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  • Richard Conniff

  • Reviews for Richard Conniff’s Books


    Ending Epidemics: A History of Escape from Contagion: “Ending Epidemics is an important book, deeply and lovingly researched, written with precision and elegance, a sweeping story of centuries of human battle with infectious disease. Conniff is a brilliant historian with a jeweler’s eye for detail. I think the book is a masterpiece.” Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone and The Demon in the Freezer

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

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Archive for the ‘The Natural History of the Rich’ Category

The Disturbing Things We Do For Silk

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 25, 2013

Silkworm cocoons ready to be processed into silk (Photo: John Javellana/ Reuters)

Silkworm cocoons ready to be processed into silk (Photo: John Javellana/ Reuters)

The latest research on silkworms is wonderful news on the fashion front, opening up the possibility for new textiles and more efficient manufacturing methods. But for the silkworms, it also sounds kind of creepy in a science fiction nightmare way.

First, a little background. Humans have had a long and rewarding relationship with the Chinese mulberry silkworm Bombyx mori, ever since someone figured out 6,000 years ago how to unravel the threads from the caterpillars’ cocoons and weave them into gorgeous textiles for China’s emperorsThe Chinese managed to keep the process secret for centuries, until it became the object of history’s first known instance of commercial espionage. In the sixth century A.D., according to legend, the European emperor Justinian dispatched two monks to China. They returned with both the silkworm eggs and seeds for the mulberry trees on which they feed, smuggled home inside bamboo walking sticks.

The result today is a global industry. China is once again leading the world, producing 58,000 tons of silk annually. (And that is a lot of caterpillars.) The United States also had a thriving silk industry, until the introduction of nylon in World War II. My family was among the many that benefited from it: My grandfather was a warper at silk mills in Manchester, Connecticut, and Paterson, New Jersey. So without silkworm wages—not to put too fine a point on it—there would be no me.

Now back to the new research, just out in the journal Biomacromolecules. British researchers have devised a means to continuously milk silk from living silkworms. This is a big deal because of an unfortunate fact behind the loveliness of silk: Up to now, the only way to unravel silk was to Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Cool Tools, The Natural History of the Rich | Tagged: , , | 5 Comments »

The Fraud Hunter

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 19, 2013

(Photo: Julie Brown)

(Photo: Julie Brown)

I’m back in the territory of my book, The Natural History of the Rich, for this story.  It’s my profile of Jim Chanos, the most successful short-seller in the world, and a Sherlock Holmes of corporate bad behavior.

Here’s an excerpt:

You would think that by now financial types would stop to listen when Chanos says “Uh-oh.” He has been raising the red flag on companies—from the merely troubled to the outright fraudulent—for more than 30 years, often while corporate executives and Wall Street analysts were still eagerly flogging those companies to gullible buyers. “He’s been pretty much right about everything,” says Nell Minow, a leading advocate for responsible corporate governance. “He’s a smart guy.” The investments he has shorted constitute a nearly complete chronicle of bad business behavior in our time. The most famous among them landed Chanos on the cover of Barron’s in 2002 as “The Guy Who Called Enron.” But the list of his targets stretches from Michael Milken’s junk bond empire through the real estate boom of the late 1980s, the telecom bubble of the late 1990s, Dennis Kozlowski’s Tyco and Bernie Ebbers’s WorldCom at the turn of the century, subprime mortgage lenders and homebuilders in 2007, and most recently an entire nation. (China, he says, is “on an economic treadmill to hell.”)

Chanos has inevitably also been wrong about some companies—or right, but Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Business Behaviors, The Natural History of the Rich | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Tally Ho! Time to Hunt Humans

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 21, 2013

I’m watching a show just now in which one of those snarky British television personalities travels hick America and makes fun of redneck ways.  Back in England, this is what used to be the heart of the fox-hunting season.  So the two things reminded me of a story I wrote a few years ago in England, with this update: Now that Mitt Romney‘s no longer running for President, hunting humans could just be the perfect philanthropic way to give minimum wage employment to undeserving runners from the 47 percent.  Here’s the story:

bloodhound pack

It was an idea guaranteed to appeal to local foxes:  Put 30 or 40 English gentlefolk on horseback and send them hallooing across the countryside behind a pack of frantically baying hounds.

