Unnatural Selection: An interview with Katrina van Grouw

Katrina van Grouw, author of Unnatural Selection

After her incredibly successful book The Unfeathered Bird, Katrina van Grouw has recently finished Unnatural Selection, a beautiful combination of art, science and history. In this book, she celebrates the rapid changes breeders can bring about in domesticated animals. This was a topic of great interest to Charles Darwin, and it is no coincidence that Unnatural Selection is published on the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s book The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication.

In this post we talk with Katrina about her background, the work that goes into making a book and plans for the future

On your website, you write that you always had an interest in natural history, but that your talent in drawing made your teachers push you to pursue an art career, rather than studying biology. Did you ever consider a career as a scientific illustrator, something for which there must have been more of a market back then than there is now? If not, when and how did you decide to start combining your passion for biology with your talent as an artist?

No, I didn’t. There are several reasons for this; some a result of indoctrination, and others, decisions of my own.

There were two revelatory moments which brought art and science together for me and set the path for what was to come. Once when I’d rejected art and was sliding down a greasy pole into oblivion. And another, when I was an art student seeking direction. The first was at a zoo, and the second at a museum, and both were as vivid as a flash of light from the sky.

Even with art and natural history combined in my work, however, it was always in a fine art sense and never as an illustrator. I still don’t really identify with the term. Being an illustrator usually involves working to someone else’s brief and taking instructions from a non-illustrator about how the work should be done. I’m too self-obsessed for that! I lack imagination when it comes to commissioned work and can’t seem to generate much passion for other people’s projects, though I have the greatest respect for people who can do these things. I’m basically just no good at it!

Unnatural Selection intenal image 1You worked as curator of the bird skin collection of the London Natural History Museum. How did you end up there after an art degree?

How I ended up there is quite a long story. I do have a degree in art (two actually) but I also spent many years gaining valuable skills in practical ornithology that were precisely what the NHM needed; a combination of skills that was lacking in all the other applicants for the post.

I’d taught myself to prepare study skins and was good at it. I knew my way around the inside of a bird and had written a Masters’ thesis on bird anatomy (albeit aimed at artists). I was a qualified ringer who’d held an A class ringing permit for many years, which meant that I could age and sex birds accurately and knew how to take precise measurements consistent with other field workers. I’d taken part in ornithological expeditions in Africa and South America, so I had some first-hand experience of non-European birds. I’d worked in other museums. And I was a birder.

It’s a sad fact that one’s education often defines how a person is categorised for the remainder of their life, but self-taught skills, and hands-on experience can be worth far, far more. People often assume that artists can only ‘do art’ and nothing more, and that only people with a science degree are able to ‘do science’. A great many people are able to do both (though fewer questions are raised when it’s a qualified scientist who turns his/her hand to art!)

Unnatural Selection intenal image 2Your previous book, The Unfeathered Bird, took some 25 years from conception to publication, mostly as you found it very difficult to find a publisher. How did you manage to convince Princeton University Press to publish this book after so many rejections?

The quick answer is, because Princeton University Press is a publisher of vision and wisdom! (And no, they didn’t pay me to say that).

The full story is that the majority of publishers I approached had entrenched preconceptions about what an anatomy book should be and were unable to envisage anything that wasn’t a highly academic technical manual aimed at a niche audience. The book I had in mind was geared toward a much broader spectrum of bird lovers, including and especially bird artists. Additionally, I wanted it to be beautifully produced and aesthetically pleasing. So it wasn’t so much a problem of not being able to find a publisher, but not being able to find a publisher willing to think outside of the box. To answer the question: I didn’t actually need to convince Princeton –a fortuitous meeting lead to a great collaboration.

Unnatural Selection intenal image 3Your response to critics of breeding has been to counter their objection by saying “look at what nature has done to the sword-billed hummingbird!” which I thought was a sharp response. However, an animal welfare advocate might counter this argument by pointing out that natural selection can only push sword-billed hummingbirds so far. If this adaptation – the extension of the bill to retrieve nectar from ever deeper flower corollas – becomes maladaptive it will be selected against. Breeders, however, can select for traits that are maladaptive, because these animals grow up in an artificial environment where they are relieved of the pressures of natural selection. The shortened snouts and breathing problems of short-nosed dog breeds such as boxers come to mind. Obviously, if these traits become too extreme, the animals will not survive until reproductive age, but we can push them into a zone of discomfort and suffering through artificial breeding. What would your response to this be?

I’m an animal welfare advocate too. It’s difficult not to be when you keep animals and care for them every day. I too will freely admit that there are exhibition breeds in which artificial selection appears to have gone too far, resulting in health problems or discomfort. I can also appreciate that these problems might have their roots deeply embedded in history and culture and might be difficult to rectify without tearing down systems that would have devastating consequences to the entire fancy.

(Incidentally, the suffering of poultry selectively bred for the commercial meat industry is on a scale many thousands of times greater than the relatively low numbers of extreme pedigree breeds.)

The process of selecting out these physical defects will be a slow one and I think it’s important to support the work of breeders in this task. We can support them by trying to understand more about their world and by ceasing to attack them in gutter-press fashion with pseudo-scientific terms we don’t fully understand.

My book Unnatural Selection isn’t intended to voice personal opinions about animal welfare however. As the title suggests, it’s a book about evolution, based on and elaborating on the analogy that Darwin made between natural and artificial selection. For that reason I’ve discussed selective breeding solely within this evolutionary and historical context. It’s not that I was deliberately avoiding welfare issues; they simply weren’t relevant to the points I was discussing.

Unnatural Selection intenal image 4You write that the work on Unnatural Selection took six years of full-time work, around the clock. How long do you typically take to complete an illustration? And how do you manage to support yourself during this period, do you have freelance illustrations assignments on the side?

If I’m in-practice I can usually complete a full-page illustration in two or three days. There are 425 illustrations in Unnatural Selection, not forgetting the 84,000 words of text (somehow people always forget the text…). Not to mention thousands of hours’ research and background reading. Working like this is all-consuming, and definitely very unhealthy.

The fact is that non-fiction books taking so long to produce will never, ever, pay for themselves. Luckily Husband works full time, so we don’t actually starve, though I’d prefer to be able to contribute more financially to the household.

I would love to supplement my books with a part time job, but it certainly wouldn’t be illustrating! I dislike illustrating for other authors. I actually get far more pleasure from writing and I’m equally good at it, though this side of me is unfortunately often eclipsed by the artwork.

People talk in airy-fairy terms about the freedom and personal reward of being an artist transcending material gain, but it’s not like that at all. It’s not the actual poverty that’s damaging, but the feeling of inadequacy you get from working so hard, with such integrity, for so long, yet making no money.

The things that make it worthwhile are making those books exist at the end of it all, and having people tell me how grateful they are.

Unnatural Selection intenal image 5With two books now published by Princeton University Press, you seem to have started a very successful collaboration. How has the reception of this book been so far? Have you received nominations for prizes?

Boy, I’d love to win a prize! It’s still early days yet, so I’m ever-hopeful. To be honest though, I suspect I’m not the sort of person who wins prizes. Prizes seem to be dished out to academics and people whose career has been rather more conventional than mine. Like my books, I rather defy taxonomy and, even though we communicate science exceedingly well, few institutions would be brave enough to award a science writing prize to a self-taught scientist.

That’s not to say that we’re unpopular; quite the opposite. I’m proud to say that The Unfeathered Bird was embraced by a huge range of people: birders, naturalists, painters, sculptors, taxidermists, poets, mask makers, puppeteers, aviators, falconers, bibliophiles, palaeontologists, zookeepers, creature-designers and animatronics-people, academic biologists and vets! The pictures have been used in a trendy Berlin cocktail bar, on Diesel t-shirts, and tattooed onto several people’s bodies, and I get very genuine letters of thanks from all manner of people, from university professors and 12-year old boys and girls.

Unnatural Selection is a far better book than The Unfeathered Bird. It has better art and better science and, unlike The Unfeathered Bird in which the images take the lead, Unnatural Selection is very much led by good scientific and historical text, with the images serving solely to illuminate and enhance what’s being said. Everyone who’s seen it so far says it’s stunning, and the reviews have all been excellent. I hope the scientific community will take it seriously and not dismiss it as merely a quaint and witty book with good pictures. It’s so much more than that.

Unnatural Selection intenal image 6Will you continue to work on more books in the future? And are you already willing to reveal what you are working on next?

