The Bearding

How is variation maintained in populations? This is a bit of a poser for evolutionary theory, especially in the realm of sexual selection. If males or females of a certain type always score highest in contests of mate choice, genes underlying that particular type will go to fixation and variation will be expunged.

One solution is called negative frequency-dependent selection (NFDS), which sounds much more arcane than it is. All NDFS means is rarity value – the scarcer a particular trait in a population, the more desirable it will be. But once that trait becomes popular and more common, it will be spurned in favour of rarer traits. This explains how, for example, in wild populations of guppies, males of many different colour patterns can coexist, and why I have faith in my fervent hope that my favoured party wear of grass skirt and green lurex boob tube will one day come back into fashion.

From boob tubes, perhaps inevitably, to beards.

In a report just out in Biology Letters,  the (fully-bearded) Barnaby J. Dixson and colleagues from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, show that women (and men) prefer men with beards when presented in a context in which facial hair was rare. Conversely, clean-shaven faces were judged least attractive when clean-shaven faces were most common, and more attractive when rare.

Now, almost all men can cultivate facial fungus of a luxuriance varying from a light stubble to the full-on Gandalf/Santa/Professor-Trellis-of-North-Wales effect, and it is known that, in general, beardiness enhances ratings of age, masculinity and dominance.

That’s the idea, anyway. Mrs Crox says that if I let my beard grow from more than its customary goatee, I become rather too rabbinic for her taste, and how many sexy rabbis do you know?

Several studies cited by Dixson and colleagues show that preferences for beards vary. Whereas some women prefer men with light stubble, others go for the more heavily-forested look. Clearly, preferences for facial hair vary according to culture and fashion. One study of pictures of men in the Illustrated London News from 1842 to 1972 shows that facial hair fashions oscillate in popularity:

Thus, sideburns peaked in frequency in 1853, sideburns and moustaches in 1877, beards in 1892 and moustaches from 1917 to 1919. Popularity in each style of facial hair rose gradually, peaked and then decayed following maximum popularity to be replaced by a newer, perhaps more novel, style.

Another researcher used the data from the Illustrated London News study to show that men tended to be beardier when there were more illegible eligible males than females in the marriage pool, suggesting that beardiness varies according to the degree of intrasexual competition. When competition for women is higher, men tend to be beardier (I expect that it’s entirely coincidental that this research was done by a Dr Barber.)

The Dixson study shows quite clearly that beardiness is more attractive in contexts when most men are clean shaven – and clean-shaven faces are more attractive when everything else is bearded.

Is this an instance of cultural change, the vicissitudes of capricious fashion, in other words, a general preference for novelty? Perhaps – but if it is, one might ask where such preferences come from, especially if they are linked to such things as sex ratios. Whether it occurs in guppies, orchids or people, sexual selection exerts its remorseless logic.

Posted in Research | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Mosaic is the New Savanna

Time was when the model of human evolution went something like this: our ancestors essentially evolved to climb and live in trees, but with the general drying and cooling of the Earth’s climate over the past few million years, the great African forests shrank, to be replaced with the kind of tropical grassland known as savanna. Our ancestors climbed out of the trees, stood upright and learned to walk, or so the story goes.

From this savannah hypothesis springs human bipedalism, hand-eye coordination, large brains, hunting, and the development of civilization as we know it up to and including its apotheosis and zenith, viz. the ability to post pictures of our cats on the internet. Well, it’s a just-so story, of course, and it doesn’t take much digging to expose the underlying themes of progress and ascension of the kind I examine in my Shameless Plug.

The savannah hypothesis has, crucially, withered before the evidence, such as the recent work on stable isotopes in fossil soils showing that the environments in which hominins evolved were, in general, rather open, with no more than about 40% tree cover. The environments in which hominins evolved were neither fully closed, dense forest; nor fully open, steppe-like grassland, but a kind of mixture, a patchwork of different habitats, known as a ‘mosaic’. The degree of woodedness varied over time, and also at several spatial scales.

The word ‘savanna’ has fallen out of favour in the regular discourse – one might say the ‘narrative’ [I dare you: Ed.] – of the study of the environments in which humans evolved, to be replaced by the word ‘mosaic’. We should nevertheless be careful not to replace one woolly concept with another. ‘Mosaic is the new Savanna’ said Kaye E. Reed, tongue firmly in cheek, in a symposium on the question, a highlight of the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, which was held in the fine city of Calgary, Alberta, whence I have lately returned.

