The following critiques express the opinions of the individual evaluators regarding the strengths, weaknesses, and value of the books they review. As such, the appraisals are subjective assessments and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or any official policy of the American Ornithologists' Union.
Douglas W. Mock. 2004. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 267 pp., 21 black-and-white photographs. ISBN 0-674-01285-2. Cloth, $27.95.—Douglas W. Mock of the University of Oklahoma has dedicated much of his research career to careful examination of family life in herons and egrets. Through a series of studies combining field observation with rigorous hypothesis-testing, Mock and his students and collaborators have significantly increased our understanding of the proximate and ultimate causes of hatching asynchrony, siblicide, family conflict, and brood reduction in birds. At its 121st Stated Meeting at the University of Illinois in August 2003, the AOU recognized that impressive body of work by naming Mock the recipient of its William Brewster Memorial Award for 2003.
Therefore, it seems entirely fitting that More Than Kin and Less Than Kind should be published less than one year later. In it, Mock summarizes his more than 20 years of work on avian family life while simultaneously synthesizing a large and fascinating literature on the evolution of family conflict for both a general and a biological audience. The book is focused primarily on birds, but briefer considerations of family conflict in plants, insects, mammals, and other organisms enrich the discussion of such topics as sibling rivalry under resource limitation, intergenerational conflict, hatching asynchrony, obligate and facultative siblicide, infanticide, and male-female conflicts over parental care.
This is one of a number of excellent recent books in evolutionary biology (e.g. Olivia Judson's Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation and Marlene Zuk's Sexual Selections: What We Can and Can't Learn About Sex from Animals) that are targeted primarily at a general readership but are sufficiently well referenced to be useful to specialists. The 15 chapters of More Than Kin and Less Than Kind include 287 superscripted endnotes and a 19-page Works Cited section that encompasses nearly 300 references. Even avian biologists and behavioral ecologists who are familiar with the topics considered in the book will learn plenty from Mock's engaging survey of the field.
The book is beautifully written. As someone who has spent much of his professional life teaching evolutionary biology to under-graduates, I found myself pausing frequently to admire Mock's obvious abilities as a teacher. With patient but lively prose, Mock skillfully meshes lucid explanations of evolutionary theory with key natural-history observations, crucial experimental details, perceptive historical context, and amusing anecdotes. Mock is a keen observer, not only of the egrets and herons he has watched for so many years, but also of the nature of field biology (e.g. “moments of great exhilaration and discovery are rare outposts in the vast deserts of labor and tedium”) and scientific discovery (e.g. “scientific knowledge is nothing if not ephemeral, and only nonscientists misinterpret that as a flaw”). Reading More Than Kin and Less Than Kind is like taking a course from a gifted teacher—an altogether enlightening, inspiring, and enjoyable experience.
Readers may quibble with some of Mock's analyses. For example, his view that Robert Trivers's theory of parent-offspring conflict has shed relatively little empirical light on siblicide in birds will undoubtedly provoke some raised eyebrows. But Mock's perspectives are so clearly articulated and thoughtfully explained that even readers with dissenting views will be unlikely to object strenuously.
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the evolutionary biology of family conflict. It will be especially useful to ornithologists working on such topics as hatching asynchrony, siblicide, brood reduction, and parental care. And for anyone wanting to know how to write a scholarly biological book that will appeal to a general audience, More Than Kin and Less Than Kind should be essential reading.