People and Dogs: A Genetic Love Story

Here’s a possibly true story about the first friendly dog. It’s dusk on a human settlement some ten thousand years ago. After a long day of farming, a family gathers around a campfire. They’re kicking back with hunks of venison (a rare treat), some corn, bread, maybe even a few cups of mead. Suddenly they hear rustling coming from the shadows. They turn around and see the glowing eyes of a wolf.

The people are surprised, maybe, but not scared. For many years they’ve noticed an odd group of wolves loitering just outside the village, rummaging up food scraps from the dump pile. The animals have never caused any harm and keep to themselves. But this is the first time a wolf has dared to come so close. It slowly approaches the fire, sits down, and cocks its head. Somebody tosses out a bit of bread.

As a recent dog owner, I love this story: Dogs are the wolves that mooched. They needed us, approached us, and ultimately wooed us into being best friends forever. This is a popular scientific theory — the ‘scavenger hypothesis’ — of how dogs came to be. But it’s not the only one, not by a long shot. Click here to see some of the best food for your dog.

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Only Human, January 2013.

The Burying of Roza Levina

The April 1984 issue of the Journal of Learning Disabilities includes a review paper about how kids learn to read. The author, Joanna Williamsfrom Columbia University, outlined the history of an idea: that children who have trouble learning to read also have trouble with phonemes, or the sounds that make up words. Teaching children to read, she argued, should begin by teaching them how to sound out words.

The theory is fairly mainstream today. But in the 1980s and 90s educators were loudly debating which reading methods work best. (Remember all of those annoying “Hooked on Phonics worked for me!” commercials? You’re welcome.)

In her 1984 review, Williams argued that research had long focused on visual rather than auditory aspects of reading. She dates the earliest work on phonemes to 1963, when two Russian psychologists published papers “in very sparse detail.” No other research happened until the 1970s, and even then it wasn’t much, Williams wrote. “To a great extent this is still an experimental idea.”

That was true — in the West. But in Russia, phonemes were old news, as I learned in a fascinating review published last month, also in the Journal of Learning Disabilities.

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Only Human, January 2013.

Darwin in the Age of Ebooks

Charles Darwin wrote many books and many types of books, the most famous of which you can download for free on iBooks or Kindle . How to choose?

If you want a really good story, go withVoyage of the Beagle, the charming journal Darwin kept while working as a naturalist on a ship that went from England to South America, Tahiti, Australia, the tip of Africa and back. The first sentence is enough to pull you in:

The neighbourhood of Porto Praya, viewed from the sea, wears a desolate aspect.

If you’re looking for scientific import, nothing beats Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, the book that outlined his theory of natural selection and would forever change biology. You might also try The Descent of Man for provocative ideas about race, gender, and sex, or The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals for its lively photographs of faces that would inspire a future science of lie-detection.

It’s hard to think of a reason to read Darwin’s last book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms, with Observations on Their Habits, unless you’re curious about exactly those things. But for all you vermiphiles, there’s probably no better format for this volume than an e-book.

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Download the Universe, January 2013.

On the Road

Some sad-yet-happy news: I’m leaving the people of LWON. Next week I’m launching my own blog at a new network hosted by National Geographic. I’ll be sharing a web neighborhood with some amazing writers (and they’ll post their own announcements soon). My blog, called Only Human, will be all about people — our genes, cells, brains, behaviors, history and culture.

The move has prompted me to reflect on the last two-plus years of my contributions here at LWON. I wrote some posts that turned out to be unexpectedly controversialcathartic, and popular. I experimented in cartoony multimedia. My voice matured, maybe, and word counts swelled, definitely.

My favorite posts are the quirky detective stories, like how to find out whether Napoleon is really buried in Napoleon’s tomb, or what disease killed Chopin, or in what country a mouse hopped aboard an otherwise sterile container ship.

In that spirit, I leave you with an offbeat tale about the Silk Road, Marco Polo, lamb fetuses, paleo-proteomics and a very old bible.