‘Patchiness’ is hardly a new concept to ecologists, who know that habitat heterogeneity has profound effects on species, from their day-to-day behaviour, whether it’s foraging for food or seeking a mate, to their speciation and evolution. In the context of human evolution, however, the concept is made harder to grasp by the added dimension of time, because environments vary in time as well as in space. Reconstructing past environments, therefore, suffers from a number of stern challenges, notably the problem of ‘time averaging’. Ecologists can see an environment in the eternal present, but the sample of a fossil environment from, say, a particular stratum, might be an average of changes over tens or hundreds of thousands of years. And that’s without challenging the assumption that species indicative of particular habitats today might have done the same things in the past. What intrigued me, however, was the concept of a ‘mosaic’ environment itself.

One is a simply a problem of classification. There might well be a habitat that can be described as ‘closed forest’, and another as ‘open grassland’, but things are rarely that simple. Impenetrable stands of trees rarely abut open grassland in this convenient way. Even today, the East African landscape is a mixture of closed forest along the courses of rivers (‘riparian’ forests), mixed woodland, scrub, grassland, semi-desert and swamp, with many gradations between all these. Although the kinds of habitats one sees are largely controlled by geological and climatic variables such as soil type, mean annual temperature and degree of insolation (which is why one doesn’t find icecaps at sea level in East Africa, nor is there much savanna in Antarctica) it’s surprisingly hard to classify the varieties of habitat one sees in a biologically meaningful way.

Another issue – and this is the one that fascinates me – is that of scale. For the environment varies in its patchiness according to one’s size, and how far you are away from it when you’re looking at it. The symposium examined the African habitat at all scales from remote sensing of the entire continent to the heterogeneity – or lack of it – experienced by a small mammal, or a land snail, which mightn’t range over more than a few square metres in a lifetime. You can see the problem rather easily in your own environment, and that’s what I did within hours of arriving home, when the canes croxorum took Crox Minor and me for a body-clock-restoring walk in our usual haunt, Cromer East Beach.

Screen Shot 2014-04-14 at 20.47.41When you look at Cromer East Beach from the air, on the scale of kilometres to hundreds of metres, you’d find something like the picture on the left, a screenshot from Google Earth. North is to the top. You can see Cromer Pier at the northwest corner, and the beach as the yellow strip along the diagonal down towards the southeast. You can see some other habitats too – the sea; the wooded cliffs immediately south of the beach; and inland, the usual English mixture of the urban and suburban (Cromer itself occupies the west of the picture), with patchy fields and woods. At this scale, the beach is a clearly defined environment, something you’d find at the water’s edge. From the colour you’d suspect that Cromer East Beach is sandy. IMG_8395Sand is certainly the impression you’d get on standing on the beach itself, especially at low tide, as you can see in the picture on the right, which reduces the environment from a strip seen from space to something of the order of hundreds to tens of metres, at ground level. In the distance you can see the same wooded cliffs as in the Google Earth image, but look closely – there’s more than just sand here. If you look closely to can make out some distinct habitats within this habitat – smaller worlds not seen or appreciated at larger scales.

IMG_8398One is the breakwater, just discernable  in the image above, but quite distinct on the tens-of-metres scale shown in the picture on the left (with Saffron the Jack Russell terrier for scale.) The breakwater is a part of the beach, to be sure, but represents an entirely different community, a patch of something quite distinct, as different from sandy beach as closed rain forest is from prairie or steppe.
IMG_8399 Things get really interesting on the scale of tens of centimetres up to a couple of metres, and it’s here you find the most heterogeneity in the beach environment. Here, on the right, is a close-up of the top of one of the uprights of the breakwater. The breakwater is not a single environment, but a collection of habitats, the patchiness dictated by exposure to sun and tide. Some parts are encrusted with barnacles, other parts with wrack, yet others with green algae like angel-hair pasta, and other parts with mixtures of these.