But have their prey be a human being.  Get the Queen of England herself to join in the fun.  Let the foxes, who are bored with this victim business anyway, become spectators, shouting encouragement and advice to the field:  “Fine day for hunting, no?  Got a glimpse of your quarry just now.  Big strong redhead in a Gore-Tex jogging suit.  Went that way.”

The remarkable thing is that the proposal caught on with humans, in a modest sort of way.  At least five packs in England now hunt humans, according to Horse and Hound, the weekly hunt journal.  For a cap fee of 15 pounds, an outsider can, for example, join the Windsor Forest Hunt on a Saturday when the weather is fair to hunt down three upstanding citizens of the placid Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Hampshire, or Surrey countryside. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Kill or Be Killed, The Natural History of the Rich, The Primate File | Leave a Comment »

God and White Men at Yale (Part 1)

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 30, 2012

Irving Fisher

This is a piece I wrote for the Yale Alumni Magazine, about the remarkable role that university played in the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century.

On a sweltering Friday in June 1921, a 54-year-old Yale economics professor named Irving Fisher delivered a major speech at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island. The pain of the recent war in Europe was still fresh, and Fisher was troubled by the quality of those who had died, and the damage to “the potential fatherhood of the race” by the loss of so many young men “medically selected for fighting but thereby prevented from breeding.”

In light of these losses, the issue, it seemed to Fisher, was that graduates of leading universities were failing to do their reproductive duty: the families “of American men of science” averaged just 2.22 children, versus a national average of 4.66. (Or as he put it, perhaps too lucidly, “The average Harvard graduate is the father of three-fourths of a son and the average Vassar graduate the mother of one-half of a daughter.”) This “race suicide” among “the well-to-do classes means that their places will speedily be taken by the unintelligent, uneducated, and inefficient.”

To prevent that, immigration from certain regions needed to be sharply curtailed, and birth control “extended from the white race to the colored” and to other “undesirable” ethnic and economic groups, ideally under the control of a eugenics committee established to “breed out the unfit and breed in the fit.” Otherwise, “the Nordic race … will vanish or lose its dominance.”

It was strong stuff, and from a seemingly impeccable source. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Social Status, The Natural History of the Rich | 1 Comment »

Among the One Percent, Look Twice Before Crossing

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 28, 2012

Shiny Cars, Scary Drivers

For cynics, this might come as unsurprising science.  But a new study shows that as social status rises, so does the propensity to commit unethical acts, like lying in a negotiation, cheating, stealing, and breaking the law while behind the wheel.   The study fits a long line of research by Dacher Keltner at the University of California in Berkeley.

I’ve written in the past about his “Cookie Monster” experiment for The New York Times.  For the new study, published Monday on PNAS:

Observers stood near the intersection, coded the
status of approaching vehicles, and recorded whether the driver
cut off other vehicles by crossing the intersection before waiting
their turn, a behavior that defies the California Vehicle Code. In
the present study, 12.4% of drivers cut in front of other vehicles.

But drivers of top status cars cut off other cars almost 30% of time, versus less than 10% for the lowest-status cars.

It was even worse for pedestrians:  Top status drivers cut off pedestrians 45% of the time, versus close to zero for the lowest-status drivers.

The study attributes the effect to multiple factors:

Upper-class individuals’ relative independence from others and increased privacy in their professions (3) may provide fewer structural constraints and decreased
perceptions of risk associated with committing unethical acts (8). The availability of resources to deal with the downstream costs of unethical behavior may increase the likelihood of such acts among the upper class. In addition, independent self-construals among the upper class (22) may shape feelings of entitlement
and inattention to the consequences of one’s actions on others (23). A reduced concern for others’ evaluations (24) and increased goal-focus (25) could further instigate unethical tendencies among upper-class individuals. Together, these factors may give rise to a set of culturally shared norms among upperclass
individuals that facilitates unethical behavior.

The bottom line:   If there’s a Mercedes or Escalade in the neighborhood, stand back from the curb and pray, while also watching your wallet.

Let’s call it “the Lizzie Grubman effect,” for the wealthy publicist who allegedly yelled “Fuck you, white trash” before backing her Mercedes into a crowd of pedestrians outside a Long Island nightclub.  (And true to the study’s theory about “downstream costs,” she got off with 37 days in jail.)

