Book review: Unnatural Selection

Originally posted on September 28, 2015

by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain

Although it’s easy to go through life thinking about evolution as a process occurring on a millennial or epochal timescale, Emily Monosson draws our attention to evolutionary processes happening within our own lifespans in her excellent book, Unnatural Selection: How We are Changing Life, Gene by Gene (Island Press, 2014)These small but important changes take place in our bodies, beds, and the fields that grow our food. You might remember Monosson, who contributed “Life-Changing Chemicals” to our Metamorphosis volume. She also penned Evolution in a Toxic World (Island Press, 2012). She has a knack for discussing complex and frightening scientific concepts in engaging stories. Unnatural Selection is filled with these vignettes. We learn the history of antibiotics, how viruses and cancer cells work, and the incredible resistance to herbicides that many species have developed in the last two decades. The scientific data are couched in such captivating stories that the reader remains grotesquely fascinated. We hear the stories of people living with cancer and bed bugs, and Monosson’s own struggles with vaccinations and antibiotics when it came to medical interventions for her own children.

The tales in this text focus on the role of human beings in aiding the selection of stronger, drug or toxin-resistant strains of lifeforms from viruses to bed bugs to ryegrass by defeating the weaker individuals in these species with antibiotics, vaccines, herbicides, and pesticides. Monosson asks the question of whether this is a good idea. Yes, we have enjoyed a great respite in the last half-century from bacterial infections, but in the process we have selected for strains of MRSA (methicillin-resistant staph) that no known antibiotic can treat.

Will our technology be able to keep up with this evolutionary race indefinitely? And what is our goal as a society? Is it the survival of the fittest, or the survival of the most, or some other criterion?

She also addresses the problem of mutations in other species due to the toxic chemicals that are the byproduct of modern life in the developed world. What levels of unhealthy mutations in non-human species are we willing to accept in order to drive our cars and create our products with maximum efficiency? And can humans evolve, at least through microevolutions and epigenetics, to adapt to the new world we are creating for ourselves?

These questions are likely not new to readers of Whole Terrain, although the specific data and stories of the development of medical breakthroughs may be. Even though we may have similar concerns to those presented by Monosson, it can be difficult to know how to communicate this information to those who are not yet thinking along these lines without scaring them into paralysis. Enter Unnatural Selection. Since this book is written in plain English and holds the delicate balance between sharing in-depth information and riveting the imagination, this book is ideal to share with friends, colleagues, and students. My only criticism is that I would have liked to see a concluding chapter with suggestions about where we go from here. Are there choices that individuals can make today that will begin to ameliorate some of these problems? Where can we go to learn more information and become involved in advocacy? This would have made the book even more useful in the classroom, but the information can readily be found elsewhere with a little work on the part of the professor.

I recommend this book as a text book for undergraduates or graduate students in environmental studies, environmental science, other natural and social sciences, medical fields, food, nutrition, agriculture, and land management. It could also be very useful to students of public policy, history, and writing, opening up healthy interdisciplinary ideas regarding the scope and impact of their fields. Using this text in an undergraduate interdisciplinary course may be ideal. I can envision assigning chapters to different students based on their majors, prompting important discussions about the ethical implications of scientific breakthroughs as applied by fallible and frightened human beings.

I also recommend Unnatural Selection to readers of Whole Terrain. You will be fascinated by the stories of everyday people and microorganisms, the deep history of our intertwined evolutionary path with our smallest nemeses, and the wisdom of Monosson’s caution as she invites us to think of these scientific breakthroughs from a number of angles.

News Reporter
Cherice Bock edited Whole Terrain's volumes 22 and 23, "Trust" and "Breaking Bread." She is currently a general editor and works mainly on soliciting, editing, and creating web content.

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