Sue Shanks reviews Darwin Comes to Town: How the urban jungle drives evolution by Menno Schilthuizen
Darwin comes to Town is a thoroughly researched book delving into the many ways that plants and animals are exploiting the habitats which are available in our urban landscapes and through these interaction are themselves undergoing evolutionary adaptations in a relatively short timeframe.
At my first glance of this book I was a little daunted – many pages of dense, close text and extensive notes and bibliography – but I was soon completely involved by the engaging and stimulating style of writing. Through a series of short chapters in distinct sections the author engages the reader by providing specific case histories, experiments and observations that demonstrate how the adaptations that species must undergo to survive are driving measurable evolutionary change. The author’s personal experiences and connections to the wider scientific community are woven into the text in such a creative and appealing way that very often I felt that I was being led along a wonderful urban field trip by a knowledgeable friend.
The story of the peppered moth and the idea of industrial melanism is well known but here the author lays out the full history, ecology and genetic mutation involved in this case study – a study that demonstrated the first recorded case of Human-Induced Rapid Evolutionary Change.
Throughout the book the reader is introduced to other less well-known species and case studies and the book also challenges the view that evolution necessarily takes place over vast timescales i.e. millennia, not years. For example, one such study recounted here is that of the wonderfully named mummichogs, a species of fish, which have in places evolved to survive in ghastly poisonous polluted water via genetic mutations and have done so over just a few dozen generations.
These case studies clearly link to KS2/KS3 curriculum topics – evolution, inheritance, chromosomes, DNA and genes – and would make a change from studies around fruit flies, interesting though they may be, for any teacher who wished to explore new examples to engage young learners. It also brings the subject to a local level, rather than the more exotic well-known work around the finches of the Galapagos Islands.
At a simple level, the book would also support a study on living things and their habitats – a curriculum topic for KS1 children who should recognise that environments can change and this can sometimes pose dangers to living things.
Many of the case studies that were described involved long hours of dedicated research or experiments but I felt that these stories might act to inspire young people to become engaged in citizen research and observations – so varied were the sites and species discussed that it would be possible to make your mark and contribute to the pool of scientific knowledge and understanding with whatever happened to be your own favourite species.
The majority of the world’s population lives in cities and whilst everyone accepts that there is frequent, distressing loss of wildlife due to human exploitation and resource use, a new view of the wildlife habitats that the city ultimately provides stimulates fresh perspectives.
This is a book I shall return to again – once more to read about the intrepid wildlife that, under our very own (urban) nose is shifting and shaping to exploit the opportunities and challenges that we humans lay down.
Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution. Menno Schilthuizen (2019). Quercus Editions Ltd. (an Hachette UK Company). Paperback pp344. ISBN 978-1-78648-108-5. £9.99. Available from hive.co.uk (support your local bookshop).