“High social class predicts increased unethical behavior,” by Paul K. Piff, Daniel M. Stancato, Stéphane Côté, Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, and Dacher Keltner

Posted in Business Behaviors, Social Status, The Natural History of the Rich, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Our Built-In Propensity for Staring Down Rivals

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 6, 2011


Our staring contests appear to be an instinctive dominance behavior passed down from our simian ancestors, though whether we glower or quickly turn away depends on individual tendencies to dominance or submission, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands.  They published their work in the journal Psychological Science.  Here’s part of the press release:

Imagine that you’re in a bar and you accidentally knock over your neighbor’s beer. He turns around and stares at you, looking for confrontation. Do you buy him a new drink, or do you try to outstare him to make him back off? New research … suggests that the dominance behavior exhibited by staring someone down can be reflexive.

Our primate relatives certainly get into dominance battles; they mostly resolve the dominance hierarchy not through fighting, but through staring contests. And humans are like that, too.

Psychologist David Terburg and his co-authors set out to test the standard assumption that staring for dominance is automatic for humans:

For the study, participants watched a computer screen while a series of colored ovals appeared. Below each oval were blue, green, and red dots; participants were supposed to look away from the oval to the dot with the same color. What they didn’t know was that for a split-second before the colored oval appeared, a face of the same color appeared, with one of three expressions–angry, happy, or neutral. The researchers were testing how long it took for people to look away from faces with different emotions. Participants also completed a questionnaire that reflected how dominant they were in social situations.

People who were more motivated to be dominant were slower to look away from angry faces, while people who were motivated to seek rewards gazed at the happy faces longer. In other words, the assumptions were correct—for people who are dominant, engaging in gaze contests is a reflex.

“When people are dominant, they are dominant in a snap of a second,” says Terburg. “From an evolutionary point of view, it’s understandable—if you have a dominance motive, you can’t have the reflex to look away from angry people; then you have already lost the gaze contest.”

By the way, that’s a photo of Terburg at top, left, and my advice?

Buy him the beer.

Posted in Social Status, The Natural History of the Rich, The Primate File | 1 Comment »

Charlie Sheen and the Cookie Monster Test

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 4, 2011

The very public bad behavior of Charlie Sheen and fashion designer John Galliano–a future couple? …  They have so much in common–reminds me that it’s time to reprise this op-ed piece about why the rich and famous often act like such flaming idiots.  It originally appeared in 2007 in the New York Times:

THE other day at a Los Angeles race track, a comedian named Eddie Griffin took a meeting with a concrete barrier and left a borrowed bright-red $1.5 million Ferrari Enzo looking like bad origami. Just to be clear, this was a different bright-red $1.5 million Ferrari Enzo from the one a Swedish businessman crumpled up and threw away last year on the Pacific Coast Highway. I mention this only because it’s easy to get confused by the vast and highly repetitious category “Rich and Famous People Acting Like Total Idiots.” Mr. Griffin walked away uninjured, and everybody offered wise counsel about how this wasn’t really such a bad day after all.

So what exactly constitutes a bad day in this rarefied little world? Did the casino owner Steve Wynn cross the mark when he put his elbow through a Picasso he was about to sell for $139 million? Did Mel (“I Own Malibu”) Gibson sense bad-day emanations when he started on a bigoted tirade while seated drunk in the back of a sheriff’s car? And if dumb stuff like this comes so easy to these people, how is it that they’re the ones with all the money?

Modern science has the answer, with a little help from the poet Hilaire Belloc. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Social Status, The Natural History of the Rich, The Primate File | 3 Comments »

Tell Santa You Want to Go Swimming With Piranhas

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 9, 2009

Just got this very kind review of my current book (and perfect Christmas gift) Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time:

Here’s why it’d be impossible not to like Richard Conniff’s latest book: the subtitle is “My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals.”

Here’s the form the book’s preface takes: a fake classified for the job Conniff does.

Two best lines from the preface:

“Willingness to shed conventional norms a requirement. The candidate must be able to contemplate in a nonjudgemental way even the animals that happen at that moment to be having sex, possibly incestuous, on his forehead.”
“[A]ll reasonable expenses will be covered. OK, yes, that will include the mud-walled hotel in western Uganda with one toilet serving all rooms. And, OK, it’s not really a toilet, but a hole in the floor. And yes, yes, yes, you may experience near total liquefaction there in the form of the week-long gastrointestinal calamit called giardia.”

