Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think : Reflections by Scientists, Writers, and Philosophers

By Alan Grafen; Mark Ridley | Go to book overview

WHAT IS A PUMA?

Michael Hansell

A PANTHER is on the loose in the west of Scotland. Sightings suggest it is moving towards Glasgow. There is no photo, no DNA extracted from a hair found on a garden fence, but it is out there. There are others down in England.

In the 1960s the puma, not the panther, was the wild beast of the moment and in the summer of 1965 a bunch of Oxford zoology postgraduates and their friends set off on weekend safari in search of conclusive evidence of the 'Surrey puma'. Among the group were Richard Dawkins and myself.

The best evidence we came up with was some large scratch marks. A puma or, more likely, the foot flourish of a large dog satisfied after just relieving itself? Either way, the claw marks were not large enough for an accompanying press photographer who, with a few strokes of a stick, gave them some added terror. I have a recollection of talking to Richard about what would qualify as being a puma—a full profile, a face, a tail? Could it be said, I wondered, that the scratch marks were a puma I don't recall our conclusion but will return to the question.

In Oxford I was studying the organization of the behaviour by which caddis-fly larvae build themselves protective, portable homes, but was interested in animal building behaviour generally. Richard was at the time studying decision-making in chicks and was interested in all kinds of things but, a few years later, it was about caddis case building that he contacted me. Was there evidence for the genetic determination of some architectural feature of a caddis case? Richard was working on The Extended Phenotype, which made its appearance in 1982.

The Extended Phenotype is a development of the core idea established in The Selfish Gene that natural selection operates at

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