination we find in cats are much the same as what we feel for the wildest things in nature, with the added fascination that these particular wild and beautiful things are willing to admit us to their world, even though they don't have any particular need to. To be accepted by cats as an honorary cat is an honor indeed. But it is an honor we can only fully appreciate by seeing the world, if only in a glimpse, as the cat sees it. As conservationist Alvo Leopold once observed, a true appreciation of what wild things mean to the human spirit can come only from understanding where they came from and how they lead their lives. And that is a story of science and understanding as much as it is one of spirit and empathy.
Tags: 2000s, 21st century - non-fiction, 3rd-person narrative non-fiction, american - non-fiction, animals, history, mythology, non-fiction, science, zoology
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