Katrina van Grouw on Unnatural Selection

van GrouwIs Unnatural Selection all about domestication?

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.

It’s about time someone made a book about selective breeding, to expose the awful things we do to animals.

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.

I’m not really that interested in domesticated animals. They’re just man-made freaks, aren’t they?

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.   

What has selective breeding got to do with evolution – it’s hardly survival of the fittest, is it?

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!

I loved The Unfeathered Bird. I suppose Unnatural Selection will be a collection of anatomical drawings of domesticated animals?

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.

Did you always want to be an artist?

Absolutely not! Unfortunately I was so prodigiously good at drawing as a child that my teachers actively discouraged me from developing my real passion—for natural history. Every so often I rebelled and turned back to biology only to find that I was less and less qualified to pursue a course of formal study in science. Most universities wouldn’t accept anyone without the right A Level subjects. I only finally attended art school because there was simply nothing else I could do. And after that I assumed I had to make my living from producing and selling pictures. It’s a long story that really deserves to be told in a book of its own.

To be honest, nowadays I prefer to think of myself as an author rather than an artist. The drawings I do now are illustrations for the books, and are not produced for their own sake. It’s the collective work of science that’s become the work of art.

I don’t really like domesticated animals; do you have any plans to do a book about the anatomy of wild animals?

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.

Will Unnatural Selection be an art book, like The Unfeathered Bird?

If you mean will it be 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.

Which skeletons did you prepare yourselves, and how did you prepare them?

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.

Lots of people assume that articulating skeletons is easy. It isn’t. Ours are set up using a combination of wire and glue. It’s very time consuming and each skeleton takes weeks to do. The hardest part is getting the posture correct, and this requires an intimate knowledge of the animal in life. Then there’s the cleaning, and the de-greasing and bleaching of the bones. You have to be careful to get the ribs and vertebrae in the right order, and not to get the bones of the toes and fingers muddled up. I’ve seen far, far more incorrect skeletons than correct ones. So unless you want to devote a huge amount of time to getting it right, if you want a skeleton of your own my advice would be to pay a professional to do it for you. And if your mind is set on learning to do it yourself, you’ll find plenty of online sources. Different preparators have developed techniques of their own, so finding your own way is a matter of trial and error. As the saying goes: there more than one way to skin a cat!

You worked at the British Natural History Museum. That must have been really useful for drawing all those skeletons.

Actually no. My job had nothing to do with art. I was a curator of the bird skin collections (the equivalent to a collections manager in US museums) and my job involved sourcing and preparing specimens, looking after the collections, overseeing scientific visitors, data entry, answering bird-related enquiries, and the occasional bit of public engagement. I kept my day job and my personal interests entirely separate and never drew a single specimen in the seven years that I worked there. I finally left the museum when a senior manager forbade me to write or illustrate bird-related books in my spare time, as this was never in my contract and I wouldn’t abandon my plans for The Unfeathered Bird.

How did you get to be producing books like Unnatural Selection and The Unfeathered Bird – what course of study would you recommend to someone interested in art and science?

It was a long and convoluted journey and nothing in my employment history or education really made that much of a contribution to what I’ve ended up doing, though, looking back, the collective experiences add up and seem to make sense. The things that really make a difference are passion, determination and integrity. Every individual path is different, and no-one has the right to point anyone else in a specific direction. I would recommend following your passion, and listening to your instincts.

What medium do you use to do the pictures?

The illustrations are all drawn in pencil. Just a normal 2B or B grade, though I find that a harder grade works better for drawing teeth. I then scan the drawings and adjust the levels and colour digitally afterward.

Why do you draw skeletons?

Actually I prefer to think of it as anatomical drawing, and I began doing it – directly from dead specimens that I dissected myself – as a way of understanding the anatomy of birds so that my pictures of living birds would benefit from it. I draw them now purely as illustrations for my books, to communicate a point I want to make. The books are not collections of skeletal art – they’re illustrated science books that I approach in such a way that ticks all the boxes for me intellectually and creatively. I no longer consider myself an artist in terms of picture-making, and if I did, I would almost certainly notbe drawing skeletons.

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?

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.     

Do you make a living from doing books?

I prefer to think about my books as my life rather than my living. I work on them all day every day seven days a week, I dream about them at night, and put them before everything else; there’s nothing I wouldn’t do or sacrifice for them. Ironically, if I considered my books a job or a business, I wouldn’t be able to justify giving them so much time. Like all authors I rely on people buying books new, requesting books from libraries, paying to use material instead of downloading it for free, and being willing to pay for my time. No non-fiction author is in it for the money and when producing a book takes 5 or 6 years of full-time work, it’s very difficult indeed to earn a consistent income from it.

 

Katrina van Grouw, author of The Unfeathered Bird (Princeton), inhabits that no-man’s-land midway between art and science. She holds degrees in fine art and natural history illustration and is a former curator of ornithological collections at a major national museum. She’s a self-taught scientist with a passion for evolutionary biology and its history.