31 March 2017

"The Lion in the Living Room"

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Subtitled, "How Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World" by Abigail Tucker (a/k/a Mrs. Ross Douthat). You can get a brief sense of Tucker's insights on how cats domesticated themselves in a short piece she wrote in the New York Times for my birthday here.

Unlike other domesticated animals like dogs and horses, domestic cats are little changed from their pre-domesticated ancestors. Just why humans allowed cats into their lives is a bit of a mystery; after all, despite their reputations at hunters of vermin, cats--unlike dogs and horses--are virtually useless. Cats do kill many songbirds and have wrought havoc with wildlife indigenous to Australia: "Australian scientists recently described stray cats as a bigger menace to the continent's mammals than global warming or habitat loss."

Cats may even be a threat to humans: "Toxoplasma gondii, a mysterious microorganism, is spread by felines and is by now believed to inhabit the brains of one in three people worldwide, including 60 million Americans." When found in its prey, Toxoplasma makes them unafraid of cats. Which is not a good thing when you're a mouse.

Nothing untoward seems to affect human hosts but its initial effects in preborn humans explains why pregnant women are warning against emptying cat pans:
In 1938, pathologists at Babies Hospital in New York City  ... diagnosed the congenital form of Toxoplasma, which is passed from cat to pregnant human to unborn baby, causing spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, and severe complications like blindness and mental retardation.
Of course, none of these drawbacks have slowed the explosion in cat ownership by humans (or human adoption by cats, right, Rachel?). Limited by her professional commitment to methodological naturalism, Tucker spends pages explaining why our love of cats defies evolutionary logic. Not that I can explain it, either, except that I feel no compulsion to explain everything in terms of a biological imperative.

Lest my comments suggest that I didn't enjoy reading "The Lion in the Living Room," let me be clear: I did. Tucker knows her stuff, did her work, and writes well. Thanks, Lisa and Attilio, for this gift.

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