It’d be impossible to choose a favorite chapter from this book—they’re all terrific reads, each engaging and told with much humor, and this is absolutely one of those books which, by the end, you sort of want to be friends with the author—but “Lemurs in Love” and “Ghosts in the Grasslands” (maybe because it’s the book’s longest, at 20 pages) are both tremendously good.

Regardless: get it. Read it. Pass it to friends. (And this is what happens when you get giardia, if you’ve got the will to look.)


P.S.  I’ve had giardia.  So my advice is, don’t look.

Posted in Blog Business, Environmental Issues, The Natural History of the Rich | 2 Comments »

Guess Who Did The “Curating” at this Aspen McMansion

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 3, 2009

The New York Times had a piece the other day about pretentious uses of the verb “to curate,” as when Tina Brown declares:  “The Daily Beast doesn’t aggregate.  It sifts, sorts, and curates.”  (But isn’t it good to have a beast that’s not bogged down in the tiresome old business of roaring, rending, and disembowelling?)

I first spotted this use of “curate” a few years ago on a photo spread in the Times Magazine, where the snow-queen wife of a famous financial type said that she had “curated” the collection of objets at the couple’s home in Aspen.  It happened that I had visited this very home in the course of researching my book The Natural History of the Rich.

Here’s a taste:

One afternoon in the Maroon Creek neighborhood on the outskirts of Aspen, a developer was showing me around a house he had recently sold.  The new owners, who had paid more than $10 million for the place, had settled in, and it looked like home.  A very rich home at that, with 9000 square feet of space encased in fifteen-inch logs, a chandelier made of nested elk antlers over the front entry, a collection of silver-topped canes in an ornately carved umbrella stand in the front hall, and beyond, across the vast living room, a floor-to-ceiling view of ski slopes and forested mountainside.

But the most interesting thing to me was that it was “a turnkey house”–already accessorized before the buyer ever walked through the door, down to the decorative chests, the little silver-framed pictures, and the leather-bound volumes on the mantle.

The developer, a bullet-headed, blue-eyed man, in black turtleneck and leather jacket, with a rat-tat-tat, time-is-money manner, had even chosen the paintings on the walls.  “Is it collectible? Is it Schnabel?” he said, bolting past the handsome frames and generic Western scenes.  “The paintings run from $2,500 to $8,500.  They’re more than wallpaper.”

So much for curating.

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Come Again? Department of Junk Science

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 19, 2009

Back in the 1990s, when Ireland was just starting to feel prosperous, a joke made the rounds about the sex lives of Dublin women. Women on the North side of the Liffey were generally regarded as lower class, while women on the South side were richer, trendier, more fashionable. So the joke went, “What’s the difference between a North Side woman and a South Sider?  The North Sider has fake furs and real orgasms.”

But yesterday’s Times (London) says it’s the other way around.  Here’s the headline:  “Why women have better sex with rich men.”  The article reports on “the latest scientific discovery about human sexuality: that the number and frequency of a woman’s orgasms is directly related to her partner’s wealth.”

So is your junk science antennae twitching yet?  (And if any other part of your body is twitching, thanks, but we don’t want to know.)  It turns out that University of Newcastle researchers based their study on an analysis of data from the Chinese Health and Family Life Survey.  No word on what constitutes “rich” for the survey participants, or if we’re talking about the sex lives in long-term relationships or short-term flings.  (Kind of makes a difference, you figure?)  Finally, it doesn’t say how being rich affects women’s sex lives.  It’s just about what happens when the man is rich.  The study looked at results from about 1500 women, and it’s self-reported data.  That is, these orgasms may be faked, too.

Read The Times article for yourself here.

Curiously, The Daily Mail does a more professional reporting job, including this “wake up, you idiots” paragraph:

The scientists say the findings could be explained by bias in the study – that women who have frequent orgasms tend to overestimate their partner’s income, or that women with ‘high powered’ partners exaggerate how much they enjoy sex.

You can also get a different view of the sex lives of the rich in my book The Natural History of the Rich:  A Field Guide (Crown).

Posted in Sex & Reproduction, Social Status, The Natural History of the Rich | Leave a Comment »