My WaPo review of Jon Losos’s new book on cats

May 3, 2023 • 9:00 am

My colleague Jon Losos, an evolutionary ecologist at Washington University who works on lizards but also has three cats, has written the kind of book I’d always wanted to write: an exploration of the evolutionary roots of the housecat and an evolution-based analysis of its behaviors.  Given Losos’s line of work, it’s also imbued with ecology. The book came out today, and you can order it on Amazon by clicking on the screenshot below:


Knowing of the book’s existence since it is published by Viking/Penguin (my own publisher), I asked the Washington Post if they wanted me to review it. They said “yes” and the link to my review below is taken from today’s newspaper. Click on the screenshot to see it, and, if it’s paywalled, perhaps judicious inquiry will yield a copy.

I’ll just give a short excerpt since you should read it on the site. (It will be in the paper edition of the Post on Sunday.)

The review is positive, so if you want to learn about cats, you should read the book. I couldn’t resist a dig at d*gs at the outset, just to liven things up:

My view, and that of many other die-hard cat lovers, is that the internet exists primarily to circulate pictures and videos of cats. Dogs, you may be surprised to learn, can also be found on the internet but curiously tend to remain stuck in remote corners of cyberspace. Cats fuel wildly viral memes; dogs seldom get beyond that family vacation picture on Facebook (with just three likes, all from elderly relatives). Both cats and dogs — especially the younger versions of both — have fuzzy, big-eyed appeal, but dogs apparently lack what it takes to snare a global audience. As the New York Times contended, cat pictures are “that essential building block of the Internet.”

One prominent theory to explain this cat/dog disparity suggests that it’s the residual wildness of cats that makes them so special. This accounts for their infinite capacity for aloofness. Cats were domesticated rather recently — about 10,000 years ago when humans were busy inventing agriculture. And DNA tells us that the ancestor of all house cats is the African wildcat Felis silvestris lybica, which looks much like a domestic tabby.

. . . It’s appropriate, then, that an evolutionary biologist should write the definitive book on the biology, ecology and evolution of the house cat. That would be Jonathan Losos, who, although best known for his studies of lizards, also owns three cats. Those cats, he found, were every bit as interesting as his lizards but had a marked advantage over the reptiles: Losos didn’t have to leave his home to carry out field work. The result, “The Cat’s Meow: How Cats Evolved from the Savanna to Your Sofa,” is a readable and informed exploration of the wildcat that lurks within Fluffy.

. . . Many mysteries remain. Did meows (emitted only by domestic cats) really evolve, as has been seriously suggested, to resemble the cries of a distressed infant, to convert a hardwired human response — “I must take care of an unhappy baby” — into an ingenious ploy to get tuna? What is the real difference in the average life span between a cat allowed to roam outdoors and one kept inside? The traditional answer is five vs. 17 years respectively, but as Losos notes, “I have not been able to find the basis for this claim, and the discrepancy seems extreme to me.”

And we remain abysmally ignorant about my two most pressing cat questions: why they wiggle their butts right before they pounce on prey, and why they “chatter” when they see birds. All they seem to be doing in each case is alerting their potential meal to its hazardous situation, surely not a good idea. One of the lessons of the book, in fact, is that mysteries abound in cat science. One of the largest is how many times cats were domesticated in the Middle East. Did house cats evolve in a single location, or in several places around the same time? We don’t know, and the genetic data is ambiguous.

Like all good scientists, Losos admits that are many questions that will keep cat research active for years to come. Writing as a confirmed, and long-standing, cat lover, I look forward to an ever-expanding understanding of catness and to luxuriating, in quiet moments, in the joys of an infinite supply of online images, memes and videos of that most charismatic and beguiling of all domestic animals.

10 thoughts on “My WaPo review of Jon Losos’s new book on cats

  1. Very entertaining and charming review. It is interesting to read the different voice you have as a writer for different publication types.

    I have read the claim about differing life spans between indoor vs outdoor cats and I thought it was based on actual stats. As much as I have read about cats, I’m certain I will learn more from this book-

    1. I agree with you about the different voice. If I had just started reading the review without paying attention to its author, I would not have guessed it was Dr. Coyne’s writing (not implying that his other writing is any less satisfying). I never tire of reading about cats’ behavior.

  2. Thanks for the tip and review. I’ve just ordered it. Until now, my favorite cat book has been Desmond Morris’s “Catwatching”, which is a marvel.

Leave a Reply