BOOK: Unnatural Selection by Katrina van Grouw

This summer, I – and a theater full of lovers of science – were treated to a talk from natural history illustrator, scientist, and author Katrina van Grow. At one of Portland’s Science on Tap evenings, the author of the popular Unfeathered Bird (Princeton University Press, 2013) shared all about her new book Unnatural Selection (also from Princeton University Press), and she did so enthusiastically. Illustrating and discussing animal skeletons is obviously a passion of hers, and it showed wonderfully in her presentation. I was delighted to buy a copy of Unnatural Selection from her. For others, this would make a great gift for the Darwin aficionado in your life!

Unnatural Selection (1)

The subject of Unnatural Selection, opposite that of Darwin’s “natural selection,” is the human-initiated selective breeding of domestic animals: the dogs, pigeons, chickens and geese, and livestock that grace the pages of this beautiful, large-format book. The publisher’s description:

Unnatural Selection is a stunningly illustrated book about selective breeding–the ongoing transformation of animals at the hand of man. More important, it’s a book about selective breeding on a far, far grander scale—a scale that encompasses all life on Earth. We’d call it evolution. A unique fusion of art, science, and history, this book celebrates the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s monumental work The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, and is intended as a tribute to what Darwin might have achieved had he possessed that elusive missing piece to the evolutionary puzzle—the knowledge of how individual traits are passed from one generation to the next. With the benefit of a century and a half of hindsight, Katrina van Grouw explains evolution by building on the analogy that Darwin himself used—comparing the selective breeding process with natural selection in the wild, and, like Darwin, featuring a multitude of fascinating examples. This is more than just a book about pets and livestock, however. The revelation of Unnatural Selection is that identical traits can occur in all animals, wild and domesticated, and both are governed by the same evolutionary principles. As van Grouw shows, animals are plastic things, constantly changing. In wild animals the changes are usually too slow to see—species appear to stay the same. When it comes to domesticated animals, however, change happens fast, making them the perfect model of evolution in action. Suitable for the lay reader and student, as well as the more seasoned biologist, and featuring more than four hundred breathtaking illustrations of living animals, skeletons, and historical specimens, Unnatural Selection will be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in natural history and the history of evolutionary thinking.

I’ve poured over the fantastic illustrations and look forward to diving into the text!

Links:
Princeton UP Blog: Katrina van Grouw on the 150th Anniversary of Darwin’s Classic Work
The Friends of Charles Darwin: Book review: ‘Unnatural Selection’ by Katrina van Grouw
Tetrapod Zoology: Coming Soon in 2018: Katrina Van Grouw’s Unnatural Selection
Linnean Society of London lecture on YouTube: Unnatural Selection: Evolution at the Hand of Man (and one from 2017 for The Unfeathered Bird)
Darwin Online: The variation of animals and plants under domestication (1868)

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BOOK: Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution

In February I came across an article about a letter written to Darwin in 1878 that discussed the color variation in a species of moth in response to industrial pollution. Turns out this was from the author of a new book all about how the evolution of animal species can be observed within urban areas.

Darwin Comes to Town

Menno Schiltuizen, Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution (New York: Picador/Macmillan, 2018), 304 pp.

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Publisher’s description Menno Schilthuizen is one of a growing number of “urban ecologists” studying how our manmade environments are accelerating and changing the evolution of the animals and plants around us. In Darwin Comes to Town, he takes us around the world for an up-close look at just how stunningly flexible and swift-moving natural selection can be. With human populations growing, we’re having an increasing impact on global ecosystems, and nowhere do these impacts overlap as much as they do in cities. The urban environment is about as extreme as it gets, and the wild animals and plants that live side-by-side with us need to adapt to a whole suite of challenging conditions: they must manage in the city’s hotter climate (the “urban heat island”); they need to be able to live either in the semidesert of the tall, rocky, and cavernous structures we call buildings or in the pocket-like oases of city parks (which pose their own dangers, including smog and free-ranging dogs and cats); traffic causes continuous noise, a mist of fine dust particles, and barriers to movement for any animal that cannot fly or burrow; food sources are mainly human-derived. And yet, as Schilthuizen shows, the wildlife sharing these spaces with us is not just surviving, but evolving ways of thriving. Darwin Comes to Town draws on eye-popping examples of adaptation to share a stunning vision of urban evolution in which humans and wildlife co-exist in a unique harmony. It reveals that evolution can happen far more rapidly than Darwin dreamed, while providing a glimmer of hope that our race toward over population might not take the rest of nature down with us.

Read reviews from NPR Books, Kirkus Reviews, Publisher’s Weekly, Financial Times, and interviews with the author from Scientific Inquirer and Chicago Book Review. Schilthuizen also appeared on CBS This Morning and in conversation with Isabella Rossellini.

BOOK: A Taste for the Beautiful: The Evolution of Attraction

On the heels of two 2017 books about sexual selection – Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection by Evelleen Richards and The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us by Richard O. Prum – comes another that looks at how “scientists have taken up where Darwin left off and transformed our understanding of sexual selection.”

a taste for the beautiful

Michael J. Ryan, A Taste for the Beautiful: The Evolution of Attraction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018), 208 pp.