In 1685, a Belgian Jesuit named Philippe Couplet returned to Europe after nearly 30 years working as a missionary in China. It was not a modest homecoming. Couplet spent several years visiting various European rulers, showering them with golden goblets and elaborate embroideries, and crowing about his time away. He gave the Pope some 400 Christian books that had been translated into Chinese, and took a Chinese traveling companion to visit linguists at Oxford who were curious about the Chinese language. To the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Couplet presented a 4.5-inch square pocket bible wrapped in creamy yellow silk. The manuscript, he claimed, had been carried to China by none other than Marco Polo and was now, finally, returning home.

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The Last Word on Nothing, December 2012.

The Interpreter

In the 1930s, Jerusalem was a city of mounting cultural tensions, as its Jewish and Muslim inhabitants fought for control of a region at the heart of both religious traditions. Kholood Qumei’s grandmother, a Muslim, lived there with her two best friends, one Jewish and one Christian. Over the next decade, Jerusalem became increasingly segregated, with each religion claiming a different section of the city. These women rebelled in the small way they could: by swapping head coverings.

“They started wearing each other’s veils, and going to the other sections of Jerusalem with their children to visit each other,” says Qumei, who graduated this year from the Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations. “It’s incredible to hear about that now.”

Inspired by her grandmother’s story, Qumei wrote her honors thesis on the hijab — the veil worn by many Muslim women — and its controversial reception in the Middle East today.

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Seton Hall Magazine, Fall 2012.

Galápagos Monday: When Conservation Means Killing

Judas knew what he was doing when he double-crossed his friend Jesus. “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” he asked the conspiring priests in the famous Bible story.

The story of the Judas Goat is more tragic. She had no idea that she was leading her friends to their deaths.

Her captors sterilized her first, then coated her with hormones so she reeked of fertility. Then they collared her with a radio-tracking device and cut her loose. Nearby male goats smelled her and sought her out. As soon as they found her, people swooped in and shot them. The hunters saved Judas, though, so they could repeat the set-up again and again.

It was all part of a six-year, $6 million project in which conservationists killed nearly 80,000 feral goats on Santiago Island in the Galápagos. Similar goat genocides had happened on 128 other islands, including nearby Pinta, but never on any as large as Santiago, which spans 144,470 acres. The goats, introduced by sailers hundreds of years earlier, were decimating all flavors of vegetation there, putting ground birds, giant tortoises and other endemic species in danger. So officials — conservationists from the Galápagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Foundation — decided the goats had to go.

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The Last Word on Nothing, July 2012.

Galápagos Monday: The Sad Sex Life of Lonesome George

To walk from the Charles Darwin Research Station to the center of the town of Puerto Ayora, on Santa Cruz Island, simply follow the “T-Shirt Mile,” a sleepy stone road lined with dozens of souvenir shops. Mugs, onesies and shot glasses pay tribute the town’s only famous resident, a century-old giant tortoise named Lonesome George. My favorite shirt had a cartoon George in the center, with eyelash-batting lady tortoises on either side of him and one line at the bottom: Not So Lonesome George.

Before his unexpected death on June 24, George had certainly been with his share of females. But for the first 60-odd years of his life, he was the most awkward of virgins.

In 1971, a snail biologist working alone (which Galápagos researchers tend to do) found George on the uninhabited island of Pinta. The discovery was a big deal because scientists had previously assumed that George’s subspecies, Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni, had been killed off by sailors and whalers of centuries past.

George was sickly and thin, but gained weight quickly after researchers put him on a special diet. His anti-social behaviors were more difficult to fix. All tortoises are solitary, but unlike others, George didn’t even like sex. “He had no clue what to do with a female,” said one of our guides, Sofia. So experts at the Charles Darwin Research Station, where Sofia used to work, had to teach George some moves, she explained. “Um, what do you mean exactly?” some brave soul in our group asked. “Stimulation, that kind of thing,” Sofia answered, deadpan. Squelching any further questions, she added: “Eventually he learned the technique, and now he’s a pro.” The world’s most respected gigolo died 16 days later.

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The Last Word on Nothing, July 2012.

Galápagos Monday: Southern Inhospitality

This is the second installment of a six-week series about my recent trip to the Galápagos. You can read my first post, about tortoises and donkeys, here.

