The Red Canary: The Story of the First Genetically Engineered Animal

Tim Birkhead’s study of an early genetic experiment – By Tim Birkhead | 284 pages | 16 colour & b/w photos | Paperback | Bloomsbury | 2014 | ISBN: 9781408847060

The Publisher’s View: The creation of Dolly the sheep in the 1990s was for many people the start of a new era: the age of genetically modified animals. However, the idea was not new for in the 1920s an amateur scientist, Hans Duncker, decided to genetically engineer a red canary.

 Though his experiments failed, they paved the way for others to succeed when it was recognised that the canary needed to be both a product of nature and nurture. Originally published in 2004, this highly original narrative The Red Canary, of huge contemporary relevance, reveals how the obsession with turning the wild canary from green to red heralded the exciting but controversial developments in genetic manipulation.

The Author: Tim Birkhead is a professor at the University of Sheffield where he teaches animal behaviour and the history of science. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of London and his research has taken him all over the world in the quest to understand the lives of birds. He has written for the Independent, New Scientist, BBC Wildlife. Among his other books are Promiscuity, Great Auk Islands, The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Ornithology, which won the McColvin medal, and most recently, Bird Sense. He is married with three children and lives in Sheffield.

Other Views: “Rich in historical detail, studded with curious characters – some of them human – and brimming with scientific insights. The Red Canary reads like a fine novel“Matt Ridley

His grasp of the science involved is to be expected from a professor of behaviour and evolution. What is more surprising is his capacity to make it not just comprehensible but fascinating, but making his own genetic cross of science, philosophy, history, sociology and narrative – New Statesman

Takes a small episode from history and draws a surprisingly important lesson from it, in an elegant and diverting way” – Sunday Telegraph

Fatbirder View: I was in two minds whether to read and review this book… assuming that it was one for bird breeders and pet bird keepers. I was surprised to find there is plenty here for the general birder and conservationist. Its really a treatise of selective breeding and genetic science but here and there it is a mine of interesting fact… I particularly like the assertion that domestication is, in fact all about dumbing down. A dumb sheep is a docile one and, if you take away the predators, most creatures dumb down. Moreover, this snippet also makes it clear that intelligence is not just inbred but dependent on stimuli… captive, wild birds are dumber than birds in the wild. Tim makes the whole thing roll along allowing one to absorb the facts without too much brain ache… making this a good read for the most part.


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