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Review: Raghavendra Gadagkar’s New Book Is a Treat for Younger Scientists

Review: Raghavendra Gadagkar’s New Book Is a Treat for Younger Scientists

A young paper wasp queen. Photo: Alvesgaspar/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Raghvendra Gadagkar‘s new book, Experiments in Animal Behaviour: Cutting-Edge Research at Trifling Cost, reflects the brilliance, insight and the sublime narrative ability of which he is capable of to engage the reader. Ethology as a science probably found its meaning in Charles Darwin’s The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals. As Prof Gadagkar quotes Peter and Jeanne Medawar:

“The word ‘ethology’ is not merely an alternate designation for the science of behaviour: it is a term that stands for a genuine revolution in biological thought. Ethology is rooted in observation of animal behaviour, an activity that only simpletons think simple… observation is a difficult and sophisticated process calling upon all the intellectual virtues: attention, patience, heightened awareness, caution in coming to conclusions, courage in framing expectations.”

It is commendable to touch upon such a subject with ingenuity and understand experiments better. Equally importantly, the cutting-edge research at trifling cost is what a country like India needs in order to tap the talent at the grassroots.

Experiments in Animal Behaviour
Raghavendra Gadagkar
Indian Academy of Sciences, 2021

The book’s framework has been meticulously planned, with focus ranging from social insects to vertebrates. This provides a wide range to the students to choose their organism of interest.

The methodical and scrupulous designing of each chapter is incredible, depicting the journeys of many promising young minds who later became established scientists. The historical backdrop in the beginning of each chapter engages the reader about the growth of that subject. Most other similar publications tend to overlook this aspect.

This is followed by descriptions of experiments carried out in order to address particular questions. The experimental part also focuses on the scientific reasoning, aside from being crafted in a way as to provoke curious young minds. This approach paves the way for rational thinking, which is essential for the growth of science. Prof Gadagkgar’s narration of his personal experiences and innovative projects make this section quite interesting, and in fact make the whole concept of his book more exciting.

To keep the threads together, the outcome of these experiments, the lessons learnt or few take home points are nicely presented in reflection, followed by suggested reading. There is a comprehensive analysis of the lives of bees, wasps and ants and their behavior put forth in a simplified manner. To name a few, the chapters on bees’ colour vision, male wasps’ lethargy, wasp queens, ant navigation, mimicry among snakes, cuckoos’ egg-laying habits and singing male frogs have been carefully chosen to keep readers interested.

In all, Prof Gadagkar makes an important point – that a significant amount of scientific knowledge can be elucidated without investing too much. As he writes, his motivation in writing the book is to increase the social prestige of low-cost research, to make the practice of science more inclusive and democratic, and to empower a large number of people to become knowledge-producers instead of staying knowledge-consumers. A particularly pertinent point that Prof Gadagkar raises is the following:

“Much of modern science, especially when pursued in mainstream academia, is characterised by slow maturation of scientists, with long periods of apprenticeship and late transition to the status of independent researchers. Maturation here is not measured so much by age as by accomplishment and track record in producing scientific knowledge.”

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This raises many questions, and almost certainly we need to introspect deeply as to the Indian scenario.

The book as a whole is a masterpiece that is likely to stimulate younger readers especially, as well as researchers, and will strengthen the field of animal behaviour and interdisciplinary research in India. It is a real treat to reader who enjoy science and love to do science. Finally, it will be good to have the book translated into other Indian languages so that it is accessible to many more people.

The book is available to download and read for free as an e-book here.

Himender Bharti is with the department of zoology and environmental sciences, Ant Systematics and Molecular Biology Lab, Punjabi University, Patiala.

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