An eerie walk through what was, 70 years ago, underwater

At dawn on June 6, more than 30 years after Lynn was chasing tortoises at the top of Alcedo, our boat anchored near the volcano’s base in Urbina Bay. By 8 a.m., I was fully breakfasted and eager to begin the scheduled 2-mile hike, on which we were likely to see giant tortoises and land iguanas.

My mood dampened after disembarking on the beach. Even at this early hour, and even doused ear-to-toe with 100-SPF sunscreen, I felt an unrelenting solar assault. (Turns out it’s hard to concentrate on nature’s glories while obsessively imagining your skin cells morphing into irregularly shaped cancerous moles.) The beach was narrow and surrounded by foreboding gray rocks. Maybe this, I thought, is what Darwin meant when describing his first visit to these islands: “Nothing could be less inviting than the first appearance.”

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The Last Word on Nothing, June 2012.

Galápagos Monday: Lynn’s Tortoises

Every Monday for the next six weeks I’ll be posting about my recent trip to the Galápagos. After a week on a big boat, hopping from one imposing volcanic island to the next, I saw most of the odd creatures that Charles Darwin famously wrote about: century-old tortoises, finches with beaks of all sizes, swimming iguanas. But most of what I learned was new to me — like how the Ecuadorian government hired expert hunters from New Zealand to shoot down thousands of goats by helicopter, or how, in 1954, a massive geological uplift almost instantaneously raised one island’s coast 15 feet, taking with it mounds of coral that have since blackened with dust. Many of the stories converge on what’s, for me, a perplexing theme: that people can be sources of both ecological destruction and impressive restoration. As the climate changes, and population and tourism rates continue to skyrocket, it will be fascinating to see how the economic-political-scientific ecosystem of the Galápagos evolves.

I kick off the series with a story about one of my naturalist-guides, Lynn, who has lived on the islands since 1978.


When she was 26, Lynn Fowler began her Ph.D. dissertation with a seven-hour, 5,000-foot hike up to the rim of the Alcedo Volcano, smack in the middle of the large, seahorse-shaped island of Isabela. Alcedo gushes fluid lava every few decades. Lynn camped at its southeastern rim for a year and a half, returning to the mainland just once every three months to call her mother.

Alcedo was not an easy place to live. The rocky terrain wore holes through her sneakers. The days were hot (“I was a one-woman nudist colony most of the time,” she says), the nights were chilly, and the air carried “evil-smelling sulfur.” Lugging fresh water, at eight pounds per gallon, up the volcano every couple of weeks was exhausting. Eventually she learned to trap it herself from the garua, or mist, that surrounded Alcedo. Under a big tree she would rig up a large plastic sheet with a hole in the center to collect dew. She gathered five gallons a night this way, and once during the rainy season netted 50 gallons in an hour.

Lynn is a tough, no-nonsense type who never flinches. Even so, this new habitat occasionally scared her. She was hiking on November 13, 1979, at 8:45 am, when the Sierra Negra Volcano, about 20 miles south of Alcedo, erupted. “It was a great fireworks show — spectacular and frightening,” she recalls. For the next five weeks, she could hear lava spilling into the ocean.

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The Last Word on Nothing, June 2012.

Family Ties

It’s been almost a year since I wrote about my genetic testing results from 23andMe. That’s because, despite paying $5 a month for the site’s mandatory Personal Genome Service®, I rarely look at it.

It’s not that I’m scared of the data (been there), and not because I forgot — every six or eight weeks I get an email from the company saying things like, You have 8 new results from 23andMe! New discoveries have been made about your DNA! I hadn’t visited the site because, frankly, I was bored of it. How many times is one expected to look sort-of-interesting, sort-of-meaningless risk calculations and ponder healthier ways to live?

Then at a conference last week, while trying to make small talk with a scientist, I mentioned my 23andMe subscription. Turns out he has one, too. “Isn’t it funny when you get those messages from your distant relatives?” he said. I told him I didn’t know what he meant. “I get them all the time,” he said, shaking his head.

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The Last Word on Nothing, March 2012.