Occasional Article: Cats Are Perfect

by Doug Muir on February 1, 2024

RIPLEY: How do we kill it, Ash? There’s gotta be a way of killing it – how, how do we do it?

ASH: You can’t.

PARKER: That’s bullshit!

ASH: You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? A perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.

LAMBERT: You admire it…

ASH: I admire its purity. A survivor. Unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.

* * *
Okay, this one is short.  In an interview, an evolutionary biologist explains why cats are, in an evolutionary sense, perfect.  There are big cats and little cats, but otherwise they vary surprisingly little in shape, diet and behavior.  They’re all doing one thing and they’re all doing it superbly well.

From a philosophical (or pedantic) point of view, she’s being a little provocative with that word “perfect”.  Is Patrick Mahomes a perfect quarterback?  Was Tom Baker the perfect Doctor?  Are McVities Digestive Biscuits (Milk Chocolate) the perfect snack with coffee?   No — those things are just the best in their respective categories.  

More seriously, when we’re talking about biology, perfection doesn’t exist.  Evolution is an endless game of King of the Hill.  You can stay on top for a very long time, but nothing is forever.  Theropod dinosaurs were the cats of their day, and they’re not around any more.  Cats aren’t really “perfect”.  What they are is excellent.

That said, three offhand thoughts.  One, cats are massively destructive to naive island ecosystems.  In New Zealand alone, they’ve caused the extinction of nearly a dozen bird species.  If you’re an island bird, then yeah, cats are almost exactly the xenomorph from the movie:  a relentless, intrusive, murderous alien whose structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.

Two, part of cats’ excellence is that they combine a very conservative design with a fair amount of behavioral flexibility.  Cats are the only hypercarnivore to establish a symbiotic relationship with humans, and that’s probably no accident.

And three, cats almost certainly shaped our evolutionary history.  Leopards, in particular, absolutely love eating primates, and there’s abundant evidence that they preyed upon our prehuman ancestors.  Superb night vision, ridiculously strong, ripping claws: they used to kill us with sickening ease.  Big cats, those perfect predators, were literally the monster in the dark. 

Some years back I visited a game park in Africa: lions, one elephant, a slinking thing in the distance that was a hyena.  And I remember thinking, dear Lord, imagine being out here at night, armed with nothing but a sharp rock or a pointed stick.  Out here with the big cats, who can see in the dark just fine.  It gave me the shivers to think about it, then.  It still does.

And that’s all.

 * * *

RIPLEY:  Final report of the commercial starship Nostromo, third officer reporting. The other members of the crew – Kane, Lambert, Parker, Brett, Ash, and Captain Dallas – are dead. Cargo and ship destroyed. I should reach the frontier in about six weeks. With a little luck, the network will pick me up. This is Ellen Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off.

[to Jonesy the cat]

RIPLEY: Come on, cat.



steven t johnson 02.01.24 at 4:44 pm

The criterion of evolutionary success as being the maintenance of a particular morphology, rather than multiplication of species, is not the popular view I think but also is better in my view. The more standard approach seems to think of speciation as being like entrepreneur’s creating new companies, which I guess would be a small example of the pervasiveness of market thinking. In particular, I recall stories about how the Chicxulub impact wasn’t really decisive because dinosaurs were “in trouble.” But if I understood correctly the “trouble” was supposed to be, less variety of species!

But there is one other aspect than the length of time the chronospecies can be found in the fossil record. It’s the sheer numbers, the biomass. As Stephen Jay Gould once explained for the layman, if there are few numbers of a species, then the sampling in the fossil record will seem to reveal a paucity in the strata immediately before the K-T boundary layer. (AKA, iridium enriched relic of the Chicxulub impactor.)

Success by this perfectly legitimate standard does not always match up with popular notions. In many ways we still live in the Age of Bacteria. This error does tend to inflate the importance of losing a lot of multicellular organisms, which usually seems to imply mammals, despite God’s inordinate fondness for beetles. On the other hand, thinking about the biomass of humanity may help put human impact on today’s biosphere in better perspective?


Doug K 02.01.24 at 5:35 pm

in S. Africa we used to go fishing up in a canyon that required a day’s walk and a couple of swims to access. There were leopards, baboons, and cobras up in there. We saw the wildlife except for the leopards, which showed up only as brief flashes of green eyes in the firelight.. the tapetum that gives them excellent night vision is also what reflects the light.

My guess is the leopards were used to baboons, large hairless apes gave them pause. For some reason we were never particularly afraid of leopards. The baboons could be quite aggressive and the snakes would come in the night seeking warmth, they were much more alarming.

Our cat lives inside only and seems content. I do feel bad for him but the numbers of birds killed by outdoor cats is horrifying.


Gareth Richard Samuel Wilson 02.01.24 at 8:58 pm

“My guess is the leopards were used to baboons, large hairless apes gave them pause.”

