Unnatural Selection: a book review

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.

KVG at TetZooCon 2018
Katrina van Grouw discusses unnatural selection at TetZooCon 2018

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.

Book cover

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.