Book review – Unnatural Selection

Six years ago (is it already that long?) Katrina van Grouw blew me away with her gorgeously illustrated book The Unfeathered Bird, which gave a unique insight into bird anatomy. Her new book, Unnatural Selection, again features her unique combination of accessibly written text and lavish illustrations. The book celebrates the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication. In this and in On the Origin of Species, Darwin frequently referred to the rapid changes that breeders could bring about in plants and animals to make evolution understandable. And yet, biologists and naturalists don’t generally hold breeders and their breeds in high regard. In that sense, Unnatural Selection also celebrates their work and knowledge.

Unnatural Selection

Unnatural Selection“, written and illustrated by Katrina van Grouw, published by Princeton University Press in June 2018 (hardback, 284 pages)

A book like this, of course, has to delve into the history of natural selection and Darwin’s ideas, though Unnatural Selection is not intended as a complete history of evolution. Over the course of several chapters, Van Grouw introduces Darwin’s theory of natural selection. She describes how he understood genetics at the time; akin to a process of blending, with offspring showing traits intermediate between those of the parents – remember that genes were still unknown. She describes what he got wrong; he incorrectly believed in Lamarck’s idea of inheritance of characteristics acquired during life (though the discovery of epigenetics has shown that Lamarck was not entirely off the mark either – see Lamarck’s Revenge: How Epigenetics Is Revolutionizing Our Understanding of Evolution’s Past and Present). And she describes what he missed; the idea of particulate inheritance where the hereditary units (we now call them genes) do not change in the process of being inherited, at least not as implied by blending. This is what Mendel’s famous crossing experiments with peas showed (see Mendel’s Legacy: The Origin of Classical Genetics and Gregor Mendel: Planting the Seeds of Genetics). Van Grouw also touches on some other complexities of heredity (dominant, recessive, and incompletely dominant traits, with examples of this in domestic breeds), and the historical discussion between proponents of gradual evolution by many small changes, or more abrupt and discontinuous evolution (saltation) involving occasional large changes.

Unnatural Selection internal 1Other concepts covered include mutations, the occurrence of comparable mutations in radically different organisms, different facets of selection working together or opposing each other and imposing limitations on how far animals can evolve in certain directions, and the effects of reproductive isolation, whether its island populations in the wild, or strict breeding programmes for official breeds. Finally, she deals with the process of domestication itself. This chapter predominantly talks about dogs and wolves, touching on the work on foxes described in How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution, reviewed here. Van Grouw favours the model put forward by the Coppinger’s of wolves living off scrap heaps and being tamed by humans (see Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution and Domesticated: Evolution in a Man-Made World), although she acknowledges that others favour the idea of wolves and humans co-evolving, with wolf cubs being taken in and hand-reared (see The First Domestication: How Wolves and Humans Coevolved).

“Van Grouw’s response to people complaining “Look at what humans have done to the Pekinese” is to exclaim “Look at what flowers have done to sword-billed hummingbirds!””

Strikingly, and perhaps not entirely uncontroversial, is that towards the end of the book Van Grouw argues for considering domestic breeds as something natural and as evolutionary success stories. This echoes the sentiment expressed in Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature is Thriving in an Age of Extinction, which calls for an end to the idea of seeing humans and their actions as apart from nature. Van Grouw remarks how:”there is not a “natural environment” and a “man-made environment”; there is just the environment”. Similarly, Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution explored how organisms are adapting to living in our cities, and Van Grouw mentions here both rock doves, perfectly at home on both rock ledges and high-rise buildings, and the various animal breeds covered in the book. Breeds and breeders are often shunned, their creations seen as unnatural travesties. But Van Grouw’s response to people complaining “Look at what humans have done to the Pekinese” is to exclaim “Look at what flowers have done to sword-billed hummingbirds“! Touché.

Unnatural Selection internal 2Enough about the text though, you will buy this book as much for its illustrations. Some 400 of them grace its pages, from small vignettes to double spreads. Anatomical details, portraits, skeletons, whole animals – the book features a mesmerising array of finely detailed drawings made from museum specimens, donations from breeders, or those that Van Grouw and her husband prepared themselves. There is plenty to feast the eye on (and to stop you in your tracks while reading). Princeton University Press has ensured a lavish production, and the book measures some 26 × 31 cm (the same size as The Unfeathered Bird, in case you were wondering, so they can neatly sit next to each other on your shelves). The book uses thick paper stock with only minimal ghosting (i.e. illustrations on one page shining through on the other side) that is coloured slightly off-white, giving the appearance of aged paper. The whole has slightly gothic overtones, the illustrations exuding a quality as if they are lifted from ancient manuscripts.

This book is indeed a rare marriage between art and science. Instantly collectable and giftable, it is an absolute must-read if you have any interest in evolution, anatomy or zoological illustrations. I sincerely hope this book is awarded prizes for the quality on display. Princeton University Press and Van Grouw have hit off a very successful collaboration that will hopefully continue into the future. I can not wait to see what she does next.

For the interested reader, my interview with the author was posted over at The Hoopoe.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

Unnatural Selection hardback or ebook

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:





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