IMG_8400The breakwater is not the only non-sandy environment on the beach. There is quite a lot of shingle, too, some of which creates tidal pools. One the left is a shingle reef at the tens-of-metres scale. As in the breakwater example, this is the right scale for a dog: you might be able to make out Heidi the golden retriever just to the left of the centre of the picture. Like the breakwater, shingle reefs are quite distinct, as habitats, from the sand. The rock pools are plentifully supplied with creatures such as beadlet anemones, small fishes and shrimps which would perish on the sand, though some creatures, such as shore crabs, are found in both. Again, like the breakwater, shingle reefs are themselves patchy. Each of the rock pools one sees at the centimetre scale is itself a tiny planet of life.

IMG_8407Because the sand and the shingle are on the same horizontal level, they tend to intergrade, raising the problem of classification I discussed earlier. On the right is a picture showing sand next to shingle at the metre scale, but if you look more closely, you’ll see gradations of sand with a hint of shingle; shingle with a hint of sand; and even patches in which the stones are more similar in size, and others in which different sizes of stones are mixed together. IMG_8397The fragmentation continues down past the scale of millimetres, and down to the microscopic. On the left is a dead starfish, cast up on the sand. This single organism provides a rich habitat – and mixture of habitats – for microbes and parasites of every kind. And I haven’t even begun to distinguish between the surface of the beach and the environment beneath it, in which variation in oxygen tension creates distinct habitats more suitable for some organisms than others.

This example, from my own backyard, with no need to travel to East Africa or anywhere else, calls to mind Darwin’s metaphor of the Tangled Bank, at the end of the Origin of Species, which is always worth repeating:

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.

How different this picture, derived by the simple means of keeping one’s eyes open, is from the cartoonish division of habitat into classes such as woodland and savanna, showing it up as less an experimental result than the backdrop required by a story of progression and destiny. However, to say that students of human evolution will slide into over-easy use of the term ‘mosaic’ where they might once have used ‘savanna’ is perhaps too harsh a criticism.

The term ‘mosaic’ at least acknowledges the fact that habitats are tangled banks in which evolution happens in the round, and moment by moment, rather than painted scenery against which a drama unfolds. As such, the term ‘mosaic’ is a slippery, protean thing, hard to define, because it is inseparable from the creatures that are evolving, and their interactions with one another. At the end of the symposium, discussant Yohannes Haile-Selassie of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (who organised the session with Amy L Rector of the Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA) said that after a whole afternoon of wresting with the concept of the mosaic, we still had got no closer to working out the role of mosaic habitats in human evolution. Which is perhaps as it should be.

Posted in Cromer, Research | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


BONE JACKSet somewhere in the north of England where ancient shadows hover just beyond glimpsing, teen novel Bone Jack by Sara Crowe shows that fiction for young readers needn’t stint on horror and darkness – and can cleave to much more genuinely rooted ancient wisdom than you’ll ever find in burlesques about schoolboy wizards and high-school vampires.

Fifteen-year-old Ash Tyler likes to run. He’s so good that he’s been selected to be the stag in his town’s annual Stag Chase, where the stag has to outrun a pack of human hounds across the mountainous wilderness surrounding the town. But the stag chase has very ancient roots connected more with blood and sacrifice than tourism and entertainment. In a land ravaged by drought, disease and recession that have driven Ash’s soldier father to madness and his best friend Mark’s father to suicide, the countryside wants something back. Something bloody.

To a reader of a certain age Bone Jack resonates with Alan Garner (The Weirdstone of Brisingamen) in its fusion of a youthful cast, ancient mystery and realistic landscape; with The Hunger Games in its use as a central device of a race run in a time of poverty, the consequences of whose failure might be lethal; Lord of the Flies for the savagery and religious inclinations of young boys left to their own devices; and Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell in its invocation of an ancient magick in the landscape of Britain. The constant use of dark-feathered birds such as ravens and rooks, which seem to have a special relationship with people, echoes Susannah Clarke’s Raven King, magical mage of the North of England in ages past.

therianthropeBut it is the use of the stag mask that brings back true ancientry, reminiscent of the ‘therianthropes’ – dancing men with the heads of beasts – seen in the earliest artworks more than 40,000 years ago, a true sign that whereas modern human preoccupation with material things is passing, the magic of landscape is eternal, uncompromising and pitiless, and must not be neglected.

(Right) A Therianthrope. Not recently.

