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National Pigeon Association

Unnatural Selection by Katrina van Grouw


Evolution isn’t easy to observe.

In wild animals, change usually happens so slowly that it’s impossible to know that evolution is actually taking place. But in dogs, in the farm livestock of the 19th Century, in poultry and especially in the domesticated fancy pigeons which he kept at his home, Charles Darwin could see visible change taking place in just a few animal generations. In fact changes in domesticated animals played a vital role in suggesting to Darwin how evolution might have come about in nature.

If you read On the Origin of Species you’ll see that it begins, not with descriptions of exotic animals he’d observed on the Galapagos Islands or in the rainforests of South America, but with a detailed analogy comparing evolution in nature with the selective breeding of domesticated pigeons. Darwin expanded on this theme in his monumental publication The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication. I was published 150 years ago this year.

To celebrate this anniversary I’ve written and illustrated a book, called Unnatural Selection, looking closely at Darwin’s analogy between natural and artificial selection, how evolution works and why Darwin failed to uncover the answer to how traits are passed from one generation to the next.

Although it’s a science/history book, it’s large and beautiful and accessible to audiences of any age, and the 400+ hand drawn illustrations make it equally a work of art.

The book discusses cattle, horses, pigs, sheep, goats, dogs, cats, poultry, rabbits—even canaries, budgies, and goldfish—and of course there’s a lot of pigeons! But equally importantly, it deals with what domesticated animals can teach us about how evolution works on a global scale.

There are some truly remarkable parallels.


Publishers jacket description.


Unnatural Selection

Katrina van Grouw


Unnatural Selection is a stunningly illustrated book about selective breeding—the ongoing transformation of animals at the hand of man. More importantly, it’s a book about selective breeding on a far, far grander scale—a scale that encompasses all life on Earth. We’d call it evolution.

A unique fusion of art, science, and history, this book celebrates the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s monumental work, The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, and is intended as a tribute to what Darwin might have achieved had he possessed that elusive missing piece to the evolutionary puzzle—the knowledge of how individual traits are passed from one generation to the next. With the benefit of a century and a half of hindsight, Katrina van Grouw explains evolution by building on the analogy that Darwin himself used—comparing the selective breeding process with natural selection in the wild and, like Darwin, featuring a multitude of fascinating examples.

This is more than just a book about pets and livestock, however. The revelation of Unnatural Selection is that identical traits can occur in all animals, wild and domesticated, and both are governed by the same evolutionary principles.  As van Grouw shows, animals are plastic things, constantly changing. In wild animals the changes are usually too slow to see—species appear to stay the same. When it comes to domesticated animals however, change happens fast, making them the perfect model of evolution in action. 

Suitable for the lay reader and student, as well as the more seasoned biologist, and featuring more than 400 breathtaking illustrations of living animals, skeletons, and historical specimens, Unnatural Selection will be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in natural history and the history of evolutionary thinking.


Katrina van Grouw, author of The Unfeathered Bird (Princeton), inhabits that no-man’s land midway between art and science. She holds degrees in fine art and natural history illustration, and is a former curator of ornithological collections at a major national museum. She’s a self-taught scientist with a passion for evolutionary biology and its history.


The book can be ordered from Amazon ( or ordered from your local book shop (ISBN 9780691157061)