I recently had the privilege to publish a review of Katrina van Grouw’s new book Unnatural Selection in Trends in Ecology and Evolution — but since the official article (available online now and in print in February 2019) is behind a paywall, most readers wouldn’t benefit if I shared the URL. That is unsatisfying not just because I advocate open access publication, but also because I want as many people as possible to know just how delightful the book is. Since it’s the season of giving, I am sharing here an unofficial copy of the review, and hopefully my words will inspire you to grab your own copy of van Grouw’s book, plus a few extras to share with your friends and loved ones.
Katrina van Grouw is immensely proud of her latest book, Unnatural Selection. She mentioned this during a book tour appearance at TetZooCon 2018, where she gave one of the event’s most popular and well-attended presentations, and also on social media, where she bemoaned the fact that her publication has not gotten much press. While these are probably common sentiments amongst artists, not all creators are as justified as van Grouw in lodging these complaints; Unnatural Selection truly is a masterpiece, and deserves to be both read and praised widely.
What sets Unnatural Selection apart—not just from van Grouw’s previous works, which also feature animals and art (1,2), but also from other books in general—is its subject matter. It is a book about evolution, but not about evolution as it is typically thought of, discussed, or studied: It is about the evolution that humans have knowingly facilitated (though likely without using this term for it) in domesticated animals.
Intended as a celebration of, and homage to, Charles Darwin’s The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (3)—published 150 years ago this year—Unnatural Selection looks deeper into a truth Darwin himself had only begun to appreciate: Selective breeding is evolution, and there is much to be gained from joining up the more or less distinct bodies of knowledge associated with these two concepts.
Enter Unnatural Selection, which recognizes boundaries only long enough to smash through them. For example, van Grouw references not only classic academic work (e.g., Belyaev’s canonical fox experiments), but also a slew of more obscure and niche studies from, for example, the poultry and pet industries. She also incorporates unpublished—but profoundly insightful—wisdom shared by contemporary fanciers. van Grouw and her husband even undertook their own experiments for the book, and many of Unnatural Selection’s 400-some (stunning) illustrations were produced using skeletons that van Grouw sourced and prepared in her own home.
This is one of the reasons why it is difficult to discuss the book without discussing the author: van Grouw literally got her hands dirty in order to research and write Unnatural Selection, and her earthy voice is strong throughout. She references her own and her husband’s experiences rearing and observing domestics, and shares remarkable viewpoints that stem from understanding both art and science—two disciplines with which the author is strongly affiliated without being entirely an insider. This is intended as a compliment: van Grouw has all the skills and comprehension of a dedicated expert in each area, yet also brings the outsider’s propensity to ask, ‘but why?’ and ‘well, why not?’ in insightful, fruitful ways.
The most obvious demonstration of her unique perspective is how well she utilizes skeletons—a largely unfamiliar sight to the vast majority of readers, including even a good portion of biologists—to strip away unnecessary complexities and get down to the bare bones (yes, literally) of interesting features and processes. van Grouw’s beautiful anatomical illustrations are as informative and scientifically rigorous as a statistical plot but also as aesthetically pleasing as the pieces hanging in an art gallery; it’s no surprise that the author sells both books and prints when she makes her book tour appearances, or that her presentation slides contain eye-catching bespoke imagery and animations to convincingly emphasise her oral message.
Indeed, given her interdisciplinary career trajectory, van Grouw is perfectly placed to communicate in a way that is conversational but also precise, confidently knowledgeable, and often poetic. It seems too easy to make a comparison with Darwin, yet it would be remiss not to; he, too, fashioned an illuminating and mind-changing narrative founded on a wealth of experimental evidence.
In between the lines of her excellent explanation of evolution, van Grouw uses this Darwinian rhetorical technique to argue a range of points that both scientists and non-scientists could benefit from examining—e.g., rigid scientific views are not amenable to the real world; a ‘scientist’ is not just someone who does science professionally; evolution is not just something that happens ‘out there’, but also within our very own homes; no species is too humble to teach us something new about nature.
However, perhaps the clearest message communicated by Unnatural Selection is that van Grouw’s brand of line-blurring and accessibility is exactly what is needed in order to communicate effectively not just about evolution, but about science in general. This was likely not an intended theme, but, nonetheless, the author has set a high bar for those that follow her—something else of which she can justifiably be proud.