Many years ago when the world was young I played the accordion with a side of Morris Men. Many people think of Morris Men with their ribbons and bells as twee, quaint, even effeminate. The reality is different. The sight of a dozen large men thundering around a village fete or pub car park can be as spectacular, and as frightening, as a Maori haka for all that it seems folkloric.

One particular dance we did was called ‘Shooting the Badger’. In this dance, one of the men is a therianthrope: he wears a badger mask, and dances on his own in the centre of a ring of dancers bearing staves. At a signal the dancers point the staves inwards, towards the badger, and shout ‘bang!’ at which the badger falls down ‘dead’. He can only be revived thanks to the ministrations of the comeliest young female in the audience, selected by the Squire (the leader of the dance), and once she has done this, the badger gets up and the dance is resumed. From this it’s not hard to to see that not so far beneath the beery and beardy jollity lurk themes of death and fertility and resurrection – things which we pretend we have forgotten about, but which stalk us all like shadows nonetheless – and which ‘Bone Jack’ discusses with an authenticity it’s hard to find in most fiction for adults, let along for teenagers.

I bought it on a recommendation for my Kobo and devoured it in the departure lounge for a transatlantic flight. I was so impressed I ordered it in paperback for Crox Minima, who is currently having an Easter holiday reading splurgathon. You can get it on, though not as far as I am aware on, though of course you can order it from anywhere in the world, and there is an ebook version.

It’s still early days but I am confident that ‘Bone Jack’ will make my Top Ten reads of 2014.

Posted in Uncategorized, Writing & Reading | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments


Britain is presently swaddled under a thick cloud of pollution. This, we are told, has been caused by a mixture of regular industrial and motor exhaust, spiked with a lot of sand from the Sahara Desert.

Yesterday Cromer laboured under a light fog, but the air was fresh – no more than the sea-fret one expects from time to time.

Today is different.

The air is pretty thick and slab, even if not (as far as one can tell) ditch-delivered by a drab. Surfaces are coated with a thin layer of sand. And it’s not even as though we haven’t got quite a lot of sand of our own, thank you very much.

<- Sand. Recently.

If this goes on I expect the sand to be joined by the diverted 06:38 camel train from Benghazi to Khufra, and possibly even a few Tuareg separatists bearing Kalashnikovs.

UPDATE (mid-morning): Wind’s got up. Just been out to peg some washing on the line. The breeze and a light sandblasting should freshen it up nicely.

ANOTHER UPDATE (early evening): around lunchtime the dogs took me for a walk. The air smelled distinctly off and made one catch one’s breath. By teatime it had worsened to an eye-stinging, mucous-membrane-tingling industrial stink. I’ve just seen this picture showing today’s pollution nationwide, and East Anglia does seem to have had the worst of it (sauce tzores source DEFRA.)


Posted in Domesticrox | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments


You probably won’t believe this, it being 1 April and all, but I have literally just taken delivery of 250 live worms.

Mrs Crox ordered them to replenish our wormery, which was looking a bit tired, many of its inhabitants having died or retired.

I know the parcel was specifically addressed to Mrs Crox, but she’s out, and I felt I had to open it as the legend URGENT – LIVE WORMS was clearly marked on the packet, so I felt that I couldn’t hang about. The contents of the parcel have now been deposited into the wormery.

The postie was completely unfazed by this when she handed it to me.

It’s amazing, isn’t it, what you can send through the mail these days. Perhaps the Royal Mail is grateful for the business. It’s not as if you can email a worm – let alone 250.

Amazing what you can send through the mail these days.

Posted in Domesticrox, Silliness | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

The Maison Des Girrafes Caption Competition #16

I am sure Heidi (large dog) and Saffron (small dog) are saying something to each other, but I was out of earshot, and the noise of the surf was too great for me to hear it…

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

The Cupcakes of Mitosis

Tomorrow, Crox Minor is having a bake sale in aid of her favourite charity Children of Peace. This afternoon she and Mrs Crox made loads of cupcakes … some of them on the theme of mitosis. Here are two cupcakes, approaching metaphase…
… and here is a cupcake, poised on the threshold of division. Sorry it’s a bit blurry, at moments such as this one is literally shaking with excitement.
Finally, here are the two daughter cupcakes. Crox Minor was distressed to be told that the cupcake on the right is aneuploid.