In answer to your first question: definitely—though if you’d asked me that toward the end of The Unfeathered Bird I would probably have said no. That book was supposed to have been a one-off, and I’d been looking forward to resuming work as an artist afterwards. However, when the time came I found that I’d moved on. Producing pictures for their own sake no longer ‘did it for me’. Books, on the other hand tick all the boxes: creatively, intellectually; at every level.

It’s important to understand that these are not ‘art books’—they’re not collections of artwork made into a book. The book itself is the work of art, not the individual illustrations. They’re science books nevertheless. For me the challenge is communicating science in the best possible way and finding just the right unique angle for each book. I’m especially proud of Unnatural Selection which I think is the finest and most original thing I’ve ever created.

Unfortunately, large illustrated books take many years to produce so I probably won’t have sufficient time left to bring more than two or maybe three more into existence. After all, I’m no spring chicken.

I’ve already signed a contract with Princeton and begun work on a greatly expanded second edition of The Unfeathered Bird. The new book will have 400 pages (that’s 96 more than the first edition) and will include a lot of new material on bird evolution from feathered dinosaurs (which of course will be unfeathered feathered dinosaurs, if you see what I mean). There’ll be lots of new and replacement illustrations and the text will be completely re-written. The science will be better, but the book will still accessible to anyone and devoid of jargon. However, this shouldn’t put people off buying the original version—the new edition will be virtually a different book.

I’m also intending to write an autobiography/memoir type book focusing on the relationship between art, science, and illustration, and will be looking for a publisher for that. This won’t be illustrated though, so it would be a comparatively quick one!

Unnatural Selection has been published in June 2018 and is currently on offer for £26.99 (RRP £34.99).


Vaquita: An interview with Brooke Bessesen

Brooke Bessesen, author of Vaquita

In Vaquita: Science, Politics, and Crime in the Sea of Cortez, author Brooke Bessesen takes us on a journey to Mexico’s Upper Gulf region to uncover the story behind the world’s most endangered marine mammal. Through interviews with townspeople, fishermen, scientists, and activists, she teases apart a complex story filled with villains and heroes, a story whose outcome is unclear.

In this post we chat with Brooke about her investigations in Mexico, local and international efforts to save the vaquita and the current status of this diminutive porpoise.

The vaquita entered the collective imagination (or at least, my imagination) when it became world news somewhere in 2017 and there was talk of trying to catch the last remaining individuals, something which you describe at the end of your story. Going back to the beginning though, how did you cross the path of this little porpoise?

I first heard about vaquita during a visit to CEDO, an educational research station in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico. I was enchanted to discover this beautiful little porpoise was endemic to the Upper Gulf of California, mere hours south of my home, yet saddened to learn it was already critically endangered. I still have the t-shirt I bought that day to support vaquita conservation. That was 2008 when the population estimate was 245.

The last update I could find was an interview in March 2018 on Mongabay with Andrea Crosta, director of the international wildlife trade watchdog group Elephant Action League. He mentioned there might be only a dozen vaquita left. Do you know what the situation is like now?

The last official population estimate was <30, but that was from 2016. With an annual rate of decline upwards of 50 percent, the number is surely much lower. If only we were able to watch the numbers go down in real time, we would all be forced to emotionally experience this sickening loss. But I think there is a (legitimate) fear that if an updated estimate revealed the number to be in or near single digits, key institutions might announce the species a lost cause and pull up stakes. If pecuniary support disappears, it’s game-over. Vaquita has graced the planet for millions of years—we cannot give up the battle to prevent its extinction so long as any number remain.

Once your investigation on the ground in Mexico gets going, tensions quickly run high. This is where conservation clashes with the hard reality of humans trying to make a living. Corruption, intimidation and threats are not uncommon. Was there ever a point that you were close to pulling out because the situation became too dangerous?

Truth told, my nerves were prickling from start to finish. The emotional fatigue was intense. But having witnessed the gruesome death of Ps2 [the designation given one of the Vaquita carcasses that washed up, ed.], I simply could not turn back. Then as the humanitarian crisis became clear and I was meeting families struggling to raise children in the fray, I was even more committed to telling this story. When courage wavered, I only had to remind myself of the host of social scientists, biologists, activists, and law-abiding fishermen working so bravely for the cause.

You describe a widespread indifference to the vaquita. I have the feeling a lot of this is cultural. Do you think a change in attitude can ever be effected? Or is the combination of poverty and the need to make a living completely at loggerheads with this?

I see two main obstacles to solving the vaquita crisis: corruption and poverty. In that order, because until local citizens can trust their military and police officers to rightfully enforce law, and until Pesca [Mexico’s National Fisheries Institute and its National Commission of Aquaculture and Fisheries, ed.] authorizes legal, sustainable fishing methods instead of providing loopholes for poachers, there will be no economic stability in the region. Money is pouring into the pockets of crime bosses while upstanding folks barely get by. Focused on either greed or survival, nobody has much capacity to care about porpoise conservation. That said, I do believe change can be effected. Several NGOs are already connecting with the communities in meaningful ways, and mind-sets are slowly shifting. If Mexico’s president-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who goes by the nickname Amlo, manages to abolish corruption as he has promised to do, civic finances will balance out and efforts to care for vaquita will find better footing.

As the story progresses, more and more foreign interests enter this story. Sea Shepherd starts patrolling the waters, and Leonardo DiCaprio also gets involved, signing a memorandum of understanding with the Mexican president to try and turn the tide. What was the reaction of Mexicans on the ground to this kind of foreign involvement? Are we seen as sentimental, spoiled, rich Westerners who can afford unrealistic attitudes?

Since the majority of environmentalists working in the Upper Gulf are Mexican, and even Leonardo DiCaprio had the alliance of Carlos Slim, the socio-political divide does not seem to be so much between nationalists and foreigners as between fishermen and environmentalists. Fishermen who openly expressed distain for “outsiders” disrupting business meant Sea Shepherd, for sure, but they also meant scientists and conservationists from places like Mexico City, Ensenada, and La Paz. Some of the locals I spoke with or followed on Facebook did seem troubled by the amount of resources being spent on vaquita while their own human families suffered. They felt the environmentalists were not appreciating the strain and fear of their jobless circumstances. Then again, a good percentage voiced gratitude for the efforts being made to protect vaquita as a national treasure and seemed to feel part of an important crusade for their country and their community.

Related to this, the West has outsourced the production of many things to countries overseas and so many of us are far removed from the harmful impact that our desire for food and stuff has on the environment. Deforestation in the Amazon to graze livestock for hamburgers is one such long-distance connection that comes to mind. The vaquita has also suffered from the impact of shrimp trawlers. No doubt many who shed tears over the vaquita will happily gorge themselves on said shrimps without ever making the link. Do you think that globalisation has in that regard served to polarise the debate where wildlife and nature conservation is concerned?

Yes, this is a really important point. It’s easy to point fingers, but we are all complicit in the destruction of ocean life. Anyone who eats fish or shrimp caught in gillnets—or trawls, or longlines—is funding the slaughter of cetaceans and sea turtles and myriad other animals. It’s a painful truth. The root of the problem is that most of us don’t know, and don’t care to ask, where the seafood on our dinner plate came from. This is not intended to be accusatory, as I, too, am finding my way in this era of culinary disconnect. I just know the first step is to quit pretending we are bystanders.

One side of the story I found missing from your book was that of the demand for totoaba swim bladders in China. I imagine it might have been too dangerous or time-consuming (or both) to expand your investigation to China as well. How important and how feasible do you think it is to tackle the problem from that side? Without a demand for totoaba bladders, the vaquita wouldn’t face the threats of gillnets after all.

I think it’s imperative to attack the totoaba trade from the consumer side, with the goal of systematically eliminating the demand for swim bladders. As for feasibility, I’m less confident. Time and distance prevented me from effectively researching the situation in China, but from what I’ve read, the cultural, political, and economic trappings there are just as complicated as they are in Mexico. I’m pleased to know efforts are underway. It also must be said, though, that ending the totoaba trade is not a sure-fire resolution for vaquita because fishermen in the Upper Gulf traditionally use gillnets for a range of legal fish.

With the book now written, are you still involved in efforts to protect the vaquita?

Knowing what I know now, it’s unthinkable to walk away from vaquita. I was down in San Felipe last month, exchanging summer c-pods and catching up on the latest news. Everyone is nurturing the flicker of hope that Amlo will take action to save his national marine mammal by cleaning up the corruption that has stymied vaquita conservation.

Vaquita: Science, Politics, and Crime in the Sea of Cortez is due for publication in September 2018 and is currently available at the pre-publication price of £19.99 (RRP £22.99).


