The Red Canary

While humans have been genetically modifying domestic animals for centuries – indeed, Charles Darwin used the varieties of racing pigeon to illustrate ‘artificial selection’ – it was only in the 1920s that a man called Hans Duncker intentionally put Darwin’s ideas to the test by trying to create a genetically modified ‘red canary’.

It is this small part of history that Tim Birkhead relates to us in The Red Canary, though as previous readers of the author’s work such as The Wisdom of Birds and Bird Sense will expect, he uses this tale to expound on many pertinent diversions in between. The book is the result of no mean research feat, with the author tracking down many out-of-print bird fanciers’ publications from the 1920s and 1930s, as well as Duncker’s personal archive of letters and notes.

Birkhead takes his usual clarity and intrigue to present a hybrid between behavioural science, evolution, philosophy, history and sociology, showing that nature and nurture are not separate influences but inform each other in many ways. The canaries are just a part of the story, and genetics are used to show how man’s relationship with domestic animals can be traced in each of their cells, how amateur experimentation has contributed to biology, and the influence of a flawed understanding of genetics on social and political policy and attitudes, not always pleasant.
Through his experiments, Duncker himself became an advocate of genetic determinism – in a popular sense, the belief that you can’t change your make-up and destiny. This was a profoundly dangerous decision when combined with the politics of pre-war Germany, and demonstrates that scientists are not always the best interpreters of their work, and suffer from the same prejudices and influences as many of the rest of us. 

As usual, Birkhead’s reach is breathtaking and a goldmine for the trivia and anecdote hound, making this a rewarding and informative read. Examples of music being written to teach to captive singing Chaffinches, the history of the eugenics movement (majorly instigated by Darwin’s own cousin, Francis Galton) and the sheer varieties of cage canaries (since their first importation into mainland Europe in the late 1300s) and what their history shows us about evolution are all covered in this expert yet accessible book.

Strangely, at the end of the book we still don’t quite know what actually makes a red canary red, though the condition derives in some away from the processing of dietary pigments into feather cells. This mystery involves a combination of genes acting on and in concert with each other, and Duncker was able to predict that influence to a degree, and correctly guess that the birds’ yellow and red controlling genes would lie in the same position on the cell’s chromosomes.

Despite his somewhat distasteful opinions, Duncker was a remarkably astute scientist who contributed greatly to our understanding of genetics, and this fascinating tale holds much of the substance of life within its pages, too.