STOP PRESS: I’ve just heard that Crox Minor raised £85 in her bake sale at Cromer Academy. “Not bad for 30 minutes at lunchtime” says Mrs Crox. Other people also contributed cakes, and the Cupcakes of Mitosis went down especially well in the science department.

Posted in Apparitions, Domesticrox, Science Is Vital, Silliness | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments Off


knife manWhen Crox Minor and I visited the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons recently, I bought a copy of The Knife Man, by Wendy Moore, a biography of John Hunter, whose collection forms the nucleus of this remarkable museum. The subtitle – ‘Blood, Body-Snatching and the Birth of Modern Surgery’ – promises gothick excess, the charnel-house stench of uncoverèd graves, flag-stoned floors running with noxious ichor, and dungeon walls spattered with gouts of gore incarnadine from the dead and dying, though, sadly, Ms Moore manages to get through the entire exegesis without once using the word ‘effluvia’. Which is a shame. For Ms Moore has loftier aims in mind, it seems: nothing less than the canonisation of John Hunter as the unacknowledged father of modern biology, a Darwin a century before his time – mending a legacy untimely ripp’d from the pages of history by jealous colleagues and unscrupulous heirs.
Right: Georgian Panacea or Anatomists’ Cast-Offs? Eye of Newt, Tongue of Dog not pictured. (Courtesy Lee’s Pet Supplies, Cromer)

To be anyone of consequence in the enlightened world of eighteenth-century scholarship it was a good plan to be born seventeenth in a family of twelve children of an impoverished farmer in Lanarkshire. Such was the lot of young John Hunter (1728-1793) who started adult life as a carpenter before moving down to London as an assistant to his brother William, ten years his senior, who was already shinning up the greasy pole of the Georgian surgical hierarchy. There the young John discovered his talent for skilful dissection and the creation of ‘preparations’ showing various organs and tissues in health and disease – the beginnings of a magnificent museum, destined to become a lifelong obsession, and finally, his ruin.

As William cultivated the refined manners and dress required to soar in elevated circles – he was the high-society male midwife, delivering the innumerable children of Queen Charlotte – his rough-hewn, plain-speaking and largely unlettered brother John managed the altogether shadier business of the dissecting room. Those were the days when the materials for anatomy schools came to the back door in the wee hours as booty of the ‘resurrection men’. If, that is, an anatomist hadn’t succeeded in the mad scramble for the corpses of criminals cut from Tyburn Tree. The existence of a plethora of capital crimes, from Loitering with Intent to Cross a Pedestrian Crossing, to Looking at a Royal Personage in a Funny Way, ensured a ready supply of dead flesh. So it was that John spliced, sliced and diced his way through a mountain of carcases, of humans and other animals, engendering views on the connectedness of creation which were as heretical in the eighteenth century as Darwin found them in the nineteenth.

Medicine at that time was a bare gnat’s crotchet from the medieval. Physicians tended to be high-class, for all that their powders and potions were at best, useless – at worst, lethal. Surgeons, on the other hand, were very much déclassé. In the complete absence of formal, scientific, medical training, surgeons started as teenage apprentices to an established practitioner, in the style of a traditional guild. Apprentices would be encouraged to toe the party line, and innovation was seen as akin to rebellion. Thus it was that medicine was much the same as it had been for centuries. Wool of bat and blindworm’s sting were very much in the doctor’s bag. This was the age of bloodletting and leeches, pills made of crabs’ eyes and mercury, purgatives and enemas. Very few medicines actually worked – the exceptions included Peruvian cinchona bark, for the ague (malaria) and opium, for general pain relief. In the absence of the remotest clue about the germ theory or even of elementary hygiene, life expectancy hovered in the mid-thirties, mainly because child mortality was astonishingly high.

And for those who reached adulthood in an age of considerable sexual licence – this was the era of Gin Lane and the Rake’s Progress – venereal disease was common. James Boswell, the famous amanuensis to Dr Samuel Johnson, records his several encounters with ‘Signor Gonorrhoea’, which, in those days, was thought to be merely the initial stage of the dreaded French Pox, or syphilis, whose rampant progression through the body created hideous deformity, and plenty of gruesome specimens for Hunter’s collection.