Seeds of Science: An interview with Mark Lynas

photo of Mark Lynas
Mark Lynas

Mark Lynas is an author, journalist and environmental activist. He has previously written books on climate change (including High Tide: News from a Warming World and Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet) and the Anthropocene (The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans). A one-time anti-GMO activist, Mark changed his mind on genetically modified organisms while researching his books on climate change. Seeds of Science: Why We Got it so Wrong on GMOs chronicles Mark’s conversion and examines the widespread opposition to GMOs and the damage this is doing. I contacted Mark to talk more with him about GMOs, and about his new title, which is published this week.

We have been domesticating crops for millennia, and you write that radiation is an accepted method to induce genetic mutations. Such plants can even be labelled “organic”. Effectively, there is a continuum from very crude tools (domestication) to more precise ones nowadays to achieve the same end goal: plants with traits that we desire. Why has recombinant DNA technology been singled out by activists?

I think that if mutagenesis by radiation were invented tomorrow, Friends of the Earth would be up in arms. I suspect that it really is a matter of grandfathering with these kinds of technologies. The newer ones get opposed because they seem too new, for want of a better way of putting it, too innovative and too artificial, whereas we are comfortable with the older ones because they have always been there. As I say in the book, your pet dog is genetically modified from the original wolf, otherwise you would not let it anywhere near your children. But if a scientist in a labcoat were to propose to genetically modify a wolf directly in the laboratory, in order to give it a pug nose and make it unable to breathe properly, I am sure there would be all kinds of hullabaloo. So, it is about being comfortable with something that has become traditional, which maybe was innovative decades or centuries ago, but has become part of our established normality.

These things are socially constructed debates, they are not really a result of scientific innovation directly, they are a result of interest groups deciding that they are opposed to specific innovations for specific reasons. So, there has not been any significant opposition to the use of genetically modified bacteria or micro-organisms to produce insulin for diabetics, or rennet for cheese, or multiple other biotechnological applications. It is very much about opposition to some kind of perceived adulteration of the purity and authenticity of food, especially because food has got such powerful cultural and deeply political meaning.

I would include seeds in that as well. So, the concept of the seed is a very politically significant one. The idea that farmers must control seeds, that seeds are a kind of inherited genetic common property that have been enclosed and privatised by corporations – for people with particular political views these are very powerful concerns.

Effectively, we have been consuming GMOs for millennia, ever since we started eating domesticated plants, with no ill effect on our health. Has the health scare not wasted tremendous amounts of time and money in unnecessary research that, as we could have known beforehand, showed that there is no danger to consuming GMOs?

The health scare is something I was never involved in promoting. Looking back at the things I wrote, I alluded to it a couple of times, but it certainly was never a central concern.

As I explain the book, realising there was a scientific consensus on GMO safety which was equivalent to the consensus on climate change was a big part of why I changed my mind. While I do not claim that science can answer all of the political and economical questions, if we could all at least agree that this technique is as safe as any other, and probably safer in terms of changing crop genetics to be honest, then we can move on to talk about the other topics sensibly. But so long as you have got activists out there, particularly in developing countries, spreading rumours and myths about GMOs causing cancer and sterility then I think that that is so objectionable that it has to be opposed directly, just as we do with anti-vaccine campaigners which are out there doing real damage to public health.

So, do you think that the argument that we have been eating animals and plants that have been genetically modified through domestication with no ill harm is one that will resonate with activists?

No, because it is not about the facts. You can present evidence until you are blue in the face, but that hardly changes anybody’s minds. You have to look at why there is this opposition, and the reason it has persisted for so long is that is has become an article of faith for a lot of people with a particular ideological bias. And that is not just on the left. Yes, there is an anti-corporate aspect to this, but it is also found on the right. It has recently come to light that the Russians have been promoting anti-GMO memes as a way of undermining public trust and the integrity of Western science. And you can see it from the extreme right in France: Le Pen is anti-Monsanto and anti-GMO. The same goes for the far-right and the far-left in Italy. It has become a kind of populist rallying cry which can be put in the context of this wider loss of trust in elites and intellectual expertise generally, which is a story of our modern times. It saddens me that the environmental movement is part of this shift towards post-truth, at least in the GMO sense, but it just goes to show that it is not resulting from any singular political perspective

In the Q&A session of your 2013 talk at the Oxford Farming Conference, you mention that the opposition to GMOs is effectively a proxy war against modern agricultural methods.  Why do people not make a distinction between the tool (genetic modification) and the wielder (in most discussions this ends up being big agricultural companies such as Monsanto)?

I am not even sure it is the business practices of Monsanto in any real sense. If you ask people what it is that Monsanto supposedly does, you will often get a lot of internet-generated myths. I included a whole chapter on Monsanto in the book, precisely because I felt that this was an elephant in the room that needed to be dealt with, and I needed to go through some of the anti-Monsanto memes out there and try and identify what was real and what was not. So, yes, I think there is a conflation between GMOs and modern agriculture in general with certain people in the West. This is quite an elite phenomenon; certain foodie types feel that the food system is failing them. It is kind of conflated with packaging, supermarkets and being disconnected from the local and the authentic. So, it is a kind of wider Romantic movement against what is perceived to be the dominance of technology in modern life. There is a nostalgic appeal to what the traditional farm was – with the farmer in overalls, chewing straw and getting his hands dirty – which is not there with the image of a modern farmer sitting high up in a cab of a combine harvester on Facebook while his machine is driven by GPS or even robotics. It does not have the same emotional appeal to it. So, I think there is this feeling of alienation with the modern food system in general, which I think has driven a lot of this opposition.

Seeds of Science cover

One reason I can think of why people oppose GMOs is a lack of understanding the science. How much are current high-school curricula paying attention to basic genetics, especially in the context of biotechnology in agriculture? Can we do more here and in the future see a new generation of better-informed citizens?

Well, that would be nice, but I do not think that it is essential any more than people need to understand immunology in order to have their children vaccinated. Yes, I am a passionate supporter of increasing science literacy, and I think it is important for a functioning democracy in a very general sense that we have a population who understands at least the basics. But it would not help – this is a political controversy. Even increasing science literacy does not help to diffuse it, because it is not really about the science. The scientists are not disagreeing on any of this. It is the same with climate change where people with different political viewpoints then claim to differ on the science. Presenting more scientific evidence does not help to resolve it, we have to make sure that the evidence is not steamrolled by emotional appeals by people who have an ideological interest in diminishing public understanding of science.

 You seem intent on putting an end to the polarised discussion and the trench warfare as you call it. I believe this is a large part of why you wrote this book. With this book about to be published, what more can we expect to see from yourself and others to try and bring the two sides closer together?

As I say towards the end of the book, the first draft was an angry book about how evil the anti-GMO movement is and decrying all that. And then I threw that away and rewrote it because I did not want to deepen the polarisation. I wanted to make a more honest attempt to understand where people are coming from who still oppose this technology. I felt it was incumbent on me as a former activist myself to do that in as humble a way as possible. So, I went back and talked to people who are still activists who I used to work with back in the day and I tried to give them a fair hearing. I think it is important that we recognise what these concerns are and that they are genuinely held. It is very easy to characterise your opponent as being evil or corrupt. However, people who oppose GMOs think they are doing the right thing. You can say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but if we at least do each other the honour of recognising that we are all trying to make the world a better place, then maybe we can meet somewhere in the middle by respecting each other’s concerns and worldviews so we can try and figure out what we have in common.

I say this in learning from the experience of climate change where I have been guilty of this as much as anyone. Through shouting and fighting we have just polarised the situation, and I think it is further away from being solvable now than it probably was back in the late nineties when I started working on it.

Seeds of Science is available to order from NHBS

Improbable Destinies: An interview with Jonathan B. Losos

Jonathan B. Losos with his favourite research subject: the green anole

Jonathan B. Losos is an evolutionary biologist, currently at Harvard University. He is best known for his research on speciation in Caribbean anoles, a genus of iguanian lizards. Previously, he has authored Lizards in an Evolutionary Tree: Ecology and Adaptive Radiation of Anoles. His latest book, Improbable Destinies: How Predictable is Evolution?  is an incredibly enjoyable romp through evolutionary biology, examining the phenomenon of convergent evolution (i.e. the process by which different organisms have evolved the same or similar traits independently over time), and asks the question: how repeatable is evolution really? After reading this book recently (see also the review I left for the book) I contacted Jonathan to talk some more convergent evolution with him.

1. As a biologist, I can understand your fascination with convergent evolution. But to introduce yourself to the readers, what drew you to study this one topic out of all the fascinating aspects of evolution? Was this interest there from the beginning, or did you chance on it as your research progressed?

