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.

Katrina van Grouw: Flight of the Peacocks

A peacock’s train is not its tail! You can see its real tail, lying flat against the magnificent fan-shaped train when it’s fully spread.

There’s something missing from my living room.

I know there’s something missing because there’s over a square yard of bookcase visible that I haven’t seen for years, revealing a lot of books I’d forgotten I own. The obscuring object, shrouded in cloth wraps, has now gone, and my books have re-materialised as from behind a stage curtain.  It’s a small step back towards normality after the domestic chaos that came with The Unfeathered Bird (and became even worse with Unnatural Selection).

Although the house is, and will probably always be, full of skeletons, saying farewell to the two enormous paintings—the diptych— that was created for the jacket illustrations of The Unfeathered Bird is at least a step in the right direction. As I write, the paintings are somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean on a one-way trip to America. Their final destination: the offices of Princeton University Press, New Jersey, where they belong.

If you’re not already familiar with the book, the paintings are of a peacock; front and back view. It’s an unfeathered—well, partly unfeathered peacock. One of the most frequently-repeated untruths about birds is that a peacock’s splendid fan-shaped train, bedecked with glittering iridescent “eyes”, is its tail. It’s not. Its elongated feathers actually originate from the lower back and rump. A peacock’s tail feathers are actually very plain things, just long grey-brown feathers that you can see lying close to the back of the train when it’s fully spread. For this reason I chose to leave the train and tail feathers onthe otherwise naked skeleton.

The idea came from a specimen in the collections at Naturalis, the Natural History Museum of the Netherlands in Leiden, where Husband was formerly curator in charge of birds and mammals. It was one of a set of now rather old and tatty skeletal preparations that included some feathers left in place. This particular specimen happened to be a white peafowl, which I decided would be a good idea so as not to detract from the limited palette used in the book.

Although the Leiden specimen provided the inspiration for the paintings, its posture, like that of so many historical museum specimens, wasn’t sufficiently accurate for my needs. For that we had to prepare a fresh specimen of our own. By pure co-incidence a taxidermist friend of Husband’s, a man named Bas, had recently acquired a dead peafowl that was surplus to requirements. The story’s quite an amusing one and is worth telling:

Bas was contacted one day by a farmer asking the price of having a dead pheasant mounted. He quibbled over the price but reluctantly agreed; only to turn up not with a pheasant but with a fully-grown peacock. Any taxidermist will tell you that peafowl are a lot more difficult to prepare than pheasants. Bas quite correctly pointed out that peafowl and pheasants were not the same price, at which the irate farmer (equally correctly) pointed out that peafowl are members of the pheasant family. The two scowled at one another for a matter of minutes before the farmer, accepting defeat, flung the dead bird at Bas and stormed off, never to return!

Husband prepared its skeleton in the required posture from knowledge gained during a lifetime of studying living birds. Like virtually all the skeletons in both my books, it was boiled down on the kitchen stove, bleached and dried on the draining board, and re-assembled on the dining table. This was also the skeleton that I used for the peacock illustration in side view, inside the book. For several months the two paintings, along with a very large easel, and the skeleton, formed a little enclave; a little ‘world of peacocks,’ circling the window, as I worked on them simultaneously; blocking out the light, filling the house with the smell of paint, and allowing peacocks to dominate the living room for the first time.

Inspired in my formative years by John James Audubon’s colossal Birds of America I have the ridiculous habit of producing all my artworks life-sized (I’ve only recently grown out of this since I’ve been producing illustrations of cattle and horses). All the skeletons in The Unfeathered Bird—the storks, pelicans, swans; even the ostrich body— were drawn to this scale, which entailed wrestling with easels in spaces barely big enough for even the cat to squeeze past, and all of the pictures have had to be stored somewhere in our very, very tiny house.

The skeleton used in side view in the book doubled up as the model for the cover paintings.

While peacock skeletons may not be that big, with the feathers on and shown life-sized, they’re enormous; too big by far to hang on the walls at home, or even to take upstairs to be stored. So apart from a few outings to be hung on exhibition, they’ve been blocking access to my living room bookshelves since 2011.

The paintings were done in acrylic, with paler layers underneath the darker brown surface. I worked in pencil on top of that, and scraped away the top layer of paint for some of the highlights on the bones, and added deeper shadows in acrylic. So if you look at them closely you can see pencil lines as well as painted areas.