So much for medicine. Surgery was worse. Sans anaesthetics or antiseptics, operations were nasty, brutish and short, and limited to easily accessible parts of the body. Death from shock or post-operative infection was common, and although John Hunter won renown for his life-saving skill, there was always the worry – for the patient, at any rate – that those who died on his operating bench might end up in his museum, pickled, and in bits.

By dint of an enquiring mind, a voracious appetite for work, and an ability to subsist on four hours’ sleep a night almost indefinitely, John’s reputation grew, both as a surgeon and as a scientist. His friends and associates included Joseph Banks, the famous explorer and botanist, and his first and favourite pupil was Edward Jenner, pioneer of vaccination. His list of patients included such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin; Lord Byron; the artist Gainsborough; the philospher David Hume; the economist Adam Smith, and the Prime Minister, William Pitt. Through the salon of his artistic wife Anne Home – an accomplished and published poet - he met the artist Joshua Reynolds, who painted his portrait (Hunter returned the compliment by conducting the deceased artist’s autopsy) and the composer Joseph Haydn (who refused Hunter’s offer to remove some nasal polyps.)

But Hunter knew when – and when not – to operate. He would scandalise patients by saying that most complaints cleared up on their own, with no need for bloodletting or quack remedies: physicians, too, for daring to question the efficacy of their expensive snake-oils. Then, as now, patients felt that a doctor who didn’t prescribe anything hadn’t done his job. That, and his bluff candour, made him as many enemies as admirers.

It was largely thanks to Hunter that surgery changed, in his lifetime, from the craft of a medieval guild, guarding its hallowed and unquestioning practices; to a respectable profession, informed by experimental science and comparative morphology. The first proper medical schools in England opened during this period, possibly thanks to his influence, although the hospital where he worked – the now defunct St George’s, near Hyde Park Corner – remained a hotbed of opposition to his modernising zeal.

By his early sixties he was a superstar surgeon earning superstar fees, with a superstar lifestyle. A magnificent home in Leicester Square, complete with custom-built museum, lecture theatre, dissecting suite and underground stabling for not one but two coaches (his’n'hers) and the requisite horsepower; and a country home in leafy Earl’s Court, where he housed a menagerie and experimental farm, and where, as with Darwin at Down House, he began his experiments on interbreeding and natural variation which led to similar conclusions, a century earlier. The lifestyle concealed the fact that every spare guinea went on his collection. When Hunter died, in 1793, of heart failure, after yet another bruising encounter with his adversaries at St George’s, all his properties had to be sold to cover his debts. His hope that his immense museum might be bought by the nation, to set up his wife and children, came to naught. Britain was once again at war with France and couldn’t afford such a luxury. Hunter’s dependents were left almost destitute.

All, that is, for his wife’s brother Everard Home, Hunter’s longtime amanuensis, who achieved his own independent scientific success. Or so it seemed – he had in fact ‘borrowed’ Hunter’s unpublished works, a plagiarism in which he mostly succeeded by dint of burning most of his master’s papers. In the meanwhile the disgruntled surgeons at St George’s responded to his death by giving £400 to Jessé Boot, a lifelong enemy of Hunter, to write a scurrilous biography.

The museum hung on thanks to the care of Hunter’s last assistant, one William Clift. Like Hunter, Clift was a raw-edged country boy, though from Cornwall, the other end of Britain from Hunter’s birthplace. Eventually, in 1799, the government bought the museum for a knockdown price and gave custody of it to the Company of Surgeons, renamed the Royal College of Surgeons the next year, and Clift was appointed the first curator. Many years later, one of Clift’s daughters married another young anatomist, perhaps the most skilled these islands have ever produced, and a powerful adversary of Charles Darwin. That anatomist was Richard Owen. But that’s another story.

The Knife Man is a compelling, indeed rollicking read. If I have one criticism, it’s about a quarter too long, and is inclined to repetition. There are only so many times one need be told that medicine a mere two hundred years ago laboured in the complete absence of everything we take for granted today – anaesthetics, vaccination, basic hygiene, sewerage, electricity, refrigeration, fresh air, antibiotics, universal provision of clean water and basic medical care for free at the point of use. But perhaps that’s the point. We enjoy these things thanks to the efforts and heterodox views of anatomists such Hunter, labouring by candlelight over flayed corpses through the cold winter months (summer was out, for reasons of putrefaction) who were brave enough to question received wisdom, and bold enough to imagine that there might, one day, be a better world.