1. Cook, Katrina. 2007. Birds. London: Quercus.
2. van Grouw, Katrina. 2013. The Unfeathered Bird. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
3. Darwin, Charles. 1868. The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication. London: John Murray.
Today I had the pleasure of presenting a session on public speaking to the University of Exeter’s 2018 iGEM team. This is the second time I’ve had the opportunity to work with these amazing interdisciplinary students and, as was the case last time, I was impressed with how passionate, insightful, and dedicated they are.
At the end of the session, after I’d run through my top ten tricks for public speaking, one of the students asked me a question about my second recommendation, ‘Be yourself’. Some background before I divulge her question: What I’d meant by that advice was, essentially, that there is no one way to be a good speaker, to be professional, or to be compelling. Therefore, no presenter should feel that they have to quash their mannerisms, significantly alter their vocabulary, avoid personal anecdotes, and so on. To constantly be monitoring and adjusting yourself in order to be something you’re not is to waste time, energy, and concentration that would, in my opinion, be much better used on the presentation you’re giving at that moment. I also think that being personable and ‘real’ can make you more accessible and allow you to foster engagement with the audience. I did, however, note that sometimes ‘being yourself’ means fidgeting at the podium or swearing a lot or going off on tangents, and perhaps it might be good to ‘tweak those little things’ so they don’t cause any distractions.
This was the point on which the student sought clarification. Where do you draw the line, she wanted to know, between the ‘little things’ and everything else? At first I tried to answer this with an example: I try to never say ‘uh’ or ‘um’, but I don’t rein in my occasional impulse to say ‘y’all’ or make a joke. That didn’t seem like the most satisfying response, but the more I tried to come up with subsequent examples, or a better explanation of the process I use to follow my own advice, the more I realised that this was actually a very profound question: Basically, Who am I? What makes me me? Which of my traits are inherent to my fundamental identity, and which are just bells and whistles?
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this question was asked by the only minority in the room, and as I stood there flailing for an answer, I realised just how very easy it is for me, a well-educated, white, middle class woman, to give that advice. However introspective I may be in my perpetual quest to know who I fundamentally am, and however challenging it may sometimes be to allow all the oddities of that person to manifest in public without worrying that I’m being judged, it’s still pretty darn easy for me to be myself without worrying about ramifications. That isn’t true for everyone. This week alone, I read a moving Twitter thread in which the author describes how she became ashamed of her Chinese heritage, and got goosebumps from the acceptance speech of N.K. Jemisin — a black woman whose work is inspired in part by the ‘structural oppression’ observed throughout human history — who received her record-setting third Best Novel Hugo. As these and other examples flashed through my mind, I began to grasp what a very complex piece of advice ‘be yourself’ really is–and the implications, both good and bad, of putting that wisdom into practice.
I knew I would not feel satisfied until I had an opportunity to properly acknowledge how justified that student was in pushing for better guidance, and to try to offer a more explicit explanation of, and expansion on, what I had been trying to communicate. It took me an hour to come up with the response which I have posted at the bottom of the page. I think is better than my first attempt but probably still falls short. I’m posting it here because I am grateful to have been asked the question in the first place, and to have been challenged to try to find an answer. I’m genuinely curious whether the question, and perhaps even the response, resonates with others–or perhaps you disagree and have better advice for the student; if so, I’d be keen to hear it.
I’m also posting my reply because the issues seems very timely. Just after the workshop ended, I got back to my desk to find this post on Twitter:
This blog on why there aren’t enough women at Birdfair is grim af
✔ It’ll take time to self correct so no point in actively doing anything
✔ Women aren’t ‘crowd pullers’
✔ Even women prefer to see men because they see them as ‘eye candy’
This was in response to a blog post about why a prominent birding event lacked parity of women and men speakers. Remember what I said above about how, as a well-educated white woman, I don’t face the same difficulties as some people in expressing my identity in public places? Well, that’s true, but even a privileged person like me can still face battles against discrimination, and, as a result, still be required to think long and hard about who we are and how we are and how we can ensure equal opportunities to unapologetically be those things. That is a freedom that should given regardless of skin colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, ethnicity, or any other of the endless traits that we use to label and judge other people.