On the ground, at the bird’s feet is a cast feather—a homage to the 17thCentury Dutch painter Melchior d’Hondecoeter whose splendidly animated scenes of poultry, waterfowl and exotic birds were always marked by his motif of a floating feather. I put these feathers on the inside flaps of the jacket, too.

I painted the entire bird almost to the tips of its spread train, but in the end chose to crop the digitized versions significantly for the book jacket, so as not to lose the details of the skeleton. I came frighteningly close to cropping the actual paintings—cropping with a saw, I mean—too, when I was faced with the problem of transporting them to exhibitions. Thankfully I decided not to.

The paintings’ first trip was to the picture framers’ and it was very nearly disastrous. Artists have a tendency to work on borrowed time and when it came to exhibitions I was no different. I had the diptych submitted for its first exhibition almost before it was finished and rushed the paintings to the framers thoroughly encapsulated in bubble-wrap without realizing that the varnish wasn’t fully dry. I peeled off the packaging to find a pattern of circular marks all over the surface, like a magnified newspaper photo.

You know how sometimes when things are truly calamitous you just stay unnaturally calm and collected, while you might over-react at a lesser accident? Well, this was one of those moments. The framer repeated in awe how he wouldn’t have been so cool in the same circumstances, as he scurried about the workshop finding rags to soak in turpentine. Amazingly with solvents, a hairdryer, and a lotof patience we managed to restore the surface to its desired finish. 

The first aid accomplished, we set ourselves to choosing a frame. I’m usually a person who knows exactly what I want when I go to a picture framers’, but this diptych was unlike anything I’d done before. Grinning, the framer disappeared into a back room. “I always knew the right picture for this would show up sooner or later” he called above the grating of heavy objects being moved around. “You’ll either love this, or hate it.” He emerged some minutes later with a splendidly extravagant white baroque moulding, several inches thick. I loved it.

Diptych on display. The peacocks were exhibited publicly several times and looked stunning wherever they went. Here they’re at an exhibition of artworks from The Unfeathered Bird.

The paintings’ public debut was at the prestigious Society of Wildlife Artists’ annual exhibition at the Mall Galleries in London. After that it was the David Shepherd Wildlife Artist of the Year exhibition at the same gallery. Then a series of solo exhibitions: at the Natural History Museum at Tring, Nature in Art, and my local museum in Buckinghamshire. They looked spectacular every time.

I had various offers of private sales, including one from a wealthy art collector in Florence, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted by the money and by the space to be regained in my living room. But it simply didn’t feel right to separate them from the context they were created in. As paintings they’re not, in fact, the best things I’ve ever done. But they’re the cover of The Unfeathered Bird—the book that dominated and changed the course of my adult life—and, for me, that makes them very special indeed.

In the idyllic world of daydreams there is a Katrina van Grouw Museum, established to preserve for posterity all the artworks from the books along with the skeletons and other specimens that were prepared exclusively for them. In that world, the peacock diptych hangs on the far wall to greet awestruck fans as they enter. “Are those the cover pictures?” they’ll whisper, “They’re so much larger than I thought they’d be”. “I can’t believe I’m finally seeing the real thing.

Sadly that world doesn’t exist and probably never will. But there was another option…

I am blessed with having a truly excellent publisher. No, I’m not just saying that because I’m writing this blog post for them. Princeton University Press has been marvellous. They’ve given me free rein to produce the books I want, trusted my every decision, and rooted for me every step of the way. They’ve shown endless patience, wild enthusiasm, and heart-warming kindness.  For a long time I wondered how I could possibly thank everyone. I could send flowers – or give some prints to individuals. But the more people I worked with, the more it seemed the entire staff was on my side. There would be bound to be someone I’d miss, and there are probably people who’ve worked on my books whose name I don’t even know.

Then it struck me that I could thank everyone, every single day, by sending my peacocks to Princeton where they’d be permanently associated with me and my books, and a permanent message of thanks to everyone who works there. Not just as a message to those directly involved, but as a symbol of generic appreciation from an author to a publisher.

Authors can be a bit surly on occasion. We work alone for years nurturing our ideas into tangible form and, at the end of it, when we’d guard our creations with our very life, we’re thrust into a team-work situation with our precious books in the middle. Perhaps unsurprisingly we can come across as rather defensive; resentful even, so I can imagine that working for a publishing company must sometimes seem a thankless task.

My peacocks are there to say that it’s not a thankless task.

If you work for Princeton University Press I hope that, as you walk past the two paintings in the foyer—and especially if you might not be having the best of days—you’ll look up at them and know that an author is grateful.