Posted in Research, Writing & Reading | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments


You know the feeling – no sooner have you graduated from some hallowed hall of learning or another than one’s alma mater sends you a begging letter. It’s rare for one to receive such a missive from an institution of learning one left in the Dark Ages and to which you have made your feelings of non-correspondence clear.

I was a pupil at Sevenoaks School in Kent between 1974 and 1976, and I can say without fear of contradiction that these were the worst two years of my entire life.

They were scarred by relentless bullying and brutal, cynical teachers (or ‘masters’ as we called them.) The character of the place could be defined from its credentials: the Bursar, a retired soldier, still styled himself a Lieutenant-Colonel.

The Sevenoaks Old-Boys newsletter pursued me for some years, until when, as a Ph.D. student, in the late 1980s, I had cause to visit Sevenoaks to do a spot of research at a local  zoological museum. One lunchtime I walked up to the school and informed the secretary that I no longer wished to receive the newsletter, thank you. Her reply was that she’d inform the Lieutenant-Colonel. Her face was a picture when I expressed surprise that the unprintable so-and-so wasn’t dead yet.

And so it was until yesterday, when, much to my surprise, I received a begging letter from an institution I thought I’d left behind me thirty-eight years ago. The package contained (oh joy!) a postage-paid envelope and a small slip inviting me to share my Sevenoaks memories. I have used it to ask them not to contact me again.

I do, in fact, have three happy memories of Sevenoaks, but none have any connection with scholarship or teaching.

One was taking part in a school production of The Hobbit, in which I had a speaking part as a female troll, with fright wig and frilly bloomers (Peter Jackson wasn’t the first to play fast and loose with the franchise.)

Second was enjoying the nine-week pre-eminence of Queen’s masterpiece Bohemian Rhapsody at the top of the charts, and going downtown to buy a copy of the album A Night At The Opera on which it featured.

Third was hearing, for the first time, Deep Purple In Rock. I can still remember, quite clearly, being in the ‘quiet room’ in School House when, both aged 14, my friend Zack Chaudhury put it on the turntable for my delectation. It was a revelation.

Zack was quite a character. After some infraction or other he was tasked with repainting the toilet stalls in School House. The colour wasn’t specified, so he painted everything deep purple, in honour of his favourite group. And I mean everything, including the light bulbs. Zack, with his family, had been a refugee from Idi Amin’s Uganda. He told me blood-curdling stories of walking past dead and burning corpses on his way to school in Kampala. Which, I guess, inured him against anything that might happen to him at Sevenoaks. (Lieutenant-Colonel, phooey: Kampala at least had a Field-Marshal.)

I wonder what Zack is doing now?


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments


On my thirtieth birthday I remember feeling that whatever else I might have achieved, I’d at least published my first book.

More than twenty years later, it seems I might have produced something that people actually want to read. The Shameless Plug has made the top twenty of science books most requested in bookshops and libraries (according to the Library Journal).

My editor (at the University of Chicago Press) says that more than 5,000 copies have been sold in the five months since publication, and that as returns have been few, she’s so confident of buoyant sales that she’s ordered another printing of 3,000 hardbacks. A paperback is due in the autumn.

Now, I have to say that the advance was very modest, and even with such a fine prognosis I have yet to see royalties on any book I have ever written under the standard advance-and-royalty model.

When I started writing books, seasoned authors told me that it takes five or six books before anyone really starts to take notice. The Shameless Plug is my fifth sole-authored, non-fiction title (not counting all the other stuff), so this seems to have been sound advice.

As I seem to be saying more and more frequently to younger writers, it takes years and years of hard work before you become an overnight sensation.

Looking forward, the new writing space at the bottom of the Jardin des Girrafes is taking shape. My valiant neighbour Mr D. T. of Cromer, handyman extraordinaire, has insulated the floor of the old summerhouse, and is, even as I write, insulating the ceiling with  Xtratherm sheeting and exterior-grade ply. After that, he’ll get to work filling the walls with rockwool. It’ll be quite snug.

When he’s done I’ll have a quiet, all-season writing space, where I can set to work on my next project.

Posted in Writing & Reading | Tagged , , | 2 Comments