On the one hand, these characteristics matter because they are associated with a diversity of viewpoints that enriches all our lives; on the other hand, they are totally irrelevant because, at the end of the day, human beings are human beings–and deserve to be treated as such–regardless of how you describe or classify them. It is, as I said in the workshop, ultimately just a waste of time and energy to focus on tangential things that don’t fundamentally impact the main message: We are all legitimate, we all have valuable insights to share, we all matter.
My (overly lengthy) reply to the iGEM students:
Right now we seem to be having a social ‘moment’ in which we are finally paying more attention to who is able to have a platform and a voice, and what message is broadcast when we all have this opportunity—and that’s partly why I think it is so very important to be your genuine self; this is a real chance to introduce some fresh perspectives and ways of being into areas that have been devoid of diversity for too long (STEMM is definitely still struggling to be fully inclusive of women, POC, etc., so iGEM is a space in which these are not just hypotheticals).
At the same time, I realize that some people have more privilege in terms of how much they can get away with when being themselves. I am also aware that ‘being yourself’ intersects with ‘reading the room’ and ‘playing the crowd’. Everyone has expectations, assumptions, biases (including ones they aren’t aware of, ones that are subtle, ones that don’t seem ‘bad’), and this impacts how they respond to whatever version of ‘you’ you put forward. Most of us are a bit chameleon-y when it comes to social interactions, anyway, and adapt what we present depending on whom we’re addressing and under what conditions (e.g., how you are with your best friend vs your teacher, or with your teacher in the classroom vs your teacher after you’ve graduated, and so on). There is a spectrum of ‘you’ that you pick and choose from, and this includes what you say, how you talk, what you’re wearing, how sure you feel, and how confidently you present yourself. Depending on the parameters of a public speech, you will have chosen in advance where along the ‘you spectrum’ you think you should position yourself, and then as you engage with the audience during the event, you can modify that positioning depending on the responses you’re seeing and the feedback you’re getting.
My particular area of scientific expertise is animal communication, and perhaps as a result of this I am keenly aware of the dynamics of different communication interactions. When you ‘read the room’, you learn to get a sense of how different people will respond to different things, and you can use that to your advantage. You might call this ‘manipulation’ if you aren’t feeling very generous, but I prefer to think of it as simply being pragmatic and using all the tools at hand! If you learn to predict people’s expectations and biases, you can deliberately subvert them for an impactful / dramatic surprise, or you can use these to your advantage in order to ingratiate yourself and make people more open to your message. Whether or not you want to do either of these things (or both, or anything in between) will likely change dramatically depending on audience, setting, topic, etc. I suppose I am a little Machiavellian, but my personal feeling is that if people are not introspective enough to search out and address these biases in themselves, then I shouldn’t feel guilty for exploiting them—which, I should add, I do not do in a supervillain sort of way, or very often (well, not consciously, at least). Some examples:
I conducted a lot of my PhD field work in places where grumpy rich guys didn’t want some hippie tree-hugger intruding. When I went to negotiate access, I was not deliberately, overtly ditsy or flirtatious (yuck), but because I recognised certain assumptions about women and academics (and the fact that surely someone couldn’t be both at once), I also did not go out of my way to flex my intellectual muscles or present as anything other than a charming weirdo who happened to want to watch birds on their territory. You might say I was a sellout for not being unabashedly scientifically rigorous during those conversations, but you would also have to admit that I greased the wheels for collecting an awful lot of data and saved myself a lot of time in the process, so…
I don’t really have much of a regional accent, but every now and then it shows up—for example, I might pronounce ‘tire’ as ‘tar’ or say ‘I’ve been workin’ hard’ rather than ‘I’ve been working hard.’ Where I come from, these sorts of pronunciations are signs of being rural and/or working-class, and are often interpreted as indicating ignorance. Might I relax my attention and allow myself to speak that way in the middle of a science outreach presentation or a lecture? Sure. In a job interview? Probably not, because I don’t want people to be sitting there distracted, wondering where I’m from and whether I’m just a country bumpkin. I am in no way embarrassed of being from the country, mind, but in the middle of a job interview I want people focusing on my amazing responses rather than how I sound delivering them. However, if someone in that job interview were to say something derogatory about rural or working-class people, would I continue to ‘hide’ my origins? No way. I don’t want any job so badly that I’m not going to stand up for myself or pretend I’m a bigot.