“But kill not for pleasure of killing, and seven times never kill Man!”


oldster 02.01.24 at 10:44 pm

This is why I can no longer, in good conscience, watch American football matches in which large cats kill and eat the human players.
Yes, I have heard all of the arguments in favor — it’s graceful, thrilling, intellectually compelling, etc. I’ve even heard the argument that it reduces the incidence of CTE by culling them before the onset.
But I refuse to condone the spectacle. It is simply not humane to force the cats to eat padding.


Allan C Dobbins 02.02.24 at 12:06 am

Most cat species are similar in their behavior — solitary ambush predators. Lions are different in (for the most part) living in groups and cooperating to bring down large prey. I think it would be very interesting to know if there are differences in the brains of lions and tigers. Experiment: swap a lion and tiger infant to the litter of the other species. In tigers, all of the cubs are turned loose by their mother at a certain point, while in lions only the male offspring are turfed out. Would a young tigress in a lion pride behave like a young lioness and remain with the pride and learn to hunt cooperatively? How would a young lion do when abandoned by the tiger mother?


bad Jim 02.02.24 at 4:08 am

My neighborhood often features a jarring juxtaposition: an official coyote warning sign with a poster for a lost cat. Our mountain lions are losing their struggle against dwindling habitat and thriving motor vehicles.


engels 02.02.24 at 10:02 am

I’m sure that “cats are perfect” wouldn’t come as news to cats of my acquaintance.


Neel Krishnaswami 02.02.24 at 1:43 pm

Our cat lives inside only and seems content. I do feel bad for him but the numbers of birds killed by outdoor cats is horrifying.

My brother owned a pair of shelter rescue cats which were housebound and utterly content with it: if the door to the outside was opened, they would flee in terror deeper inside the house. I suppose they remembered that cold and hunger and disease were outside, and wanted no part of it.


steven t johnson 02.02.24 at 3:20 pm

In freshwater, crocodiles seem to be analogous to cats. Both crocodiles and leopards can be seen as including humans in their opportunities. Lions generally not, which mostly makes me wonder if humans in Africa weren’t naturally selected to taste bad to lions?

The article linked doesn’t try comparing the efficiencies of pack hunting (“dogs” of various types) to the general cat model. A big cat is scarier than a big dog, I think, but really, aren’t you really up against a pack? Nor does it consider what you might think of as the bear model, which may be, Big Wins. The emphasis on size by the way seems to usually imply omnivory, as biomass for animals is usually best attained by eating a lot, which means sneaking up on plants is very rewarding, nutritionally speaking. The polar bear is an extreme because it’s environment is extreme.


CP Norris 02.02.24 at 6:13 pm

I love that Ridley Scott gave a close up to that cat and the cat nailed the scene.


Mike Furlan 02.02.24 at 10:02 pm


KT2 02.02.24 at 10:56 pm

A CATegory Carnivorans error?
Felidae (the cats or felids), a family of Carnivorans
Pantherinae (big cats), a subfamily
Felinae (small cats), the other subfamily
See Etomology Online for when we conCATinated “big” and “pet” to “cat’.

Pantherinae generally aren’t murderers.
Felinae (and humans) are murderers.
All are excellent.

Doug said “Cats [Felinae] are the only hypercarnivore to establish a symbiotic relationship with humans, and that’s probably no accident.” … “cats [Felinae and humans] are massively destructive to naive island ecosystems”.

The predator prey model needs updating to predator + prey +  development + “social carrying capacity”, which is defined by the tolerance of humans towards predators” (Athreya et al) + inequality. And Homo sapiens at apex.
(See Disscussion in this paper & article)

“Big Cats in Our Backyards: Persistence of Large Carnivores in a Human Dominated Landscape in India”

Vidya Athreya et al

“This situation has never been reported before where 10 large carnivores/100 km2 are sharing space with dense human populations in a completely modified landscape. Human attacks by leopards were rare despite a potentially volatile situation…”

Vidya Athreya on what it is like for humans to live with leopards and be at the bottom of the anthropological food chain;
“If you are in a building there’s no need to worry,” he says. “All attacks on humans have happened in [slum] areas, except one in Powai.” In settlements that lack toilets or electricity, 80% of the leopard attacks happen when people go out to answer nature’s call after dark.

“The leopards of Mumbai: life and death among the city’s ‘living ghosts’

“India’s second city is home to an estimated 20 million people … and 21 leopards. The 250,000 residents with homes inside the boundary of Sanjay Gandhi national park must find a way to live with their big-cat neighbours”

Vidya Athreya’s project.
And cat pics. Big ones.
“… because to me this issue, one of a large wild cat living among people, is more a socio-cultural problem rather than a problem caused only by cats.”

Did Felinae hunt prey because of instinct before domestication? Because: Sapiens?