I’ve been interested in convergence ever since I learned about evolution because convergence of species living in similar environments is such a great demonstration of the power of natural selection. However, when I conducted my doctoral work on Caribbean Anolis lizards, I truly became fascinated by the phenomenon.

2. In your preface, you write how your PhD project on lizard diversification in the Caribbean supported ideas on convergent evolution. Right after writing up your thesis, Gould published his book Wonderful Life, in which he stressed the importance of contingency, arguing that evolution is unpredictable. You write you were taken with his book. How did you go about reconciling Gould’s views with your own?

Evolutionary biology is unlike most sciences in that it is a historical science. We can’t just do a key experiment or derive an equation and solve the problem. Rather, like detectives, we have to build the best case to understand what happened in the past. In addition, as Ian Malcolm said in Jurassic Park, life finds a way. In fact, evolution occurs in myriad different ways – almost any way of evolving you can imagine has occurred somewhere, some time. In this way, evolution is an inductive sciencewe can’t derive general rules for first principles; rather, we have to go out in nature and develop many case studies. Only in that way can we recognize the general patterns from the interesting exceptions.

It is in this light that I reconciled my one research on Anolis lizards, which indicated that evolution has travelled very much the same course four times on the different islands of the Greater Antilles (the large islands of the Caribbean), with Gould’s ideas that evolution, for the most part, is unpredictable and unrepeatable. I considered the Anolis situation to be one of the exceptions, fascinating, but out of the ordinary.

3. Part two of your book describes a plethora of field studies, including your own work on Anolis lizards, which by and large show that evolution is repeatable. Some people, botanists especially, have raised the objection that such findings could also come about by phenotypic plasticity. You have addressed this objection yourself experimentally and found that phenotypic plasticity only plays a limited role. Have others done the same, and is this something that is routinely considered and excluded as a possible explanation in this kind of research?

Phenotypic plasticity – the ability of genetically identical individuals to produce different phenotypes when exposed to different environmental conditions – has long been known. However, until recently, it was mostly considered to be noise in the system, non-adaptive phenomena that mostly served to prevent natural selection from producing evolutionary change (the reason being that natural selection might favor one variant, but if different variants in a species were genetically identical, then selection wouldn’t lead to any evolutionary change). However, in recent years we have realized that plasticity may be an important part of the evolutionary process. Although phenotypic variation (i.e., variation in traits such as anatomy, physiology) among individuals in a population may not be genetically based, the ability of a species to produce different phenotypes in different conditions is itself a genetically based trait that may evolve adaptively. Thus, species may evolve to exhibit great phenotypic variation as a response to living in many different environments. As a result, the amount of research on phenotypic plasticity has skyrocketed in the last two decades.

Improbable Destinies

4. Towards the end of Part Two, you point out another weak point of most field experiments. They generally start off with genetically related populations and so are likely to be predisposed to generate parallel evolutionary responses. Furthermore, statistical analyses might filter out the exceptions to the rule. Has experimental work by now moved on to using genetically dissimilar starting populations to investigate if convergent evolution is powerful enough to funnel different populations towards the same evolutionary outcome?

I wouldn’t say that this is a weak point of field experiments. Rather, it is a consequence of the hypothesis that is being tested. If you want to understand why guppies evolve to be more colourful in the absence of predators, then the appropriate experiment is to create multiple replicate populations of guppies in different conditions and see what happens. But, as I wrote in the book, we would expect very similar, closely-related populations to evolve similar adaptive responses to the same questions. One approach would be to conduct parallel experiments on many different species of fish to see the extent to which they adapt in similar ways (or in differing ways). Right now, I’m unaware of anyone doing this. However, different researchers sometimes ask the same question with different species, and this is the most likely way we will be able to address this question.

5. Part Three of your book looks at long-term laboratory experiments with bacteria. It seems here too, results initially suggested convergent evolution is the rule. Until exceptions starting cropping up on the longer term. Does the answer to the question whether evolution is repeatable depend on the timescale over which you look? Are we too focused on the short-term if we conclude that convergent evolution is the rule, rather than the exception?

That’s a keen observation. In Rich Lenski’s Long-Term Evolution Experiment, the story after 14 years was that evolution is pretty repeatable. Then, 30,000+ generations into the experiment, one of 12 experimental lines evolved a very different adaptation, one that still hasn’t been matched in the other 11 lines after another 14 years. So, yes, the longer one conducts a study, the greater the chance that rare, unique adaptations will occur (and we must remember that 30,000 generations are a drop in the evolutionary bucket). On the other hand, as Rich Lenski himself says, if the LTEE is continued long enoughmaybe for 300,000 generations – then perhaps the other 11 populations will discover the new adaptive solution as well. So, yes, definitely, these studies need to be continued much longer. Most studies today, LTEE’s fame and influence notwithstanding, are much shorter in length (note: Losos and Lenski edited the book How Evolution Shapes Our Lives. ed.).

6. You conclude your book by saying that in the short term evolution is predictable, but that the world of biological possibilities is a vast one, and that in the long term, chance events have had a large impact. Given the many books dedicated to the topic of convergent evolution, and the way it speaks to people’s imagination, do you think we have overestimated the importance of this mechanism? Are we too keen on seeing patterns where there are none?

Well, we need a bit of historical perspective on this question. Until recently, we thought of convergent evolution as relatively rare. Great examples of the power of natural selection, worthy of being in biology textbooks, but not at all common. Now, thanks to the work of Simon Conway Morris and others, we realize that convergence is much more pervasive than we used to believe. This has been a valid contribution to our understanding of evolution. Nonetheless, some workers have gone too far, in my estimation, in emphasizing the importance and prevalence of convergent evolution. It is a common and important aspect of evolution, but it is not the only story.

Improbable Destinies is available to order from NHBS

Curatorial and Collections books from NHBS

The word curator stems from the Latin, curare, meaning “to take care”. The traditional role of a curator is to care for, manage and display collections of objects which have importance for our social, cultural or scientific heritage. Within a natural history museum, this incorporates a huge variety of disciplines from taxonomy and evolutionary biology, to specimen preservation, education and aesthetics.

In this article we take a look at some of the books that focus on the fascinating subject of natural history curation and the collections that have found homes in some of our best loved museums.

Coming Soon

Inside the Lost MuseumInside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present
Hardback | Due August 2017
Curators consider visitors’ interactions with objects and with one another; how our bodies move through displays, how our eyes grasp objects, how we learn and how we feel. Inside the Lost Museum documents the work museums do and suggests ways these institutions can enrich the educational and aesthetic experience of their visitors.

Treasures of the Natural History MuseumTreasures of the Natural History Museum
Pocket Edition | Due September 2017
Among the many exceptional natural wonders featured in this edition are: a rare meteorite from Mars, Darwin’s celebrated finch specimens, a lethal claw from the dinosaur Baryonyx, one of the first forms of life on Earth, and some immaculately dressed fleas. The book also includes the magnificent museum building itself.

Rare TreasuresRare Treasures: From the Library of the Natural History Museum
Hardback | Due September 2017
Rare Treasures presents stunning highlights from 31 of the most historic and highly prized books belonging to the Library of the Natural History Museum. The library contains one of the most exciting and comprehensive collections of natural history literature and artworks to be found anywhere in the world.

Recently Published

Curators: Behind the Scenes of Natural History MuseumsCurators: Behind the Scenes of Natural History Museums
Over the centuries, natural history museums have evolved from being little more than musty repositories of stuffed animals and pinned bugs, to being crucial generators of new scientific knowledge. They have also become vibrant educational centres. This beautifully written and richly illustrated book is a clear-eyed but loving account of natural history museums, their curators, and their ever-expanding roles in the 21st century.

Collecting the WorldCollecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane
This is the first biography of Sloane in over sixty years and the first based on his surviving collections. Whilst early modern science and collecting were inevitable intertwined with imperial enterprise and slavery, they nonetheless gave rise to one of the great public institutions of the Enlightenment, as the cabinet of curiosities gave way to the encyclopaedic museum.

Science in the ArchivesScience in the Archives: Pasts, Presents, Futures
With Science in the Archives, Lorraine Daston and her co-authors offer the first study of the important role that archives play in the natural and human sciences. Reaching across disciplines and centuries, contributors cover episodes in the history of astronomy, geology, genetics, philology, climatology, medicine, and more – as well as fundamental practices such as collecting, retrieval, and data mining.

The Natural History Museum [Vienna]The Natural History Museum [Vienna]: Construction, Conception & Architecture
With the 1889 opening of the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien, or the Natural History Museum Vienna, Europe’s first evolution museum was inaugurated. In this book, the history of planning, construction and architecture of the beautiful museum are presented in a comprehensive way.

