Interesting little book review on the Irish Times website about the role of Cromwell in the disappearance of wolves in Ireland. Kieran Hickey’s book (possibly entitled The Natural and Cultural History of Wolves in Ireland—the article makes no reference) seems to confirm the role of Cromwell’s appearance in Ireland with the hunting and eventual extinction of the Irish wolf. I’m not aware of any attempts to reintroduce wolves to Ireland, and as this post on the Blather points out, there were fears that no one had learned from history, when policies in recent years called to cull badger numbers in the hopes of combating bovine tuberculosis.
In Phantoms in the Brain, V. S. Ramachandran has attempted to emulate the forebears he cites in the Preface, who inspired him to write science that is both informative and interesting to the general reading public. In this he has certainly succeeded, his style is highly approachable, and the content not only comprises interesting tidbits, but wholly thought-provoking suggestions and analyses. I picked up Phantoms in the Brain on the basis of a recommendation from a friend more involved in the scientific fold than I am, yet found the book to be readily accessible to these with even only a meagre understanding of the way our brains function.
The book is for the most part concerned with the fundamental inner workings of the brain revealed to us through curiously specific medical conditions, often brought about by severe physical traumas such as strokes. Some of the findings are, perhaps, fairly well known by now, yet I’ve no doubt that many will still be quite shocking to most readers. However, Ramachandran keeps the presentation of both old and new findings fresh, in his natural inquisitive approach to each individual problem. His curiosity and novel attitude in dealing with many of these strange rarities of medical science at times remind one of the naïve questioning of a young child, who by approaching problems from altogether unexpected angles can come up with profound thoughts and solutions that would not normally strike an adult.
How do you domesticate a zebra? You can’t, or at least that’s the justification put forward by Jared Diamond in his Guns, Germs and Steel for why these wild beasts were never used as draught animals or cavalry in sub-Saharan Africa. Much of what Diamond writes has a logical ring to it, and whilst the evidence is sparse and in places contradictory, his conclusions fit the necessarily teleological approach. Others have accused him of too much geographical determinism, and perhaps they have a point, but the one thing which struck me as being peculiarly out of place in Diamond’s writing was his treatment of Africa’s wild animals as being unsuitable for domestication. He argued that it was only by chance that Eurasia benefited from having suitable species such as goats, sheep, cattle and horses, and that the native varieties of these animals in sub-Saharan Africa were inherintly unsuitable.