STL Science Center

STL Science Center

05 August 2018

Classy Introductions

In order to name something, you need to be able to define the parameters of that thing — to know categorically when it ceases to be one thing and becomes another.
- Page 8, Unnatural Selection 

Every science text that aims to cross over to popular nonfiction work needs to have a very good introduction that not only grabs the reader's attention but also explains the basic tenets of the book's context in a way in which non-scientist readers can follow along and apply the fundamentals of these ideas. Application can be either within the text or outside of the book. Most authors that care about teaching their audience (we hope all authors, of course) spend a great deal of time explaining these basic principles of their text to make this process easier. The first few chapters of Unnatural Selection outline some of the basic principles of evolutionary science including basic lessons in phylogenetics, speciation, and a basic understanding of plasticity.

I did not mention this yesterday, however, Unnatural Selection is a book that focuses primarily on the phenomenon of dometication in its various forms, that is from the development of livestock to pigeon fanciering and from dog breeding to the very complex nature of swine domestication and hybridization. To sum it up more succinctly, the book is about selective breeding, and the basic principles of how we name animals, how they are related, and how this breeding process has worked over time are very important to understanding the later chapters of the book. Therefore, the first section of the book, in which these principles are taught to the reader, are very important. They are, fortunately, very well written.

As an example, the sometimes difficult to explain concept of organismal plasticity is written such that it is fairly easy to follow as well. In the scope of the book (that is in its use in describing selective breeding), a slightly different definition is used than that of the strict biological definition of the word. In that strict biological sense of the word we are looking at a phenotypic plasticity or the adaptability of an organism to changes in its environment. Unnatural Selection approaches plasticity in terms of the potential for changes over generations, rather than in a single generation. We could say the difference is that between an animal that experiences an environmental change over its life (for a myriad list of reasons hypothetical or otherwise) compared to the changes of a dog (cat, pig, pigeon, parakeet) breed over successive generations (see below for change over time in Bullterrier skulls). That breed can change in many different ways for a variety of reasons including, as van Grouw says, "fashions might simply change." Additionally, because these animals are all interbreeding subspecies, those plastic changes can flip, flop, and twist in amazingly interesting ways over the years because of the breeding of mutts and mixes of purebreeds that become fashionable (think of things like Labradoodles).

©Katrina van Grouw

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