Related Titles

Dry Store Room No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum
Museum Through a Lens
Nature’s Treasurehouse: A History of the Natural History Museum
Treasure Palaces: Great Writers Visit Great Museums
Botanical Treasures: Objects from the Herbarium and Library of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
Curating Biocultural Collections: A Handbook

Nominees for the Wainwright Prize 2017

The Wainwright Prize, first awarded in 2014, is a literary prize that seeks to reward the best British outdoors, nature and travel writing. The prize is named in honour of Alfred Wainwright (1907-1991), the British author, illustrator and hillwalker who is most well-known for his seven-volume Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells, published between 1955-1966.

Previous year’s winners include Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun (2016), John Lewis-Stempel’s Meadowland (2015) and Hugh Thomson’s The Green Road Into The Trees (2014).

This year, the winner will be announced on August 3rd. Here, we present the seven shortlisted candidates, in no particular order:

Love of CountryLove of Country: A Hebridean Journey, written by Madeleine Bunting and published by Granta.

Love of Country is Madeleine’s account of her exploration of the landscapes, histories and attraction of the Scottish Hebrides Islands over the course of six years.



The Otter's TaleThe Otter’s Tale, written by Simon Cooper and published by William Collins.

When Simon Cooper bought an abandoned water mill in southern England, he ended up sharing it with a family of wild otters. The Otter’s Tale blends the personal story of one of them with the natural history of the otter in the British Isles.


The Running HareThe Running Hare, written by John Lewis-Stempel and published by Doubleday.

The Running Hare tells of Britain’s traditional ploughland that is rapidly disappearing, and of the wild animals and plants that live in and under it. It is also the story of John’s attempt to take on a field and husband it in a traditional way, restoring its fertility and wildlife, bringing back the old farmland flowers and animals.


Where Poppies BlowWhere Poppies Blow: The British Solider, Nature, the Great War, written by John Lewis-Stempel and published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson.

Where Poppies Blow is the unique story of the British soldiers of the First World War and their relationship with the animals and plants around them.


Wild KingdomWild Kingdom: Bringing Back Britain’s Wildlife, written by Stephen Moss and published by Vintage.

Britain’s wildlife is under threat from many sides, but a change is under way. In Wild Kingdom, Stephen recounts his sojourns throughout the United Kingdom to document how Britons are fighting to bring back and save the wildlife they love.


The January ManThe January Man: A Year of Walking Britain, written by Christopher Somerville and published by Doubleday.

Following the death of his father, Christopher walked the British Isles, month by month, season by season and region by region. This is his account of the British countryside and the search for the true identity of his father.


The Wild OtherThe Wild Other: A Memoir, written by Clover Stroud and published by Hodder & Stoughton.

When a riding accident left her mother permanently brain-damaged, sixteen-year-old Clover embarked on a journey around the world, eventually finding her way back to the Vale of the White Horse. This is her account of love, loss, family and the healing strength of nature.

Inheritors of the Earth: An interview with Chris D. Thomas

The author shows on a field trip in Sabah
Chris D. Thomas on a field expedition in Danum Valley, Sabah, 2015.

Chris D. Thomas is a Professor in the Department of Biology at the University of York and was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in July 2012. He has an interest in understanding how humans have changed the biological world, and how we might protect the biodiversity that remains. His first book, Inheritors of the Earth, is a very interesting and thought-provoking read on the current mass extinction crisis, and conservation philosophy in general, focusing on the proverbial winners, and calling out conservationists for holding viewpoints that seem more driven by nostalgia than by logical thinking about the biological future of our planet. Sure to ruffle some feathers, NHBS nevertheless believes that this book makes an important contribution, and that his arguments are more balanced than a cursory glance might suggest. We contacted Chris with a list of questions that arose after reading it.

1. In your book, you quite rightly argue that, despite species going extinct, there are species who are benefitting from our presence and the changes we have wrought to our ecosystems. You acknowledge that our influences largely seem to result in an accelerated introduction of species in new areas. Will the net result of this great reshuffling not be a world that is suited only to generalist species (the proverbial rats and pigeons) at the expense of specialists?

This is not quite how I see it. Take your two examples. The Asian brown rat was a regular rodent (granted it was omnivorous, but so are many other rodents), before it hitched a lift with us around the world. Today, the brown rat mainly lives in and around human habitation and farmland, except on islands that lack native rodents, so you could simply call it a specialist on human-modified environments. The feral or town pigeon originated as a specialist cliff-nesting pigeon (the rock dove) in western Europe, the Mediterranean, and into western Asia. It is still a cliff-nesting bird, living on our buildings. Neither the feral pigeon nor the brown rats are unusually generalised, relative to many other birds and mammals. It is their proximity to us that makes us think of them as generalists.  I don’t think we should synonymise ‘successful’ or ‘living in human-modified environments’ with being a ‘generalist’.

2. In Chapter 6, “Heirs to the World”, you mention that most current conservation efforts focus on trying to defend the losers. You argue that, though honourable, it will be more effective to back the winners, i.e. those species that will make up future biological communities. An important theme in the recent book Never Out of Season: How Having the Food We Want When We Want it Threatens Our Food Supply and Our Future is that the loss of wild crop varieties through extinction is threatening our future food supply. Many of these wild varieties might have the potential of providing new food sources when our current crop varieties will inevitably succumb to new insect pests or pathogens, or can provide other benefits (e.g. pharmaceuticals). This is why projects such as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and other seed banks are so important. Do you see any value in the conservation of threatened species, or is this crying over spilt milk?

I argue that we should in most instances continue to protect ‘species’. Rare species may become common and hence fulfil important roles in future ecosystems, and species that we currently ignore (or have not yet discovered) may become economically, medically or socially important to us in the future. Hanging onto as many species as possible is not a preservationist agenda, but rather a means of maintaining the building blocks of future ecosystems, fuelling biological changes that will take place in the coming centuries. Similar arguments apply to rare genes that belong to wild relatives of plants and livestock that we already use. They provide long-term resilience and flexibility.

3. In Chapter 11, “Noah’s Earth”, you call for a new conservation philosophy that acknowledges that life is a process, not a final product. In your view, this philosophy would rest on four overarching principles: a) accept change, b) maintain flexibility for future change by conserving species wherever possible, c) accept that humans are natural and that anything we do is part of the evolutionary history of life (this includes not shying back from employing any and all solutions at our disposal, including genetic techniques – none of them will make the world less natural), d) live within our natural boundaries. In the remainder of that chapter you elaborate on the first three principles, but not the fourth. How do you envision realising this fourth principle?

As I say: “We know that we cannot expect the bounty to continue if we carry on killing animals faster than they can breed or cut forests down faster than they grow. This strategy failed when our ancestors drove most of the world’s largest land animals to extinction, and it has played out in the last few centuries as whale and fish populations have collapsed under the pressure of over-harvesting. We need a resilient and sustainable approach. We should aim for maximum efficiency, by which I mean that we should pursue strategies that fulfil all human needs – and, where possible, desires – of every citizen on Earth while generating the least possible collateral damage to the global environment.”

Harvesting a species faster than the survivors can reproduce can be thought of as a relatively ‘hard’ natural boundary (once a species is extinct, it is no longer a resource), but other bounds are much softer (a forest with one fewer species still grows), and hence we often need to specify tolerable levels of change, rather than catastrophic points of no return. These issues deserve book-length treatment on their own, which is why I did (deliberately) somewhat duck the issues!

When I refer to the ‘least possible collateral damage to the global environment’, I am thinking about the development of technological and social ‘game changers’. For example, most meat production is based on filling our fields and barns with cows, sheep and chickens, which we then kill for food. If we could switch to the consumption of ‘factory-grown’ cultured meats, powered by renewable energy, it would dramatically reduce pressure on the land; although admittedly not by as much as if we all became vegetarians.

4. Your book makes many valid points as to how our current thinking around species conservation is in conflict with itself, or simply illogical (e.g. the distinction between native and invasive species, because, seen over long enough time scales, species distribution has always fluctuated. Or the idea that there is no one period in the history of life that we can take as a benchmark of the idealised pristine state the world should be in. Or simply the idea that conservation means “freezing” the world in its current (or a former) state – after all, the only constant of life on our planet has always been change). You also, provocatively I would say, argue that many island species that have gone extinct were effectively already evolutionary dead ends, having evolved in environments free from predators and pathogens. We have merely hastened their demise, but they would eventually have gone extinct anyway. Should we really give up on them?

