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.
Q & A
Q. Is Unnatural Selection all about domestication?
A. No, only Chapter 12, the final chapter, is about domestication. The rest of the book is about selective breeding, and the book as a whole is about evolution. Domestication is the process by which wild animal species are transformed into self-sustaining populations of tame ones (that’s not the same as simply taming individual animals). Selective breeding is what happens after that, as those domesticated populations are gradually honed into more useful, more productive, more beautiful, or simply different, varieties. As Darwin recognised, the process is uncannily similar to evolution by natural selection.
Q. It's about time someone made a book about selective breeding, to expose the awful things we do to animals.
A. Husband and I are animal breeders ourselves, and many of the examples here are based on first-hand experience, so no—this book is NOT intended as a condemnation of selective breeding. Quite the reverse, in fact.
No-one would deny that there are practices that go against the interests of animal welfare, and I have discussed some of these in Unnatural Selection where I considered them relevant. There are, however, many emotive examples that are more complex and less black and white than public opinion would allow, and in these cases I’ve attempted to present a balanced explanation. Sadly, there’s also a public trend for the condemnation of many harmless and interesting traits in domesticated animals simply because they’re unusual.
This book is about evolution, and one of the central messages here is that these traits can, and do, occur in all animals—wild and domesticated—and might be favoured under certain environmental circumstances, of which domestication is only one. Like Darwin, I find this subject fascinating, and have endeavoured to present it in an objective way as just one more marvellous facet of evolutionary biology.
Q. What made you decide to do a book about domesticated animals?
A. If you've read the acknowledgements in The Unfeathered Bird you'll know that my husband, Hein van Grouw, cleaned and mounted virtually all the skeletons, took over all the housework duties and put up with me talking about the book, worrying about the book, and living and breathing the book 24/7 for several years. You'll also know that Husband (yes, I actually call him 'Husband' – he calls me 'Wifey') is a domesticated animal nerd who's been breeding birds his entire life. Well, Unnatural Selection was my way of thanking him for all his help.
In practical terms this actually meant that he's had to work even harder for me, for even more years—but it's the thought that counts.
Q. I’m not really that interested in domesticated animals. They’re just man-made freaks, aren’t they?
A. If you think about it, there are some pretty 'freakish' wild animals too—animals with short limbs, giants, dwarves, animals with an up- or down-curved jaws; there have even been wingless birds. And all these animals, wild and domesticated, came to exist in exactly the same way: by gradual selection on naturally-occurring mutations. The only difference is that in the case of wild animals these traits flourished in a natural environment, and with domesticated animals they were favoured by their human custodians and evolved considerably faster. The variations themselves are equally likely to occur in either environment. All diversity on the planet is a result of mutation; just heritable copying errors in DNA replication. I like to think of unusual traits in domesticated animals in terms of speculative zoology—as a way of revealing what forms wild animals might have taken if their evolutionary history had taken a slightly different turn.
Q. What has selective breeding got to do with evolution – it’s hardly survival of the fittest, is it?
A. It has many things to do with evolution; at many levels. Darwin used selective breeding as an analogy for natural selection in nature, and it follows precisely the same formula: random heritable variation + non-random selection = evolution. In other words, breeders produce more animals than they will use to breed from; every individual is different, so they select the ones they wish to pass on their traits to the next generation, gradually resulting in the chosen trait becoming more extreme, or more plentiful in the population. The only difference between natural and artificial selection is that the choice is a conscious one allowing breeders to use their knowledge of inheritance to plan several generations ahead. What I find particularly fascinating is that artificial selection has precise parallels with some of the more fast-acting facets of evolution in nature, like sexual selection or ‘arms race’ runaway selection. At another level, however, you can argue that even human environments are environments in nature, so the process isn’t only analogous with evolution—it’s evolution in itself.
Incidentally, ‘survival of the fittest’ is a very misleading expression and has nothing to do with physical fitness or strength. Evolutionary fitness means ‘best fitted’ for an environment. And the measure of that is purely in terms of how many viable offspring an animal manages to produce. So in the environment of a middle class family home a toy dog breed with a short muzzle would be considerably ‘better fitted’ than a wolf!
Q. I loved The Unfeathered Bird. I suppose Unnatural Selection will be a collection of anatomical drawings of domesticated animals?
A. I started Unnatural Selection with that intention. However, it very quickly began to evolve into something much more interesting. Selective breeding can result in many variations from the wild type of animals—not just in skull shape and posture but in fur and feather type and especially in colour (I think the sections about colour are some of the best in the book). I also thought it important to show the external appearance of many of the breeds that I talk about, as these are probably much less familiar and much more changeable over time, than species of wild animal and birds. The result is a visually exciting mixture of drawings of live animals and their anatomy that communicate the message more effectively than could skeletons alone.
Q. I don’t really like domesticated animals; do you have any plans to do a book about the anatomy of wild animals?
A. As it happens I do—eventually. But I have quite a lot to do before I begin that, and distant plans have a way of evolving and changing over time. But Unnatural Selection really is all about animals in general, not just domesticated ones, and anyone interested in wild animals should find it very useful. It’s not just about anatomy, you see—it’s about the way evolution works, and that applies to everything.
Q. Is Unnatural Selection an art book, like The Unfeathered Bird?
A. If you mean is it large format, richly illustrated, and beautiful to look at, then the answer is yes. However, I don't consider either to be an art book. Both have science—evolution and adaptation—as their central subject and although the science is presented in an accessible way, it’s not dumbed down in the slightest. The illustrations are created for the books; not the other way around. The take-home message is that it's possible to combine art and science without compromising either.
Q. Which of the skeletons in this book did you prepare yourselves?
A. Most of the dogs, all of the cats, the rabbit, and all of the birds were prepared at home by Husband specifically for Unnatural Selection. The birds needed to be mounted in the particular show posture (including historical show postures) for each breed, so these really required a high degree of specialist expertise which Husband has. There’s probably no-one else in the world who could have done these. Fortunately I managed to find all the specimens of large livestock I needed already prepared so we didn’t have to do this at home.
Q. You’ve hinted in the book that natural selection is a difficult concept to accept. Is this because you believe that Darwinian evolution excludes the existence of God?
A. It is, and I do, though unlike some evolutionists I don’t wield my atheism like a spear. I’ve spent a great deal of my life thinking very carefully about natural selection and its wider implications, and was devastated when it led me to the conclusion, about 20 years ago, that I could no longer support any personal belief in a deity. However, whether we see natural selection as a meaningless struggle for existence or something miraculous depends on our individual viewpoint. I certainly recognise it as the latter, which for me is as spiritual and profound an experience as any belief in God.