You might have noticed today that I have a tattoo behind my ear. The studio where I got it done tried to talk me out of having it there, and in fact they have a policy against doing prominent tattoos like that on someone who doesn’t already have a certain number or positioning of tattoos; that’s because often employers and others will make assumptions about people with ink like that and will discriminate against them. There is a very specific reason why I wanted that tattoo in that location, so I wouldn’t take no for an answer; I still strongly feel that if someone is ignorant enough to discriminate against me because of my body art, then they don’t deserve to have me anyway. I aware that I’m privileged to be able to make that stand, and I’m glad that I can.
These are just a few of many examples I could give. The point is that you have to figure out the boundaries of your own individual ‘you spectrum’ and then get a sense of how those boundaries may temporarily shift–or where within those boundaries you feel comfortable positioning yourself–under different circumstances. Once you’ve done that, you then have to be brave enough to really commit and own it, whatever ‘it’ is for you. (Oddly, this is advice my high school choir teacher used to give with respect to doing choreography during songs, and it’s true – even if the choreography itself is kind of lame, you personally will look less lame if you go for it 100% than if you just do a few lacklustre jazz hands. YouTube backs me up on this!)
The reason I have typed out this very longwinded response is that it can be difficult to commit, but real confidence and real freedom come from being able to do so–and, just to bring it back to the context of public speaking, this is also how you can differentiate and distinguish yourself from others rather than conforming and mimicking those who have gone before. I am 37 years old (!) and am still continually reminding myself to practice what I am preaching here, but I can assure you that life (and the delivery of presentations) gets easier when you get better at this. You would not be a part of the iGEM team if you weren’t brilliant, so even if you do need to tone down your gesticulating or learn to make natural eye contact while speaking, I hope you can see how those sorts of aesthetic things are just icing on the 100% brilliant you cake that is underneath (weird metaphor, but you get the idea).
The charisma that I found lacking in Jyvaskyla was on offer in abundance in Helsinki. Sadly, I only had about 24 hours to take in the sights; I arrived at 2:30pm on Saturday and needed to head to the airport at 2:30pm on Sunday, so I wasted no time in depositing my bags in the hotel room and heading out to acquaint myself with the city.
Although I generally dislike doing things that seem overtly, cheesily touristy, I find that bus tours can be quite helpful for providing a comprehensive overview of a new place while helping you get your bearings. They are especially handy for when you’d like to see a variety of places but don’t have time to squeeze them all into your schedule. Given that I only had a few hours before closing time, a bus tour seemed like a good way to do some scouting in advance of my longer free period on Sunday.
There are a few tour bus options in Helsinki, all of which use red buses. I have taken a number of City Sightseeing tours elsewhere and I thought that was the company I was booking with when I bought my ticket. However, in reality, I was getting a ticket from Red Buses, which visits all the same places using pretty much exactly the same route. The audio recording, though, wasn’t up to the same standard I have had on previous trips elsewhere. Maybe it’s just a Helsinki thing, and the same is true for the City Sightseeing audio tour, but I have my doubts. There were big gaps between anecdotes, and during the quiet periods we kept passing by interesting things that I would have liked to have learned more about; further, there was silence during those gaps (on previous tours there has been locally relevant music used as a spacer), so I kept wondering whether there was a problem with my audio port. Most crucially, the narrator mispronounced and misused words to the extent that it was sometimes difficult to discern meaning. I can see why the tour company would record someone with a Finnish accent–it somehow makes the experience a little more authentic–but I don’t understand why they didn’t do a better job with quality control for the messaging. Still, there were some interesting anecdotes mixed in with the confusing stuff, and the WTF moments added a certain ‘je ne sais quois’ to the experience.
After disembarking, I headed off to visit some of the sights that we’d driven past during the tour–starting with the Helsinki Cathedral, which was right in front of me. It’s an elegant building with a prominent position (both in Senate Square specifically and in the city more generally). It was designed by Carl Ludvig Engel, who had been brought to Helsinki shortly after Finland was annexed by Russia, and tasked with creating a proper capital city (which was, by the way, substantially smaller then, with a population of only approximately 4,000 people). Engel dedicated over two decades of his life to perfecting the cathedral, which wasn’t consecrated until 1852, twelve years after his death. On the outside, it may look very similar to other religious buildings such as the Sacre Coeur, but the Helsinki Cathedral is a Lutheran house of worship and is therefore incredibly austere inside. It isn’t plain, exactly, but there are few decorations and ornaments, and those that have been included involve no frippery. It is amazing how this alters the thoughts and feelings you experience while you are inside the building.