The Nostromo as a prey free Sapien habitat, was able to cope with 1 only Felidae Jonesy due to being fed by Sapiens. Had Jonesy had a boyfriend and been able to breed up unnoticed until they burst out eye to lack of prey, all Sapiens on board would probably end up with an unseen Alien called “Toxoplasmosis is a parasitic disease caused by Toxoplasma gondii, an apicomplexan.[3] Infections with toxoplasmosis are associated with a variety of neuropsychiatric and behavioral conditions.[8] Occasionally, people may have a few weeks or months of mild, flu-like illness such as muscle aches and tender lymph nodes.[1] In a small number of people, eye problems may develop.[1] In those with a weak immune system, severe symptoms such as seizures and poor coordination may occur.[1] If a woman becomes infected during pregnancy, a condition known as congenital toxoplasmosis may affect the child.[1]” Wikipedia.

Alien the movie with Felidae and toxoplasmosis as The Alien may have ensured the same fate. Alien The movie with Pantherinae would be short as the Sapiens would have killed them asap.


Salem 02.03.24 at 12:26 am

Falcons are hypercarnivores too.


TimP 02.03.24 at 12:39 am

If true, why are all cats so many different colors?


russell1200 02.06.24 at 5:03 pm

Cats are somewhat like the two legged, big headed theropods were 60+ million years ago. Variations, but pretty much a common form for an extremely long time.

Both cats and predators in general have had their diversity truncated by the successive wave of ice ages. As each ice age waxes, the large animal population (herbivore and than carnivore) gets clobbered. As it wanes the survivors diversify, but the time is relatively short. This time around, humans went a long way to truncating some of that re-diversification of large species as we took up a lot of the ecological space as large omnivors.


Suzanne 02.07.24 at 1:58 am

The main threat to birds and their habitats are human beings, who of course also breed and abandon cats. Cats live long lives indoors and in most urban and suburban areas they’re much safer that way, but it’s hard to say they’re living their best lives. We adopted our cat as an adult. She had never been outside an apartment before. After a few months it became harder and harder to prevent her from investigating the back and front yards and now she is quite comfortable outdoors and enjoys sunning herself, nibbling at grass, and pretending she might catch the birds at the feeder, which she never does. Once she was able to go outside she lost all interest in the toys that had kept her amused indoors and was no longer prone to the “zoomies.” She’s quite territorial and chases other cats away. It’s nice to know that if something unexpected did happen, she knows something of the area and would not be completely at a loss if stuck outside for a period. She does not wander, however, and I suspect that’s because she spent so much time indoors. If I was raising a kitten I would probably keep her inside only for at least a year.

“Leopards, in particular, absolutely love eating primates, and there’s abundant evidence that they preyed upon our prehuman ancestors. ”

Too bad for the planet they didn’t finish the job.


steven t johnson 02.07.24 at 4:18 pm

russell1200@15 is provocative but do the numbers, in human population and years, add up? Humans really taking up a huge ecological space is relatively recent, too recent I think to preempt speciation. It seems to me a reasonable interpretation of the fossil record is that while speciation driven by radiation into an “empty” ecological space (due to mass extinction) is relatively rapid, that’s in geological time. Humans as an appreciable fraction of metazoan biomass, is almost an eyeblink?

“Too bad for the planet they didn’t finish the job.” Perhaps everyone who pays attention feels this enough for it to be a funny joke, the way an apocalyptic fantasy where the vast majority of humanity is gratifyingly dead and you’re free at last, can be appealing. But there is an increasing tendency to wonder, kidding on the square?


Suzanne 02.08.24 at 1:26 am

@17: I was thinking more that humanity didn’t exist at all, at least not in any form where we could do serious harm to our fellow creatures and the earth we share.

In the first year of the pandemic we got an idea of what that might be like. The water cleared in Venetian canals and fish could be seen swimming while other marine life appeared or reappeared and ducks began nesting. In other parts of the world animal migration increased. Sea turtles began making a comeback in Florida and Greece, etc. While I certainly don’t wish for extinction or to become a cave dweller, it does seem that we human beings just haven’t been very good for the planet.


Cola F. Vaughan 02.12.24 at 2:46 am

Feral house cats and most of even outdoor domestic house cats have been completely routed since the coyote made their way here to the North Carolina Outer Banks; the easternmost strip of barrier island sand of North America. Other observations generally shared are that field mice are more scarce as well but song birds seem more plentiful along with rabbits. Go figure. Also bigger and stronger Bobcats are slowly becoming more common though still rare. How did the Coyotes get over here to the Outer Banks and down even to Cape Hatteras? Well of course they crossed over by the bridges thank you.


dsquared 02.12.24 at 5:39 pm

yeah I guess cats are cool, but … there is absolutely no globally endangered species of rabbit.


oldster 02.12.24 at 8:09 pm

“there is absolutely no globally endangered species of rabbit.”

“The riverine rabbit is a species that is in extreme danger of extinction. In 1981 it was first labelled as an endangered species.[17] According to the IUCN Red List It is now classified under the most severe category of endangerment (aside from extinction), which is critically endangered.[7]”


perhaps you were misled by the ubiquity of cheese and toast?

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