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!

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)


ARTICLE: Diagramming Evolution: The Case of Darwin’s Trees

A new article in the journal Endeavour:

Diagramming Evolution: The Case of Darwin’s Trees

Greg Priest

Abstract From his earliest student days through the writing of his last book, Charles Darwin drew diagrams. In developing his evolutionary ideas, his preferred form of diagram was the tree. An examination of several of Darwin’s trees—from sketches in a private notebook from the late 1830s through the diagram published in the Origin—opens a window onto the role of diagramming in Darwin’s scientific practice. In his diagrams, Darwin simultaneously represented both observable patterns in nature and conjectural narratives of evolutionary history. He then brought these natural patterns and narratives into dialogue, allowing him to explore whether the narratives could explain the patterns. But Darwin’s diagrams did not reveal their meaning directly to passive readers; they required readers to engage dynamically with them in order to understand the connections they disclosed between patterns and narratives. Moreover, the narratives Darwin depicted in his diagrams did not represent past sequences of events that he claimed had actually occurred; the narratives were conjectural, schematic, and probabilistic. Instead of depicting actual histories in all their particularity, Darwin depicted narratives in his diagrams in order to make general claims about how nature works. The conjunction of these features of Darwin’s diagrams is central to how they do their epistemic work.

BOOK: Darwin: The Man, His Great Voyage, and His Theory of Evolution

In 2011 I reviewed the The Darwin Experience: The Story of the Man and His Theory
of Evolution by John van Wyhe (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Press, 2008) for the Reports of the National Center for Science Education (PDF), calling the book a “wonderful window into the life and work of Charles Darwin, suitable for newcomers to the topic as well as those already familiar because of its display-like presentation and the illustrations and facsimile documents.” It was a large format book and came in a sleeve, its 64 pages and removable documents meant to be touched and poured over in a different manner than just reading a traditional book. While I still enjoy occasionally perusing that book, I am finding the newly published version for the Natural History Museum in London – Darwin: The Man, His Great Voyage, and His Theory of Evolution (London: Carlton/André Deutsch, 2018, 160 pp.) – to be a more rewarding reading experience.


While van Wyhe’s text is the same, I find the the new publisher’s presentation of images and documents to be more pleasant. The scans of the primary documents are placed on the pages, and are reproduced much better than those of the first version of the book. I highly recommend this new version for Darwin aficionados, and it would have been the perfect book for me when I first became interested in Darwin as a teenager.* Here are a few photos from inside the book:

* If I recall correctly, the first book I read about Darwin (around 1995), was Roy Gallant’s Charles Darwin: The Making of a Scientist (1972), because this was available in my high school library.



BOOK: Louis Agassiz’s Introduction to the Study of Natural History (Classic Texts in the Sciences)

A new series of books from Springer aims to publish important papers/lectures from the history of science, with supplemental information about the original author and their work. Of the five titles so far, one may be of interest to readers here: naturalist Louis Agassiz’s series of lectures given in Boston in the fall of 1846. It is edited and annotated by Agassiz biographer Christoph Irmscher, who published Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science in 2013.


Louis Agassiz,  Introduction to the Study of Natural History (Classic Texts in the Sciences). Edited and annotated by Christoph Irmscher (Basel, Switzerland: Birkhäuser Basel/Springer, 2017), 135 pp.

• Order through Powell’s City of Books • Order through •

Publisher’s description This book features Louis Agassiz’s seminal lecture course in which the Swiss-American scientist, a self-styled “American Humboldt,” summarized the state of zoological knowledge in his time. Though Darwin’s theory of evolution would soon dismantle his idealist science, Agassiz’s lectures are nonetheless modern in their insistence on the social and cultural importance of the scientific enterprise. An extensive, well-illustrated introduction by Agassiz’s biographer, Christoph Irmscher, situates Agassiz’s lectures in the context of his life and nineteenth-century science, while also confronting the deeply problematic aspects of his legacy. Profusely annotated, this edition offers fascinating insights into the history of science and appeals to anyone with an interest in zoology and natural history.

Given the high cost of this volume ($150), it is surely a title intended for libraries, so do indeed request your library purchase it if it will be useful to you or history of science students at your university.