Just a couple blocks away is the Uspenski Cathedral, an Eastern Orthodox facility that, unfortunately, I couldn’t properly visit because preparations were underway for a Saturday evening mass. I was able to briefly poke my head in the doorway and catch a glimpse of some of its many icons. Although the building is stylistically quite distinct from the Helsinki Cathedral, it was built during approximately the same period and was consecrated not long after its Lutheran neighbour, in 1868. The red brick, darker interior, gilt decor, and large collection of religious artwork give it an incredibly different atmosphere. As I was leaving, I encountered an orthodox woman who had come for the service. Although I have incredibly conflicted feelings about ‘modest dress’, I did think she looked very romantically beautiful in her lace veil and shawl; because I never see such things in my daily life, I sometimes forget that people still wear these traditional forms of clothes, so it was like encountering someone who had stepped out of the pages of a history book.
I had a bit of a wander through the harbour area, where the large weekend market was just packing up for the day. The fresh fruits looked particularly appealing, not only to me but also to the many gulls waiting around to catch things that fell off stands or to nab food right off tables if the vendors let down their guard for just a moment. I also took in the Esplanade, a long, thin park where people come to relax and picnic in the sun. It is situated near a range of shops, theatres, and restaurants, so it’s the perfect place to stop off for a mini-break in the middle of a busy day out.
With that brief introduction to the city under my belt, I headed back to the hotel to have dinner. This hotel, incidentally, was quite a step up from the one in Jyvaskyla. It had its own cobbled courtyard and counted among its decorations a centuries-old tapestry. Sadly–tragically, even–the flamingo frescos featured so prominently on the hotel’s website were not in evidence anywhere I looked. I had so been anticipating a selfie with the pink bird art and was disappointed that this was not possible. What I got instead was front row tickets to a small urban common gull breeding colony, from which emanated an endless amount of territorial shrieking ALL. NIGHT. LONG.
Though this inevitably left me feeling somewhat bleary-eyed the next morning, I was still eager to get out and explore more of the city. I had two destinations in mind: the Helsinki Art Museum, or HAM, and the National Museum of Helsinki. You might think that I was going to the former in order to see fine art, but, no, I was only there to snap a photo of its main entrance:
I’d seen the HAM the previous day during the bus tour, which mentioned the museum but said nothing about the bizarre avian decoration outside its entrance; likewise, online research yielded no explanation and no photos featuring the, um, art. I can only assume this is a temporary installation, for which I am sure the residents of the apartments across the street are extremely grateful. If you are thinking that this building looks like an unusual place for an art museum even before you factor in the gull, you may be interested to know that this facility is called the Tennispalatsi and was originally constructed in 1938 for the 1940 Olympics (which were supposed to have been held in Tokyo but were relocated to Finland); it housed four tennis courts that were never used for their intended function because the Olympics were cancelled once WWII began. However, the building did finally contribute to the Olympics in 1952, when it hosted the basketball preliminaries.
After the photo shoot, I headed over to my second and final museum of the day. The National Museum is housed in a striking building designed in the ‘national romantic’ style–one inspired by the castles and churches of medieval Finland. It houses an extensive collection of items dating from prehistory to the modern era; there was even a temporary Barbie exhibit on display when I visited, though I didn’t have time to wander through. You start by heading downstairs to learn about Finland’s earliest human residents and then climb upwards to work your way through successive periods of history.
The museum is not only full of interesting things, but also laid out extremely well. For example, though there aren’t that many prehistoric artefacts to put on display, the exhibition is rounded out with drawings, videos, and infographics that provide additional information to help you contextualise what you are seeing; these are arranged so as to reinforce certain messages and concepts and help audiences really understand and remember the topics addressed through the collections.
(This–which is a video in which the sound is crucial–is one of the weirdest but also most wonderful things I’ve ever encountered in a museum. Without any preamble or captioning, it accompanied a display about petroglyphs. The text associated with the reproduction rock art stated that often the artists painted their images on rocks that had human features. That was the only context provided. There were four of these.)