I, meanwhile—well I’ll be happily re-acquainting myself with all those books I’d forgotten I own…


Katrina van Grouw, author of The Unfeathered Bird and Unnatural Selection, 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.

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.

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.

Katrina van Grouw on the 150th Anniversary of Darwin’s Classic Work

“My work is now nearly finished; but it will take me two or three more years to complete it, and as my health is far from strong I have been urged to publish this Abstract. I have more especially been induced to do this, as Mr Wallace…has arrived at almost exactly the same general conclusions that I have on the origin of species…No one can feel more sensible than I do of the necessity of hereafter publishing in detail all the facts, with references, on which my conclusions have been grounded; and I hope in a future work to do this.”

Darwin bust

A plaster bust of Charles Darwin (a wedding present from a friend) in situ on our living room bookcase—a daily reminder of the man, and his theory, that is the cornerstone of this book.

 The ‘Abstract’ Charles Darwin was referring to here is ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,’ without a doubt one of the most influential books in human history. Despite being based on over 20 years of painstaking research, it was nevertheless —for the reasons given—written in a hurry, leaving several important questions unanswered. The most significant of these, and the premise on which Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection rested, was the question of how qualities can be passed from one generation to the next, and it was this question he set out to answer in the future work he alluded to in the passage above. The book was to be The Variation of Animal & Plants under Domestication and it was published on this day, January 30th, 150 years ago.

It wasn’t, I’m sorry to say, his greatest achievement. Apart from being overly long and lacking the focus and eloquence of Origin it presented a mechanism for inheritance that Darwin knew deep down to be flawed. He called it pangenesis. Every cell, Darwin alleged, produces minute particles called gemmules that circulate around the body and can be modified by circumstances experienced throughout life, eventually congregating in the reproductive organs prior to being passed on to future offspring. We now know, of course, that it’s not gemmules but genes that carry inherited information, and that because the genetic information in the sex cells—the cells that produce eggs and sperm—are isolated from the body cells, characteristics acquired during the life of an individual can’t affect them; at least not in any meaningful, long term, evolutionary sense.

So, to many Darwin fans, Variation is a bit of an embarrassment, representing his failure rather than his success. Even Darwin himself found the experience of writing it an ordeal. By the end of what he later described as four years and two months of hard labor, when his interests had already moved on to other things, he wrote in a letter to his friend Joseph Hooker, “If I try to read a few pages I feel fairly nauseated … the Devil take the whole book”!

Variation under Domestication is nevertheless impressive. It continues the analogy Darwin used in Origin comparing the selective breeding of domesticated animals with the process of evolution by natural selection. Darwin wasn’t blind to the fact that domesticated animals change over time. They evolve. (In those days it would have been called the transmutation of species.) While evolution in wild animals is usually too slow to observe within a human lifetime, changes in domesticated animals could be brought about, by careful selective breeding, within just a few animal generations.

Equally important, Variation also presents a remarkable compendium of reflections and observations on traits occurring under domestication, both made directly by Darwin himself: in his own pigeon loft and greenhouses, and from the experience of others. Darwin was an energetic letter-writer and kept up a barrage of correspondence with everyone, the world over, who he considered might be of use, from the loftiest stud owner to the humblest gardener. He socialized with pigeon fanciers among the erudite, and at the pigeon shows he attended in the insalubrious bird fanciers’ underworld of London’s Spitalfields slums.

Some of Darwin’s own skeletons of domesticated pigeons. Darwin kept fancy pigeons for several years, conducting breeding experiments and carefully comparing their skeletons in an effort to understand the mechanism for evolution and for the inheritance of certain characteristics.

Many of the collected observations, although familiar enough to fanciers, have scarcely since been given any attention by the scientific community. And yet it is undeniably science. And science, moreover, increasingly shown to be of relevance to modern understanding. Traits ‘discovered’ in domesticated animals have been found to help explain the evolution of similar characteristics in wild animals. The more we understand about evolution, genetics and development, the more our domesticated animals, and the people who breed them, have to offer. The difficulty lies in convincing the scientific community of their value. The more easily information becomes available in modern times, the more we shut ourselves off from what we think we don’t want to know, or fail to recognize that other social genres might possess the answers we seek. So much of the knowledge of animal fanciers would be of benefit to biologists, if only they would pay attention— as Darwin did.