I don’t think it is particularly controversial (or provocative, therefore) to say that most flightless and disease-susceptible terrestrial birds (as opposed to seabirds) that live on oceanic islands represent evolutionary dead-ends, on a time scale of ten or so million years. What are the alternatives? They would never be able to establish viable populations on continents because pathogens and predators are present. Confined to their island homes, they would eventually have died out, either when the islands eroded away, or when additional continental species arrived without human intervention (for example Darwin’s finches have ‘only’ been on the Galapagos for two to three million years). In most cases, we have accelerated the extinction of such species but not altered their eventual fate.

What we should do with the few remaining survivors is another issue. What I argue in Inheritors of the Earth is that we should think quite broadly. Can we introduce new genes to disease-susceptible birds that will make them resistant (for example to save the remaining Hawaiian honeycreepers)?  Can we cross predator-susceptible birds with related species that reproduce fast enough to survive the new levels of predation (for example to save New Zealand black stilts)?  Could we introduce new strains of bird malaria that are less potent, and displace the existing fatal ones? In other words, can we make the endangered island forms more resistant in some way and the continental invaders less virulent, so that long-term coexistence becomes possible? If not, then maybe we should indeed abandon some of the losers, and contemplate releasing continental walking birds (which can resist pathogens and predators) and pollinators, rather than dwell too long attempting to recreate a biological world that was inherently unstable.

Inheritors of the Earth5. One argument in favour of trying to conserve the “charismatic megafauna”, such as elephants and rhinos, are that they function as flagship species, and that conservation efforts aimed at them can benefit whole ecosystems. In your book, you don’t really go into this. What are your thoughts on the concept of flagship species, especially in light of your argument that “defending the losers” is ultimately a lost cause?

I am generally in favour of large, flagship species because they require large areas to protect, and this indirectly benefits many other species (though flagship conservation is not sufficient because it may miss areas of endemism). They are also culturally important to conservationists as well as to the general public, gaining public and political support for conservation. The giant panda has been globally important, and critical to the conservation of Chinese forests, despite being a slightly ‘dodgy species’!

When I discuss losers, remember that I then add the question “can we turn them into winners” (or at least into survivors). For the large megafauna that still survive, this is easy. We can choose not to hunt them to extinction any longer. It is already the case that large birds and large mammals are tending to recover in Europe and North America, and this is also true of the Great Whales. They were losers in the context of historic human culture, and there is no necessary reason why they ‘must be’ losers. Once ivory and rhino horn ‘culture’ is turned around, there will be nothing ‘wrong’ with these species either.

6. If you were put in charge of a major conservation organisation, say WWF, what would you do differently? Would you, for example, have greenlighted their recent campaign to try and protect the last remaining individual vaquitas (the threatened porpoise endemic to the Gulf of California)?

I’m not going to answer your first question because that would be a whole new book (or job if they offer it to me!). I’ll just say that, on day one, I would request a review of activities, and for every measure currently being undertaken to prevent change or decline, I would ask for the staff to develop an additional measures to promote changes that would increase diversity (or the status of an endangered species).

As for the vaquita, I am no expert. However, it is evolutionary distinct, and it is a perfectly viable species if we were stop killing it (including through gillnets). It is not a species that one should necessarily give up on. More broadly, it is a symptom of the mismanagement of the world’s marine resources. We sorted out farming on land a long time ago, but we are still more or less acting as hunter-gatherers in the marine realm. It is hopelessly inefficient.

If I had an infinite supply of money, I would be looking to invest in fish farms (they can be locally damaging, but humans still need food), and I would also invest in new GM crops which produce fish oils so that the farmed fish could be fed on terrestrial plants rather than ‘wild caught’ marine resources. Beyond that, I would invest in cultured fish meat (factory grown muscles), further reducing the need to catch wild fish. The aim would be for virtually all fish consumed in the year 2100 to be farmed or, ideally, cultured as tissues in factories.

Whether or not the vaquita itself can be saved, these strategies are all about generating permanent means of providing a global supply of fish meat without causing anything like as much collateral damage as takes place at present.

7. As mentioned above, I think your book makes excellent arguments. And yet, reading it also brought with it a certain sense of unease. It almost feels a bit defeatist, as if we might just as well give up on fighting to save threatened species and just go with the flow. I can see this argument not being popular. A lot of people feel we have a moral responsibility, as an intelligent, thinking species, to not drive other species over the edge, and to put a stop to our destructive ways. Isn’t saying “everything we do is natural, we are just another step in the evolution of life” a bit of a cop out?

I’ll leave others to discuss morals!

Saying that everything is natural, including all conservation actions we take, allows us to take ‘affirmative action’ for wildlife in a manner that some conservationists would historically have been nervous about (“I can’t do that, it would not be natural”). So, I see it as an opening up of new conservation opportunities, not a cop out.

8. It is perhaps a bit early to ask you how the book has been received. But, clearly, when a book like this is written, it is often based on years of work and research that has led up to it. These ideas did not just appear. So, how have your viewpoints been received so far?

The response to the book seems good so far, but it is far too early to judge. You are right, I have put some of these views out there previously, and they have received a mixture of responses. Many people seem very supportive. However, invasive species biologists are mostly negative, I think fearing that non-native species legislation could be undermined, more than genuinely questioning the biological thesis (that may just be my interpretation). There are also those, such as E. O. Wilson, who consider that I and others are being Anthropocene apologists. I understand their point, but we cannot simply continue to wish that we live in an unchanged world. We have to develop an understanding of biology, and an approach to conservation, that works with change rather than against it.

9. Obviously, there are many parties in our society who stand to gain a great deal from ignoring conservation concerns and steam-rolling ahead with “business as usual”, continuing to destroy natural habitats for corporate gains. With this book now poised to be published, do you not worry that your narrative will be hijacked, the way has happened with the debate surrounding climate change? I can already see people using your arguments to legitimise their actions, arguing along the lines of “this biologist said that the extinction crisis really isn’t such a big deal. See? Lots of species doing really well!”. Have you considered strategies to prevent this from happening?

I nearly didn’t put fingers to keyboard for this very reason. However, if we build a case for conservation based on a loss-only view of the world, eventually it will fall. The edifice is already creaking. A more balanced view that admits to the reality of biological gains as well as losses should, in the end, lead to more rational decision-making.

In terms of conservation, I have stated my own views. In the Epilogue, I write: “If [existing conservation] efforts were abandoned, the extinction rate would escalate. A major task of conservation is to keep the losses towards the lower end of the likely range – as well as to encourage biological gains. Although I have been advocating a more flexible approach to the environment, and specifically to conservation, nothing I have said should be used to undermine attempts to save existing species or maintain protected areas.

As for the extinction ‘big deal’, biological gains of the Anthropocene do not let us off the hook. A simple linear extrapolation of the current rate of extinction wipes out about three-quarters of all species in the next ten millennia. This is risky, given that species represent our planet’s biological parachute. All future ecosystems will be formed from the descendants of existing species, and we do not know which of today’s currently-rare species will be important components of future ecosystems (especially if humans alter the planet in yet another, unexpected way). Letting rare species go could have major long-term consequences. My advice would be not to discard the biological building blocks of our planet lightly.

Inheritors of the Earth is available to order from NHBS

Surviving the Misinformation Age

This post is the final of a four-part series on polarised discussions in science and how to deal with misinformation. You can find Part 1 introducing the topic here, Part 2 on climate change here,  and Part 3 on evolutionary biology here.

In the preceding two sections we have given a very brief survey of two areas that are the subject of intense public debate, and that see a lot of distortion or denial of factual knowledge to fit preconceived ideas. But the problem is not limited to these areas and we currently find ourselves amidst a storm of misinformation, fake news and alternative facts. In this final section, we draw attention to a number of recent books that will help readers think more clearly, logically and rationally, and give them the tools to see through spin and hyperbole.

Several prominent sceptics have written accessible books on a wide range of pseudoscientific ideas, such as Skeptic: Viewing the World with a Rational Eye (Shermer, 2016), Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk (Pigliucci, 2010), or Bad Science (Goldacre, 2008). In recent years, however, there seems to have been an increasing abandonment of reason.

Creating Scientific ControversiesPart of the problem is that, as alluded to in the post on anthropogenic climate change, a lot of scientific research is funded by groups with particular interests, which can lead to flawed results when they already have in mind what they want the science to show. This is discussed at length in Tainted: How Philosophy of Science Can Expose Bad Science (Shrader-Frechette, 2016). Even worse is when such groups purposefully create the appearance of controversy to confuse and mislead the public and protect industry interests, such as the decade-long campaign by the tobacco industry to create the impression there was no scientific consensus on the Not a Scientistharmful effects of smoking. David Harker has written the first book-length analysis of this in Creating Scientific Controversies: Uncertainty and Bias in Science and Society (2015), which should help readers to understand and evaluate such cases, and how to respond to them. Politicians are no less guilty of this, as Dave Levitan asserts in Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science (2017).