I knew next to nothing about Finland before visiting, and though I am sure my current levels of historical and cultural understanding are well beneath those even of a young Finnish child, I do at least feel that I learned a substantial amount from touring the museum, and that what I picked up was the sort of crucial knowledge you would want to impart to a visitor so the they have a framework for understanding the country and its people. I got the sense that the museum was providing me with a lens through which everything I encountered in Finland was clearer and more logical.
Further, I found I was genuinely interested in everything I was learning. This is something I notice wherever I travel: No matter how little you knew about a place and its people beforehand, and no matter how unlikely those seem directly related to your own history or current life, it is almost inevitable that you will find something that connects with you personally, or that you have encountered in some fashion before, even without realising it. No matter where in the world they live, people are people, and we all share things in common.
One of the most impressive techniques utilised by the National Museum was that of housing entire structures within its gallery space. For example, there was a boxcar that you walked through as part of an exhibition on schoolchildren that had been sent to safety in Sweden during WWII; in a series of rooms showing artefacts from the 18th century, several were devoted to reconstructing an 18th-century house featuring domestic artefacts in situ; and my favourite: there was an entire traditional Finnish log cabin. This last example could be smelled before it was seen because it was the genuine article and, since cabins were originally made without any chimneys, it gave off a very strong campfire-like eau de smoke.
The National Museum also dealt with politics fairly directly, acknowledging Finland’s difficulties with successive external rulers (first the Swedes, then the Russians), then its internal struggles as it sought an identity as an independent nation, and finally more modern challenges associated with the economic crisis and immigration. It was a thoughtful but practical approach that showed pride in national accomplishments without minimising less savoury moments in history or straying into the realm of propaganda. I appreciated the blunt, self-aware approach, which allowed you to interpret the information in whatever way you felt was appropriate and draw your own conclusions accordingly.
I do not know many Finns personally, though I know enough people who do that I have heard all the classic stereotypes: The Finnish have intensely deadpan humour; they love vodka; their culture revolves around the sauna; they are very direct; they are quite individualistic; they’re all a little crazy (which is always linked to the long days in summer and long nights in winter). I have to say that I saw either elements of, or the roots of, most of these things, both while out and about in Finland in general and while wandering through the National Museum.
I mean that in an appreciative, kind-hearted way rather than a judgmental one. These are a people who live in an incredibly extreme environment, and although there is a decently sized immigrant population, many Finns descended from ancestors who lived in that harsh wilderness for generations upon generations and somehow managed to survive and thrive. You can’t achieve that feat without being at least a little intense, yourself. It is no surprise that the Finns are direct and no-nonsense, or that their culture contains extremes of both colour (I am picturing some of the more outlandish clothing styles I encountered on the street and also remembering this crazy article I saw a few years ago) and darkness (I’m pretty sure even lullabies are heavy metal). The people are shaped by their surroundings.
I know that statement is slightly oversimplified, but I do think there’s a lot of truth in it. And, while the Finnish climate–not to mention those crazy-long winter ‘nights’–is perhaps a little extreme even for me, I did feel an affinity for the country and its people. I never felt self-conscious in the way that I have in some of the other places I’ve visited, and my interactions left me with the sense of a kindred spirit. I have absolutely no idea what anybody was saying, though, so for all I know I was being made fun of the entire time I was there, and just couldn’t tell because nobody ever laughs.
In any case, the National Museum was an extremely educational and enjoyable experience and was a great way to finish up the trip (pun intended!). If you’ve only got a limited amount of time in Helsinki, I can’t think of a better way to get a good introduction and overview to Finnish culture in general. However, I would recommend trying to linger in the city a bit longer than I did so that you can explore some of the many other museums and cultural sites on offer. I’m sad I wasn’t able to squeeze them in during this visit, but I’m hoping to return some day.
In fact, though it won’t give me an opportunity to see more of Helsinki, I do have another trip to Finland coming up at the end of August. This time, I will be heading out into the wilds. Will the change in scenery alter my appreciation of the country and its people? Will spending time in the Finnish forest make me more laconic? Will I develop a love of saunas and swimming in very cold water? Stay tuned to find out…