Unnatural Selection

Today’s review covers Unnatural Selection, a book I’ve been wanting to get my hands on for a while, though it is somewhat outside the usual scope of this blog. In the first place, it is one of the rare books I’ve featured that is pitched at older audiences, rather than at the grade school reading level of most books I generally review. Additionally, while it covers covers evolutionary topics, it has very little to do with prehistory. So if I’m taking the time to cover it here, you know it must be somethings special indeed!

That’s not to say Unnatural Selection is completely devoid of prehistoric content, however. Van Grouw discusses “muff footed” pigeons (known for developing feathers on their feet identical to those on their wings) in the context of “four winged” dinosaurs like Microraptor, and whether these apparent atavisms have any implications for their extinct relatives. The image on the left depicts a wing above and a leg below, while the image on the right depicts the underside of the leg.

Author and artist Katrina van Grouw made quite a splash among natural science enthusiasts with the publication of The Unfeathered Bird, a superb and gorgeously illustrated book on bird anatomy. Featuring lavishly illustrated skeletons and muscular reconstructions in life-like poses, this book full of modern dinosaurs seemed right up my alley. The glowing reviews from such prestigious voices as Darren Naish of Tetrapod Zoology and the team at Love In the Time of Chasmosaurs only cemented my desire to get my hands on it.

As sometimes happens, though, I kept getting distracted by other things, and put it off for far too long. By the time I finally geared up to buy it, not only had van Grouw already released a new book, but she had also announced an upcoming second edition of The Unfeathered Bird, which, among other updates, would include extinct dinosaurs of the bird lineage! Knowing that van Grouw’s first book would soon become even more on-brand for my tastes, I decided to hold off on it for the time being, and instead decided to purchase her latest opus, Unnatural Selection. I am ever glad that I did! (Both Tetrapod Zoology and Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs gave this one glowing praise as well, incidentally.)

Unnatural Selection makes for some wonderful fireside reading.

Katrina van Grouw’s Unnatural Selection is an absolutely phenomenal work in science and illustration. While scientific interest in the origins of domestication is at an all time high, the actual practice of animal breeding and artificial selection has been and continues to be looked down upon by many professionals and especially armchair science enthusiasts. Van Grouw blows this perception out of the water with a fascinating deep dive into the nitty-gritty of various domestic animal breeds, even delving into the historical backdrop behind their creation. Her writing would be convincing enough on its own, but her ever-delightful illustrations really hammer home her arguments, and put on full visual display just how diverse and interesting the various forms of domestic breeds truly can be.

Katrina and her husband, Hein, both have backgrounds in museum curation, and Hein has long kept and bred pigeons, with the intent of figuring out the particulars of how certain genes express themselves in particular traits. This backdrop informs much of Katrina’s work, and you can really sense the passion borne of a lifetime of personal research and observation in every page. This is really the book’s greatest strength, as I can’t imagine how else a book so dense and detailed as this could remain so engaging and understandable to a layperson such as myself. I, of course, have to credit her illustrations here as well. The illustrations depicting the results of the expression of different genes on coloration were particularly revealing.

These pictures of finches and cats are each drawn from a single individual for ease of comparison, but colored according to how they’d look if certain coloration genes were switched on and off, demonstrating how there’s no one gene for a specific colors, but rather particular combinations of genes.

All I’ve said so far merely attests that Unnatural Selection makes for great reading, but it represents an important contribution to science as well. As stated previously, the study of domestic animal breeds has typically been largely neglected by scientists. While the origins of domestication itself may garner a lot of attention, the modern products of this process are often dismissed as mere maladapted freaks. However, the heart of van Grouw’s book lies in the assertion that breeding and domestication itself represent “not so much a ‘thing’ that we do to animals, but a gradual process of symbiosis in a world increasingly dominated by humans”. The entire arc of the book circles around this theme, and van Grouw makes the very convincing case that artificial selection is every bit as much evolution as anything we would see in the wild. While she does not make any ethical case for the propagation of certain breeds one way or the other, she nevertheless offers to anyone who complains “Look what humans have done to the Pekinese,” the response, “Look what flowers have done to the Sword-billed hummingbirds!” I can only hope that Unnatural Selection marks the start of more serious study into the “natural history” of domestic breeds.

I certainly can’t write like Katrina van Grouw, so I’m rapidly running out of ways to praise this book without resorting to lifting quotes from the book to help make my point for me. I’ll simply end on a bit of cheesy pathos. It’s been a hard year, and the last couple months in particular really got to me. I couldn’t even think about writing any reviews for this blog for several weeks. It was during that time that I allowed myself to simply let things go for a bit, and focused on nothing other than sitting back and relaxing with something I could simply soak in. It’s just as luck would have it that the book I chose to spend that time turned out to be as beautiful and edifying as this. When I said as much on my social media accounts, I apparently struck a chord with her, because she offered to send me a personalized bookmark. To my surprise, she ended up sending me so much more than that, as I discovered a whole care package upon my doorstep, stuffed with prints, postcards, and even buttons emblazoned with her artwork, further warming my dusty old heart! I’m elated to possess even more of her wonderful artwork, and I can’t wait to see what she has in store for the future. You can purchase Unnatural Selection here on Amazon, though when I did so the “new” copy the seller sent me had a completely broken spine. This reminded me I had been meaning to support local bookstores anyway, and so I re-ordered through The Wild Detectives coffee and bookshop. One of my favorite local joints, they happen to participate in Bookshop.com, a sort of “crowd-opoly” (if you will) of independent bookstores who have pooled their online storefronts as a means of competing with Amazon. Be sure to check and see if your favorite local bookstore has joined up with them next time you do any online shopping! I guess that’s about all for now. In case you haven’t already guessed by my effervescent praise, I am pleased to give Unnatural Selection a well-earned Dino Dad Stomp of Approval!

If you’re interested in more books discussing the topic of evolution, I highly recommend the counter-creationist volume God’s Word or Human Reason? If you’re interested in more of my usual children’s fare, check out my reviews of Grandmother Fish, When the Whales Walked, The Story of Life, and This World Was Made For Me.

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