The Death of ExpertiseAccording to books such as The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters (Nichols, 2017), and Respecting Truth: Willful Ignorance in the Internet Age (McIntyre, 2015), another part of the problem is the internet. In the opinion of these authors, easy access to information and egalitarian platforms in the form of weblogs where everyone can have their own say, are some of the factors that have bred a generation of opinionated, poorly informed people, who Respecting Truththink they know enough on a topic after a quick scour of Wikipedia. This is accompanied by an underbelly feeling that expertise is synonymous with elitism, leading to distrust of any form of authority. In his pithy book Are We All Scientific Experts Now? (2014) Harry Collins provocatively puts forth the notion that not everyone’s opinion counts equally. Or, as Robert Dorit wrote in 1997 in American Scientist when reviewing Darwin’s Black Box, ‘[…] opinions should not be mistaken for expertise’.

As Julian Baggini explains in The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World (2016) this is not about stifling dissenters, or stamping out opposition. Science thrives on scepticism and reasonable debate. But the key word here is reasonable. The current wave of anti-expertise sentiment is not just attacking scientific knowledge, it is attacking the very framework that generates these findings. As Michael Specter said in The Edge of Reasonhis 2010 Ted Talk The Danger of Science Denial, ‘you are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts’. And, as Prothero argues in Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future (2013), this matters to society at large. Whether we are talking about addressing climate change, or the return of nearly eradicated diseases because more and more people refuse to vaccinate their children, the ill-informed opinions of some can affect us all, especially once they enter voting booths.

Making Sense of ScienceWe believe that this means that we have a responsibility, as academics, as educators, as librarians, to speak out and communicate why what we do matters, to teach critical thinking. This makes recent books such as Critical Thinking: Tools for Evaluating Research (Nardi, 2017), Making Sense of Science: Separating Substance from Spin (Dean, 2017), A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age: Scientific Habits of Mind (Helfand, 2016), and Don’t Believe Everything You Think: The 6 Basic Mistakes We Make in Thinking (Kida, 2006) so important. This will require us to become excellent communicators: the media likes to simplify things and deal in snappy sound bites, whereas scientists have to communicate complicated ideas that have great degrees of uncertainty. And, as many of the interviewees in Olson’s documentary Flock of Dodos agreed in its conclusion, with some notable exceptions, scientists at large are poor communicators.A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age Am I Making Myself Clear?: A Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Public (Dean, 2009) could well be considered an essential part of the academic toolkit. But, as Jo Fidgen concludes around the 38-minute mark in the BBC Radio 4 podcast we referred to in our opening paragraph, ‘cold facts are not enough, they are much more convincing when they are part of a story’. So add Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story (Olson, 2015) to your toolkit.

To end on a sober note, we must not forget that science is a human endeavour, and as such prone to all the failures and follies of man. In our search for a deeper understanding of the world around us we stumble, we falter, and we fail (on a side-note, this is not all bad, but a necessary part of scientific progress, as Stuart Firestein lays out in Failure: Why Science is So Successful (2015)). Worrying, also, is the 2015 Science paper reporting that a lot of published research findings cannot be replicated (though see this follow-up critique, and a rebuttal of that critique). And although this paper specifically talked about psychology research, a commentary in New Scientist highlighted how other disciplines also suffer from this problem, something which is explored more in-depth in Stepping in the Same River Twice: Replication in Biological Research (Shavit & Ellison, 2017). But this is no reason to discard the scientific process. Science may have its failings, but science can fix it.

The Evolution–Intelligent Design Circus

This post is the third of a four-part series on polarised discussions in science and how to deal with misinformation. You can find Part 1 introducing the topic here, Part 2 on climate change here,  and Part 4 on dealing with misinformation here.

Ever since Darwin published On the Origin of Species (1859; 150th Anniversary Edition, Darwin & Endersby, 2009), his ideas have been much debated. There have been many scholars over the years who disagreed with some or all of his ideas, and the history of this is charted in books such as Defining Darwin: Essays on the History and Philosophy of Evolutionary Biology (Ruse, 2010), Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (Dennett, 1995), The Non-Darwinian Revolution: Reinterpreting a Historical Myth (Bowler, 1988), and The Eclipse of Darwinism: Anti-Darwinian Evolution Theories in the Decades Around 1900 (Bowler, 1983). These academic discussions and disagreements have Evolution: The First Four Billion Yearsbeen absolutely vital to further the development of evolutionary theory and push the discipline as a whole forwards. Books such as Evolution: The Modern Synthesis (Huxley, 2010), Evolution: The Extended Synthesis (Pigliucci & Müller, 2010), Evolution: The History of an Idea (Bowler, 2009), and Evolution: The First Four Billion Years (Ruse & Travis, 2009) give a tremendous overview of the historical development of the field over the last century.

From the outset, however, there has also been an intense clash between evolutionary theory and religion, especially in America, both in general (see for example The Book That Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation (Fuller, 2017)), but especially with the fundamentalist Christian school of thought of Creationism. The Oxford dictionary defines this as ‘The belief that the universe and living organisms originate from specific acts of divine creation, as in the biblical account, rather than by natural processes such as evolution’. It was Darwin himself who, in an 1856 letter to Joseph Dalton Hooker, dubbed its proponents, who objected to the emerging science of evolution on religious grounds, Creationists.

A particularly notable and influential episode that had enormous consequences was the 1925 Scopes trial, in which American high school teacher John T. Scopes was accused of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, which had made it unlawful to teach human evolution in state-funded schools (see The Scopes Monkey Trial (Moore & McComas, 2016), and The Scopes Trial: A Brief History with Documents, though for an alternative interpretation offering, in the words of the publisher ‘an apologetic for divine creation’, see Monkey Business: True Story of the Scopes Trial (Olasky & Perry, 2005)). He was found guilty, though not convicted, and the trial escalated the conflict between strict creationists and scientists regarding the extent to which evolution would be taught as a science subject in schools. Trying Biology: The Scopes Trial, Textbooks, and the Antievolution Movement in American Schools (Shapiro, 2013) provides a wider historical context to The Creationiststhe trial. The matter of teaching evolution remains contested to this day. After the US Supreme Court in 1987 forbade teaching creationism in public schools on the grounds it violated the separation of church and state, Creationists rebranded their ideas to Intelligent Design, or ID for short (see Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design (Forrest & Gross, 2007)). These efforts have been fronted by, yet again, a conservative think tank, here the Discovery Institute. There are several books charting the controversies since the Scopes trial, for example Intelligently Designed: How Creationists Built the Campaign Against Evolution (Caudill, 2013), American Genesis: The Evolution Controversies from Scopes to Creation Science (Moran, 2012), Darwinism and its Discontents (Ruse, 2006), and the exhaustive The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design (Number, 2006). Also noteworthy is Randy Olson’s even-handed 2006 documentary Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus.

As the US Supreme Court forbade the teaching of Creationism on the grounds of it being a religion, ID proponents argue theirs is an evidence-based scientific theory. In their view, certain complex features of the universe and living beings are irreducibly complex, and thus proof for the existence of a divine creator. These ideas are elaborated in books such as Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed (Axe, 2016), Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis (Denton, 2016), Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (Meyer, 2013; Stephen Meyer is the head of the Discovery Institute), Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (Meyer, 2010), and Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (Behe, 1995; considered by many the foundational text for the ID movement).

Many biologists have widely criticised ID, and it is generally considered as a pseudoscience. See amongst others Inside the Human Genome: A Case for Non-Intelligent Design (Avise, 2010), Why Evolution is True (Coyne, 2009), The GThe Greatest Show on Earthreatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (Dawkins, 2009), Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails) (Young & Strode, 2009), The Panda’s Black Box: Opening Up the Intelligent Design Controversy (Comfort, 2007), Scientists Confront Creationism: Intelligent Design and Beyond (Petto & Godfrey, 2007), Doubting Darwin?: Creationist Designs on Evolution (Sarkar, 2007), Intelligent Thought: Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement (Brockman, 2006), Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design (Shermer, 2006), The Counter-Creationism Handbook (Isaak, 2005), God, the Devil, and Darwin: A Critique of Intelligent Design Theory (Shank, 2004), or Why Intelligent Design Fails: A Scientific Critique of the New Creationism (Young & Edis, 2004). Even earth scientists have felt the need to speak out (For the Rock Record: Geologists on Intelligent Design (Schneiderman & Allmon, 2009)). Several books deal specifically with claims that fossil evidence of transitional forms is lacking (Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters (Prothero, 2007; second edition, 2017)), or the idea that evolution Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Mattersreveals a grander design (Darwin and Design: Does Evolution Have a Purpose? (Ruse, 2003), and The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design (Dawkins, 1976; 40th Anniversary Edition, 2016)). For contributions hypothesising how complexity might have emerged naturally, see for example The Arrival of the Fittest: Solving Evolution’s Greatest Puzzle (Wagner, 2014), or The Tinkerer’s Accomplice: How Design Emerges from Life Itself (Turner, 2007).

