Dancing Cockatoos and the Dead Man Test

How Behavior Evolves and Why It Matters

12 September 2023

Marlene Zuk (Author)


A lively exploration of animal behaviour in all its glorious complexity, whether in tiny wasps, lumbering elephants or ourselves

For centuries, people have been returning to the same tired nature-versus-nurture debate, trying to determine what we learn and what we inherit. In Dancing Cockatoos and the Dead Man Test, biologist Marlene Zuk goes beyond the binary and instead focuses on interaction, or the way that genes and environment work together. Driving her investigation is a simple but essential question: How does behaviour evolve?

Drawing from a wealth of research, including her own on insects, Zuk answers this question by turning to a wide range of animals and animal behaviour. There are stories of cockatoos that dance to rock music, ants that heal their injured companions, dogs that exhibit signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder and so much more.

For insights into animal intelligence, mating behaviour and an organism’s ability to fight disease, she explores the behaviour of smart spiders, silent crickets and crafty crows. In each example, she clearly demonstrates how these traits were produced by the complex and diverse interactions of genes and the environment and urges us to consider how that same process evolves behaviour in us humans.

Filled with delightful anecdotes and fresh insights, Dancing Cockatoos and the Dead Man Test helps us see both other animals and ourselves more clearly, demonstrating that animal behaviour can be remarkably similar to human behaviour and wonderfully complicated in its own right.


"This book is a joy—a provocative, highly entertaining exploration of the roots of our behavior. Marlene Zuk dispels the murk and misconceptions about how our sex roles, language, intelligence, even our mental illness came to be, offering a fresh and invig" — Jennifer Ackerman, The New York Times best-selling author of The Genius of Birds

"With Dancing Cockatoos and the Dead Man Test, Marlene Zuk, a master of scientific storytelling, presents the natural world as a source of powerful insights for understanding behavior across animal species, including our own. With authority, clarity, and wit, the author guides readers on a revelatory journey into the connected nature of behavior across the tree of life." — Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, coauthor of Zoobiquity and Wildhood

"In Dancing Cockatoos and the Dead Man Test, Marlene Zuk uses a light touch to probe heavy questions: What is behavior? How is it related to intelligence? Does domestication make one dumb? Over the course of her investigation, she introduces readers to Lesser Black-backed Gulls that lie in wait to steal student sandwiches, crayfish that experience anxiety, and sea slugs that decapitate themselves (all the better to grow a new parasite-free body). The book, sparkling with humor and curiosity, is a pleasure from start to finish." — Kim Todd, author of Sparrow

Also By: Marlene Zuk View all by author...



140 x 211 mm • 352 pages


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