It’s not every author that gets a significant anniversary coinciding with a book they’re already working on. I began my book, Unnatural Selection both as an exploration of Darwin’s analogy and as a way of thanking my husband for his help with my previous book, The Unfeathered Bird. Husband is a domesticated animal nerd and a lifelong breeder of fancy pigeons—not for sport or exhibition, but as a way of understanding the inheritance of certain traits. He conducts the same sorts of experiments, and makes the same sorts of observations that would have delighted Darwin.So when I realized that my completion date had a chance of coinciding with the 150th anniversary of Variation under Domestication the timing seemed too good to be true.

Throughout, my book uses examples from a lifetime’s experience of domesticated animal breeding, making it a tribute not just to Darwin’s accomplishments, but his style of research and writing. Darwin too was happiest when he was observing living things and carrying out his own experiments. They ranged from testing the effects of seawater on seeds in an effort to understand the colonization of oceanic islands to studying the senses of earthworms by observing their responses to different musical instruments. One of my favorites is his method to test the correlation between eyesight and hearing in very young kittens. Darwin had observed that kittens appear to be unresponsive to sound until their eyes have opened at around nine days. This was how he did it: (1) creep up to a nest of kittens, carrying brass poker and shovel, being careful not to make any sudden vibrations; then (2) bash poker and shovel together to make as much noise as possible! The kittens slept on, unfazed.

We recently watched our little troupe of bantams foraging in the garden. (Being Husband’s birds, they’re not recognized breeds but a motley collection of interesting genetic traits.) There were obviously a lot of good things to eat under the woodpile, but only the birds with the trait for shortened limbs could squeeze into the small gap—the others had to remain on the outside and listen to them feasting. Darwin’s conclusion would have been the same as ours: if food had been scarce, the short-legged individuals would have a better chance of survival than the normal ones.

Unnatural Selection was for me five years and two months’ hard labor and, far from feeling nauseated, I’m more proud of it than of anything I’ve ever done. Its purpose is to illustrate the scientific value of selective breeding and encourage those who turn up their nose at domesticated animals to view them with a little more respect. Also to explain how evolution works using the same analogy that Darwin chose and to suggest that this analogy is even more appropriate than even Darwin realized. And to be a tribute to what Variation under Domestication might have achieved, had Darwin possessed that elusive missing piece to the puzzle.

How ironic, that for all his copious letter writing, the questionnaires he sent out to breeders of plants and animals around the globe, and the extensive reading and meticulous research with which he informed himself of every possible source of useful material, Darwin allowed one crucial contact to escape his notice. For there was someone, at exactly the same time, conducting very similar breeding experiments to his own and with the same purpose in mind—someone studying inheritance in pea plants in a monastery garden in Brno… Gregor Mendel.


Katrina van Grouw 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.

As a special celebration of the 150th anniversary of ‘Variation under Domestication,’ Katrina be posting images, articles and excerpts from Unnatural Selection on her Facebook page ‘Books by Katrina van Grouw’ from today, January 30th, until Darwin’s birthday on the February 12th.

van Grouw’s Anatomy: The Unfeathered Bird in Scientific American

Who knew anatomy could be ‘sexy?’7-2 van Grouw

So says paleozoologist and science writer Darren Naish in describing the natural science world’s renewed interest in the field. But it’s not because Katrina van Grouw gives a ‘stripped-down’ look at avian remains; rather, it comes courtesy of stream-lined CT scanning and sophisticated 3D visualizations. Yet, Naish’s praise of Katrina van Grouw’s artful spin on ornithology in this behind-the-scenes look at her life and work is much more nuanced than all that fancy stuff. His article in Scientific American explores the all-encompassing passion of this world-class ornithologist, meanwhile loudly complimenting her new book for its precision in rendering every minute muscle, bone, and tendon of the creatures that fill its pages.

Naish doesn’t just jot down his observations from the sitting-room chair; he is given the walking tour, complete with a perusal into the eccentric couple’s inner- and out-sanctums. For example: Katrina and Hein van Grouw are proud owners of a muntjac deer skull collection, a business of ferrets (live ones, it must be noted), and an unsurprisingly vast treasury of mounted bird skeletons, all of which Naish ogles with palpable envy. In many ways, the home epitomizes the research executed for and presented in The Unfeathered Bird: brimming with ornithological insight and too full of artifacts to dismiss as mere decorative ploy.

“It is simply imperative that you get hold of this book if you consider yourself interested in bird anatomy and diversity, or in anatomy or evolution in general.”

Despite van Grouw’s untimely release from her position at a natural history museum, which resulted from her desire to produce the book, Naish commends her for transforming the inconvenience into a wonderful opportunity and looks longingly into the future toward her forthcoming book on domesticates.