Many hard-line scientists, Richard Dawkins included, argue that there is no debate to be had in the first place. There is no point arguing facts with a believer. Engaging these beliefs, and, as the Discovery Institute would have it, ‘teaching the controversy’, merely provides legitimacy to a non-existent controversy (though see Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation (Laats & Siegel, 2016) for a proposition on how to break the Science and Religiondeadlock between science and religion). This touches on the age-old question of what dialogue there can be between science and religion. Dawkins, known for his militant atheism, is outspoken on the matter in his polemical The God Delusion (2006; 10th Anniversary Edition, 2016), while other authors have branded this as a futile effort (see for example Science and Religion: An Impossible Dialogue (Gingras, 2017) and Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible (Coyne, 2015)).

Amidst this fierce debate between two extremes, it is easy to overlook there are more moderate ideas. Many religious people do not support a literal reading of holy texts, and supporters of theistic evolution hold that religion and evolution need not contradict each other. The argument that geneticist Francis Collins puts forth in The Language of God (2006) boils down to “evolution is real, but it is the hand of God”. And he is not alone, Monkey Trials and Gorilla Sermons: Evolution and Christianity from Monkey Trials and Gorilla SermonsDarwin to Intelligent Design (Bowler, 2007) traces the long history of how churches have sought to reconcile Christian beliefs and evolution, and see ‘reflections of the divine in scientific explanations for the origin of life’. Whether you agree with this or not (religious fundamentalists see it as a capitulation, while Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker has called it a superfluous attempt to ‘smuggle God in by the back door’), this rapidly leaves the realm of scientific enquiry and becomes one of personal beliefs.

Click here for the final part, which looks at books on how to deal with misinformation.

Anthropogenic Climate Change: Arguments for and against

This post is the second of a four-part series on polarised discussions in science and how to deal with misinformation. You can find Part 1 introducing the topic here, Part 3 on evolutionary biology here, and Part 4 on dealing with misinformation here.

There is a broad scientific consensus about the reality of climate change and its causes. Readers starting off on this topic have plenty to choose from to get them started, for example Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know (Romm, 2015), Climate Change: A Very Short Introduction (Maslin, 2014), or the rather whimsical Ladybird Expert book Climate Change (Juniper & Shuckburgh, 2017). Al Gore thrust the topic into the limelight with An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do about It (2006). For those who want the full picture, there is Climate Change 2014 (IPCC, 2015), the fifth series of reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC operates under the auspices of the United Nations, and was set up at the request of member The Discovery of Global Warminggovernments in 1988. Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast (Archer, 2011) is an excellent starting point to help readers understand the science behind the assessment reports. Another valuable contribution is The Discovery of Global Warming (2008), written by science historian Spencer R. Weart, one of the few books charting the historical development of climate science.

But the science is only one facet of climate change; this spills over into politics and policy. Despite decades of research by scientists and an expanding body of evidence, the world at large, both its leaders and everyday individuals, seem unable to make much headway in addressing the issue, and unable to agree what the best way forward is. A good starting point analysing this from many sides is The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society (Dryzek et al. 2011). William Nordhaus is one of several economists to have written about policies implemented so far (and their ineffectiveness) in The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World (2013). Other books have been written offering explanations as to why we seem unable to act, tapping into psychological and sociological aspects, for example Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life (Norgaard, 2011), Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change (Hamilton, 2010), and Why We Disagree about Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity (Hulme, 2009). And plenty of authors have issued calls to action, ranging in tone from polemic (This Why We Disagree About Climate ChangeChanges Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (Klein, 2014)), to ominous (Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity (Hansen, 2009)) to seemingly fatalistic (Too Late: How We Lost the Battle with Climate Change (Maslen, 2017), Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene (Hamilton, 2017), or Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed, and What It Means for Our Future (Jamieson, 2014)).

Part of the reason there is still no clear progress is that there is still plenty of scepticism. Broadly speaking, the sceptics belong to one of two groups.

On the one hand there are the ‘reasonable’ sceptics who bring valuable contributions to the debate. These authors do not deny that climate change is happening, but are critical of model predictions (though see A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming (Edward, 2010) for a good rebuttal of that argument), and the efficacy of proposed policies to address the issue. Good starting points are An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming (Lawson, 2008), or The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won’t Tell You About Global Warming (Pielke, 2010). The latter has also published a short book that is sceptical of the oft-heard claim that climate change will increase natural disasters. His analysis, presented in The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change (Pielke, 2014), concludes that these claims are not borne out by the evidence. The Lomborg DeceptionIn short, there are simply more people and more property in harm’s way, giving the impression that natural disasters have become worse. Even Bjørn Lomborg in The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World (2001) does not deny the reality of climate change (but see The Lomborg Deception: Setting the Record Straight About Global Warming (Friel, 2010), for a wide-ranging rebuttal of his environmental claims).

In the second group there is a vocal minority of climate sceptics and denialists who claim climate change is being exaggerated (Lukewarming: The New Climate Science that Changes Everything (Michaels & Knappenberger, 2016)), is not borne out by the evidence (Heaven and Earth: Global Warming, the Missing Science (Plimer, 2009), Global Warming – Alarmists, Skeptics and Deniers: Unstoppable Global WarmingA Geoscientist Looks at the Science of Climate Change (Robinson & Robinson, 2012)), or can be attributed to other natural causes such as long-term natural cycles (Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1,500 Years (Singer, 2006)) or solar activity (The Neglected Sun: Why the Sun Precludes Climate Catastrophe (Vahrenholt & Lüning, 2015)). Climate Change: The Facts (Moran, 2015) bundles essays touching on these and other objections.

In their 2013 paper, Dunlap & Jacques noted that many climate change denial books (including the ones above) are published by conservative think tanks such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Heartland Institute, the CATO Institute, or the Marshall Institute. Many of these think tanks receive funding from fossil fuel or other corporations, making their neutrality questionable. Though denialist books are now increasingly self-published via so-called vanity presses, Dunlap & Jacques highlight that such books are rarely peer reviewed, allowing authors to make scientifically inaccurate and discredited claims that they can keep recycling, no matter how often climate scientists have already patiently refuted these, or shown them to be logically untenable.

This leads to books on climate scepticism campaigns, as documented in the light-hearted The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy (Mann, 2016), Climatology versus Pseudoscience: Exposing the Failed Predictions of Global Warming Skeptics (Nuccitelli, 2015), The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines (Mann, 2012), The Inquisition of Climate Science (Powell, 2011), Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand (Washington & Cook, 2011), Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (Oreskes & Conway, 2010), and Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming (Hoggan & Littlemore, 2009).

Within the welter of claims and counter-claims, Michael Mann has, and continues to be, a key protagonist, starting with his famous paper in Geophysical Research Letters that contained a figure showing global temperature change over the past 1,000 years, the “hockey stick graph”. The graph rapidly became an icon in the efforts to undermine the credibility of climate science and the researchers involved (see for example “A Disgrace to the Profession” (Steyn, 2015), or The Hockey Stick Illusion: Climategate and the Corruption of Science (Montford, 2010)). When in November 2009 thousands of emails from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia were released during a server hack – an episode that became known as “Climategate” – Mann once again found himself the centre of attention. Snippets from these emails, some of which included correspondence with Mann, were rapidly taken up by popular media, with sceptics arguing they showed global warming was a scientific conspiracy and scientists were manipulating climate data. No fewer than eight committees, both in the US and the UK, investigated these allegations and found no evidence of fraud or misconduct. Mann covers this in his books, but also see The Climate Files: The Battle for the Truth about Global Warming (Pearce, 2006).

One final point worth mentioning on this topic, as often pointed out by climate scientists, is that even if things do not pan out as bad as we feared, given the potentially devastating impact, we should heed the precautionary principle, as laid out in Philosophy and the Precautionary Principle: Science, Evidence, and Environmental Policy (Steel, 2014).

Click here for Part 3, which looks at the discussion surrounding evolutionary biology.