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Good Reads  Evolutionary Biology  Evolution

Darwin Comes to Town How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution

Popular Science
By: Menno Schilthuizen(Author)
344 pages, b/w photos
Darwin Comes to Town is a fascinating read showing how the urban environment drives rapid evolution.
Darwin Comes to Town
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  • Darwin Comes to Town ISBN: 9781786481085 Paperback Feb 2019 In stock
  • Darwin Comes to Town ISBN: 9781786481108 Hardback Feb 2018 Out of Print #239547
Selected version: £12.99
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About this book

We are marching towards a future in which three-quarters of humans live in cities, and a large portion of the planet's landmass is urbanized. With much of the rest covered by human-shaped farms, pasture, and plantations, where can nature still go? To the cities – is Menno Schilthuizen's answer in this remarkable book. And with more and more wildlife carving out new niches among humans, evolution takes a surprising turn. Urban animals evolve to become more cheeky and resourceful, city pigeons develop detox-plumage, and weeds growing from cracks in the pavement get a new type of seeds. City blackbirds are even on their way of becoming an entirely new species, which we could name Turdus urbanicus.

Thanks to evolutionary adaptation taking place at unprecedented speeds, plants and animals are coming up with new ways of living in the seemingly hostile environments of asphalt and steel that we humans have created. We are on the verge of a new chapter in the history of life, Schilthuizen says – a chapter in which much old biodiversity is, sadly, disappearing, but also one in which a new and exciting set of life forms is being born.

Menno Schilthuizen shows us that evolution in cities can happen far more rapidly, and strangely, than Darwin had dared dream.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A fascinating and important book
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 12 Nov 2019 Written for Paperback

    We biologists are a moody bunch, aren’t we? Forever lamenting the loss of biodiversity and unspoiled wild nature around us as humanity transforms the planet. The Anthropocene, the sixth extinction – I dare say you could accuse us of a certain doom-mongering. We ought to present a united front to the many threats unscrupulous groups in the outside world throw at our precious wildlife. So, beware the biologist that breaks rank and suggests a different narrative – he or she can expect a healthy amount of criticism. So it was with Chris D. Thomas’s recent book Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature is Thriving in an Age of Extinction (read my interview with him here). And so it is with Menno Schilthuizen’s new book Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution. You leave it to us pragmatic Dutch to say out loud the things you don’t like to hear...

    Now, before I continue, let’s make one thing clear here. Neither of aforementioned authors, nor myself, are suggesting that humanity at large is not inflicting large amounts of damage to our environment, nor suggesting that we are not causing the extinction of large numbers of species. However, it has become almost anathema to even take an objective look at these processes and dare to suggest that there is a flip side to it all. We have become so afraid that our findings will be hijacked by those who stand to gain from the destruction of our environment, that we are stifling what is healthy scientific discourse and debate. I am willing to stand up and say that we can have this conversation without it automatically implying that this lets humanity off the hook, as if we have no responsibilities for our actions, no moral obligations. And it’s heartening to see that I am not alone. Where Inheritors of the Earth highlighted that the current biodiversity crisis is simultaneously setting the stage for a new era of speciation (as every one of the past big five mass extinction has), Darwin Comes to Town takes a closer look at the evolutionary adaptations of flora and fauna to our urban environments. Next to being fascinating and well written, I think this book is an important contribution in having this conversation, which is another reason for me to highlight it.

    Urban ecology is a thriving biological discipline that has spawned a large literature. As Schilthuizen points out, what we call "the urban environment" is in fact a rich collection of different micro-environments, exerting its own evolutionary pressures on its inhabitants. Some animals and plants, courtesy of the environments they used to live in, are already set up with traits and behaviours that can exploit these niches, allowing them to thrive in cities.

    Despite what I mentioned above, from the 1960s onwards, biologists have ventured into our urban environment to observe how plants and animals are adapting to life here. A famous textbook example are the peppered moths (Biston betularia) that showed rapid evolutionary response to air pollution. They are the subject of a separate chapter due to the controversy that arose when doubts were cast on this story. Creationists had a field day, though subsequent research has vindicated this story. But Schilthuizen’s engaging narrative draws on a rich palette of findings. From swallows evolving shorter wings to better evade moving cars, lizards evolving toe-pad characteristics that better suit concrete and metal surfaces, fish in polluted harbours evolving tolerance to pollutants such as PCBs, or insects learning to avoid artificial lights while their predators evolve attraction to it. These are just a few examples of rapid evolutionary adaptation to urban environments, thanks to what is known as :"standing genetic variation": the sum of subtle gene variants you will find across all individuals in a species.

    Other than adaptations to the physical components of the urban environment, species also engage each other (or us) in evolutionary competition and arms races. There is tantalizing evidence in the form of herbivores adapting to plants we have brought into cities, or birds using their problem-solving intelligence to uncover new food sources (e.g. tits learning to open milk bottles to access the cream on top, when milk bottle delivery was still in vogue). Sexual selection and mate choice, too, respond to the challenges posed by the urban environment. Having studied at Leiden University myself, I was quite familiar with the work of Hans Slabbekoorn who showed that tits sing at a higher pitch to rise above the dominant frequency of urban background noise, something that has subsequently been shown for many other species. Ultimately, this could and should lead to new species coming into existence, and there is tantalising evidence for such incipient speciation in for example blackbirds.

    Finally, Schilthuizen shortly considers invasive species, the rapid spread of human ideas leading to uniform changes in the urban environment around the globe (e.g. developments in city lights), and how these findings could inform the booming discipline of green urban design and architecture.

    Schilthuizen offers a whirlwind tour through a large number of studies on urban ecology and evolution that is very readable and interspersed with the irreverent wit of a biologist writing a popular science book. As he also remarks, not all species can adapt to the unprecedented changes brought about by the urban environment we have created, and species are going extinct, but it would be a mistake to think that the urban environment equals the wholesale annihilation of life forms. Nature is fighting back the way it always has and rapid evolution is happening right under our noses. Will Darwin Comes to Town make city dwellers appreciate how nature and humans remain interwoven, and open our eyes to the wonders around us? I certainly think this book has that potential.
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Menno Schilthuizen is a Dutch evolutionary biologist, ecologist, and permanent research scientist at Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden and a professor in character evolution and biodiversity at Leiden University, The Netherlands. He has published numerous articles about evolution and ecology and three popular science books.

Popular Science
By: Menno Schilthuizen(Author)
344 pages, b/w photos
Darwin Comes to Town is a fascinating read showing how the urban environment drives rapid evolution.
Media reviews

" [...] My eyes and ears have been opened to the emerging science of urban ecology by Menno Schilthuizen, professor of evolutionary biology at Leiden University. Darwin Comes to Town is a brilliant reproach to all the biologists who believe that their true calling is to study the "vanishing quantity of unspoilt nature" – the dwindling areas of forest and wilderness little touched by human activity – and who neglect the more exciting evolutionary change taking place in the towns and cities where most of them live. [...] Having been attacked in the past by colleagues who have misrepresented him as an apologist for unrestrained development, Schilthuizen makes clear that he is a passionate defender of wild and open spaces. [...] But he insists that, given the rapid pace of urbanisation worldwide, biologists should make more effort to study the way some plants and animals adapt to living within dense human populations. Their findings will help planners and developers to design cities that can sustain as much wildlife as possible. [...] No one really knows why some species are, as Schilthuizen says it, “pre-adapted” to take advantage of an urban niche through rapid evolution [...] Answers may emerge as the efforts of enthusiastic pioneers such as Schilthuizen drive forward research in urban ecology. [...]"
– Clive Cookson, Financial Times

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