The ethically sourced remains of dogs, cats, chickens and pigeons make the cut for the tour, but together, they’re just a small fraction of the never-ending plethora of both bizarre and mundane critters that comprise van Grouw’s professional interests; and we, like Naish, hope to see them all expressed thus in due time.

Katrina van Grouw is the author of:

7-2 Unfeathered The Unfeathered Bird by Katrina van Grouw
Hardcover | 2013 | $49.95 / £34.95 | ISBN: 9780691151342
304 pp. | 10 x 12 | 385 duotones/color illus. | eBook | ISBN: 9781400844890 | Reviews Table of Contents Introduction[PDF]

I have been waiting for this review in The Finch and Pea, and boy was it worth it!

When I first approached the editor of The Finch and Pea about possibly reviewing The Unfeathered Bird, he suggested I send three copies and he would ask his colleagues to assist him with a new experiment — a review in three parts. The review(s) have just now published and they were well worth the wait. Calling upon experts in three areas — art; ornithology; and, well, book-reading and curiosity–The Finch and Pea has created a lovely, intertwined reading experience that (fortunately) is also positive about the book being reviewed.

“Daddy, what is this book about?”

“It’s a book about birds. It shows you the insides of birds so we can learn how they work.”

In the “layers” portion of the review (though it really is the curiosity, good-parenting, reading part of the review) Josh Witten describes his 4 year-old catching a first glimpse of The Unfeathered Bird. Subsequent conversations ranged over ostriches at the zoo, penguins, finches, robins, and every other bird a 4-year old might want to discuss. But, as Witten describes:

A book like The Unfeathered Bird is more than pretty pictures and informative prose. It is a resource – a bridge – to knowledge and curiosity. What let’s that hummingbird hover at your feeder? Page 80. How does that vulture find the roadkill? Page X. Our lives are filled with everyday events that make us wonder, “How does that work?”; and we so rarely get the answers. What could be more compelling than those creatures that have mastered the air?

Next up, Michelle Banks approaches the book from an artist’s perspective, which initially makes her a bit skeptical:

I approached this book as a visual artist and a decidedly non-expert reader, and I will admit an initial bias against it. I love color. I was convinced that a coffee-table book of birds drawn without their feathers was like producing a book on ice cream that featured only the cones.

Though after a few days with the book, skepticism is pushed aside:

The cream-colored pages, sepia-tinted pencil drawings, and hand-drawn fonts give the book the look of a timeless classic….The book is full of visual delights. If I had to pick a single image that sums it up, Van Grouw’s rendering of an ostrich skeleton (p 229) is a tour de force, both exquisitely detailed and powerfully dramatic. The Unfeathered Bird is itself a unique specimen. While it’s sure to be treasured by bird-lovers, it has much to offer to readers who don’t know a grebe from a loon.

Lastly, Rebecca Heiss puts her hefty ornithology education credentials to work assessing the avian content of the book — the devil is in the details after all. Early on, Katrina decided to use a rather traditional system to categorize and group birds, a departure that Heiss describes:

Nodding to Linnaeus, the godfather of modern classification systems, van Grouw charges into the meat of her book, pairing species by anatomical features that appear to be common between the species. As it turns out, many of these features actually evolved independently through a process known as convergent evolution. In recent years, we have tended to reject groupings based on morphology in favor of grouping that reflect a species evolutionary history determined by DNA sequence. The old school naturalist in me, celebrates this throwback to the days where morphology was king and features were classified and compared based on functional similarity. Apologies to all my molecularly focused colleagues, but van Grouw’s pairings simply work for a book of this nature. It may be my bias as an organismal biologist, but focusing on functional similarity is the “right” way to organize species when your goal is teach people about the mechanics of birds. It also allows van Grouw to highlight the interesting and confusing aspects of convergent evolution.

secretary-birdWhich image most caught Heiss’s eye?

To me, the power of this section was represented by the Secretary Bird. An intimidating image of a majestic, tall, and powerful bird, glowering beneath overhanging “eyebrows”, dominates a page while the accompanying text details its unique hunting habits. Those long, powerful legs are not just for show. The Secretary Bird uses them to literally stomp and kick its prey to death. Of course it does. Just look at the picture.


The Unfeathered Bird author at Nature Live

Katrina Van Grouw appeared at Nature Live at the Natural History Museum. In this short video, she describes the audience she had in mind as she wrote The Unfeathered Bird.