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Publisher’s description Darwin developed the theory of sexual selection to explain why the animal world abounds in stunning beauty, from the brilliant colors of butterflies and fishes to the songs of birds and frogs. He argued that animals have “a taste for the beautiful” that drives their potential mates to evolve features that make them more sexually attractive and reproductively successful. But if Darwin explained why sexual beauty evolved in animals, he struggled to understand how. In A Taste for the Beautiful, Michael Ryan, one of the world’s leading authorities on animal behavior, tells the remarkable story of how he and other scientists have taken up where Darwin left off and transformed our understanding of sexual selection, shedding new light on human behavior in the process. Drawing on cutting-edge work in neuroscience and evolutionary biology, as well as his own important studies of the tiny Túngara frog deep in the jungles of Panama, Ryan explores the key questions: Why do animals perceive certain traits as beautiful and others not? Do animals have an inherent sexual aesthetic and, if so, where is it rooted? Ryan argues that the answers to these questions lie in the brain—particularly of females, who act as biological puppeteers, spurring the development of beautiful traits in males. This theory of how sexual beauty evolves explains its astonishing diversity and provides new insights about the degree to which our own perception of beauty resembles that of other animals. Vividly written and filled with fascinating stories, A Taste for the Beautiful will change how you think about beauty and attraction.

From the publisher, there’s a book trailer and you can read chapter 1 online. Read reviews from Times Higher Education, Kirkus Reviews, Publisher’s Weekly, Ars Technica, and a Psychology Today interview with Ryan. Ryan also appeared on the PRI program Living On Earth to discuss his research and book.

BOOK: How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution

I await a copy of this new book from my local library, but wanted to inform folks about it.

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Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut, How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 240 pp.

• Order through Powell’s City of Books • Order through Amazon.com

Publisher’s description Tucked away in Siberia, there are furry, four-legged creatures with wagging tails and floppy ears that are as docile and friendly as any lapdog. But, despite appearances, these are not dogs—they are foxes. They are the result of the most astonishing experiment in breeding ever undertaken—imagine speeding up thousands of years of evolution into a few decades. In 1959, biologists Dmitri Belyaev and Lyudmila Trut set out to do just that, by starting with a few dozen silver foxes from fox farms in the USSR and attempting to recreate the evolution of wolves into dogs in real time in order to witness the process of domestication. This is the extraordinary, untold story of this remarkable undertaking. Most accounts of the natural evolution of wolves place it over a span of about 15,000 years, but within a decade, Belyaev and Trut’s fox breeding experiments had resulted in puppy-like foxes with floppy ears, piebald spots, and curly tails. Along with these physical changes came genetic and behavioral changes, as well. The foxes were bred using selection criteria for tameness, and with each generation, they became increasingly interested in human companionship. Trut has been there the whole time, and has been the lead scientist on this work since Belyaev’s death in 1985, and with Lee Dugatkin, biologist and science writer, she tells the story of the adventure, science, politics, and love behind it all. In How to Tame a Fox, Dugatkin and Trut take us inside this path-breaking experiment in the midst of the brutal winters of Siberia to reveal how scientific history is made and continues to be made today. To date, fifty-six generations of foxes have been domesticated, and we continue to learn significant lessons from them about the genetic and behavioral evolution of domesticated animals. How to Tame a Fox offers an incredible tale of scientists at work, while also celebrating the deep attachments that have brought humans and animals together throughout time.

ARTICLE: Patterns of Infection and Patterns of Evolution: How a Malaria Parasite Brought “Monkeys and Man” Closer Together in the 1960s

A new online first article in the Journal of the History of Biology might interest readers here:

Patterns of Infection and Patterns of Evolution: How a Malaria Parasite Brought “Monkeys and Man” Closer Together in the 1960s

Rachel Mason Detinger

Abstract In 1960, American parasitologist Don Eyles was unexpectedly infected with a malariaparasite isolated from a macaque. He and his supervisor, G. Robert Coatney of the National Institutes of Health, had started this series of experiments with the assumption that humans were not susceptible to “monkey malaria.” The revelation that a mosquito carrying a macaque parasite could infect a human raised a whole range of public health and biological questions. This paper follows Coatney’s team of parasitologists and their subjects: from the human to the nonhuman; from the American laboratory to the forests of Malaysia; and between the domains of medical research and natural history. In the course of this research, Coatney and his colleagues inverted Koch’s postulate, by which animal subjects are used to identify and understand human parasites. In contrast, Coatney’s experimental protocol used human subjects to identify and understand monkey parasites. In so doing, the team repeatedly followed malaria parasites across the purported boundary separating monkeys and humans, a practical experience that created a sense of biological symmetry between these separate species. Ultimately, this led Coatney and his colleagues make evolutionary inferences, concluding “that monkeys and man are more closely related than some of us wish to admit.” In following monkeys, men, and malaria across biological, geographical, and disciplinary boundaries, this paper offers a new historical narrative, demonstrating that the pursuit of public health agendas can fuel the expansion of evolutionary knowledge.

BOOK: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (New York : Henry Holt and Co, 2014), 336 pp.

A major book about the future of the world, blending intellectual and natural history and field reporting into a powerful account of the mass extinction unfolding before our eyes.

Over the last half a billion years, there have been five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us. In The Sixth Extinction, two-time winner of the National Magazine Award and New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert draws on the work of scores of researchers in half a dozen disciplines, accompanying many of them into the field: geologists who study deep ocean cores, botanists who follow the tree line as it climbs up the Andes, marine biologists who dive off the Great Barrier Reef. She introduces us to a dozen species, some already gone, others facing extinction, including the Panamian golden frog, staghorn coral, the great auk, and the Sumatran rhino. Through these stories, Kolbert provides a moving account of the disappearances occurring all around us and traces the evolution of extinction as concept, from its first articulation by Georges Cuvier in revolutionary Paris up through the present day. The sixth extinction is likely to be mankind’s most lasting legacy; as Kolbert observes, it compels us to rethink the fundamental question of what it means to be human.

Kolbert has done any radio interviews and podcasts about her new book, including for NPR, Slate, New Books in Environmental Studies, and the American Museum of Natural History.

On a similar note – a new documentary, 6 the Movie: