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Darwin Comes to Town:
How the urban jungle drives evolution
More books on Evolution
EVOLUTIONARY biologist Menno Schilthuizen is clearly a glass-halffull kind of guy. In his resolutely optimistic book Darwin Comes to Town, he takes us on a global tour of how nature is responding to massive urban expansion, and finds much that is good.
Faced with our alteration of the planet and its climate, in particular through a toxic mix of increased urbanisation and highly intensive farming, Schilthuizen's pragmatic and balanced response is to look for the positives.
He finds these in the very places where most of us now live: cities. Urban sprawl, he proclaims, creates spaces for those organisms able to resist the concrete, the noise, the lack of greenery and the effects of chemical and light pollution.
In his thought-provoking book, Schilthuizen describes the wonders of what he calls humaninduced rapid evolutionary change, as animals and plants adapt their bodies and habits to the new urban terrain, creating new ecological niches.
Some of these examples have been studied for a long time: the rise and fall of blue tits pecking at British milk-bottle tops was first noted in the 1930s, and has now virtually disappeared, along with the doorstep deliveries of full-fat milk that made it possible. Other adaptations, such as that of the now pigeon-eating catfish of Albi in southern France, have only recently been observed, while the significance of the physical and behavioural changes shown by urban blackbirds in Europe is only just being appreciated.
Schilthuizen cleverly uses examples of urban biodiversity to explore the central concepts of behavioural ecology, from ecosystem engineers (ants and humans), through island biogeography (as true on roundabouts as on oceanic isles) to honest signalling and sexual selection. These ideas are explained simply, often supported by the words of the scientists directly involved.
With care, Schilthuizen explores whether the changes he describes are in fact examples of evolution - changes in genes - or whether they are cases of learning or of the fashionable, but rarely demonstrated, inherited non-genetic changes known as epigenetics. The rigorous and stimulating discussions of how we can distinguish between various causes of change, and what their long-term implications are, help make the book required reading.
Schilthuizen, a professor of biodiversity at Leiden University in the Netherlands, doesn't dismiss attempts to conserve species in the wild or protect wilderness. As an experienced researcher in tropical biology and with a deep love for the natural world, he understands the importance of maintaining the remaining wild areas. In a moving coda, he describes his sadness at returning to the semi-wild edgeland bogs of his Rotterdam childhood to find them covered with neat housing estates.
Schilthuizen describes the wonders of what he calls human-induced rapid evolutionary change
But barring a catastrophe that decimates the human population, he emphasises that we - and nature - are going to have to make do with an urbanised planet. And the urban spiders and plants and birds and microbes he describes give some reason to be optimistic.
As a glass-half-empty kind of guy, at least when it comes to the future of biodiversity, I was particularly pleased by the final section covering four ways we can encourage urban biodiversity: let wild organisms survive, don't eliminate non-native species, preserve pristine wild areas around cities and monitor urban biodiversity using apps and citizen science.
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