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.
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.
The Darwin Archipelago: The Naturalist’s Career Beyond Origin of Species, by Steve Jones (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 248 pp.
Charles Darwin is of course best known for The Voyage of the Beagle and The Origin of Species. But he produced many other books over his long career, exploring specific aspects of the theory of evolution by natural selection in greater depth. The eminent evolutionary biologist Steve Jones uses these lesser-known works as springboards to examine how their essential ideas have generated whole fields of modern biology.
Earthworms helped found modern soil science, Expression of the Emotions helped found comparative psychology, and Self-Fertilization and Forms of Flowers were important early works on the origin of sex. Through this delightful introduction to Darwin’s oeuvre, one begins to see Darwin’s role in biology as resembling Einstein’s in physics: he didn’t have one brilliant idea but many and in fact made some seminal contribution to practically every field of evolutionary study. Though these lesser-known works may seem disconnected, Jones points out that they all share a common theme: the power of small means over time to produce gigantic ends. Called a “world of wonders” by the Times of London, The Darwin Archipelago will expand any reader’s view of Darwin’s genius and will demonstrate how all of biology, like life itself, descends from a common ancestor.
The National Center for Science Education has a free preview of The Darwin Archipelago: The Naturalist’s Career Beyond Origin of Species, here.
From Evolution: Education and Outreach:
Unearthening Old Data: Darwin was Indeed Correct About Earthworm Behavior
Judith Korb and Volker Salewski
Abstract Charles Darwin is well known for his studies on the expression of emotions in animals and humans and as founding father of the concept of sexual selection. Yet it is commonly believed that the various arguments Darwin developed about behavior were usually illustrated only by anecdotes and observations recounted by explorers, naturalists, or zookeepers, and lacking any experimental approach. Here we show that this is not true. In his last book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms (1881), Darwin mentions a series of meticulous experiments he ran to test his hypotheses about why earthworms plug their burrows and comes to the conclusion that earthworms seem to act in an intelligent way. His study can still function as a prime example of how to design an experiment for testing hypotheses. Only one part was missing in Darwin’s research: statistical analyses. We retrieved his data and analyzed them statistically. Based on these results, we cannot reject his conclusion as the statistical analyses confirmed Darwin was right. This shows that Charles Darwin already used a hypothetico-deductive approach, and he can thus be seen as the first true behavioral ecologist—a representative of a discipline that has been recognized for only about a hundred years.
A thought for Earth Day:
When we behold a wide, turf-covered expanse, we should remember that its smoothness, on which so much of its beauty depends, is mainly due to all the inequalities having been slowly levelled by worms. It is a marvellous reflection that the whole of the superficial mould over any such expanse has passed, and will again pass, every few years through the bodies of worms. The plough is one of the most ancient and most valuable of mans inventions; but long before he existed the land was in fact regularly ploughed, and still continues to be thus ploughed by earth-worms.
Charles Darwin, The formation of vegetable mould, through the action of worms, with observations on their habits (1881)
I wrote before about my son:
He will learn about evolution and how humans are not the epitomy of creation but just one (and yes we are unique, but so are all other organisms) animal in the tree of life. This is not indoctrinating a young mind, as some might suggest. Rather, it is teaching a young mind about his place in a world that could get along just fine without him. Earth is not ours for the taking, but ours for the caring.
Patrick in May 2008:
Worms, which to Darwin "have played a more important part in the history of the world than most persons would at first suppose"
In the Journal of Biogeography:
Four Darwinian themes on the origin, evolution and preservation of island life
Mark V. Lomolino
Abstract Charles Darwin’s observations and insights continue to inspire nearly all scientists who are captivated by both the marvels and the perils of island life. Here I feature four themes inspired by Darwin’s singular insights: themes that may continue to provide valuable lessons for understanding the ecological and evolutionary development of insular biotas, and for conserving the natural character and evolutionary potential of all species restricted to isolated ecosystems (natural or anthropogenic).
Also in the Journal of Biogeography:
Darwin’s Galapagos gourd: providing new insights 175 years after his visit
Patrizia Sebastian, Hanno Schaefer and Susanne S. Renner
Abstract The year 2010 marks the 175th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s visit to the Galapagos Islands. A recent paper by J. C. Briggs, ‘Darwin’s biogeography’ (Journal of Biogeography, 2009, 36, 1011–1017), summarizes Darwin’s contributions to the field of biogeography, stressing the importance of his natural history specimens. Here, we illustrate how a plant collected by Darwin during his visit to Floreana and not collected since can provide insights into dispersal to oceanic islands as well as extinction of island plants, based on ancient DNA from Darwin’s herbarium specimen.