A senior research scientist at Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the Netherlands tracks the fast pace of evolutionary change among animals in world cities, which are adapting in strange and surprising ways to the rapidly spreading human development that has destroyed their natural habitats.
Each day we pillage habitats of myriad animals and plants—think of all the miles of Brazilian rain forest maimed each year—and yet nature somehow bounces back with plan B, on our own turf. Darwin Comes to Town brims with absorbing, evocative stories, but it’s also cutting-edge science; Schilthuizen, along with only a handful of biologists around the world, is plumbing the genomic mutations and natural selection erupting around us ... Darwin Comes to Town, then, is surprisingly optimistic as it dives deep into the data of HIREC, or Human-Induced Rapid Evolutionary Change. As our world grows increasingly urbanized, as we design 'green' buildings among our congested downtowns, Schilthuizen’s book makes for essential reading. But don’t expect a dry textbook: he’s written an enthralling account that stands out from the pack of environmental literature.
There's no denying nature's resilience, even — maybe especially — when the changes have occurred swiftly enough that traditional expectations about adaptation and evolution can't seem to keep up. Schilthuizen carefully picks his way through those particulars ... But though there are few cut-and-dry conclusions there, one thing is clear: This isn't just about the adaptation of some clever species to a new environment — it's about a world in which there's no other option ... the unavoidable facts of Schilthuizen's case mean that occasionally his rhetorical devices verge on disingenuous ... The threat we pose to nature is so self-evident that it is, on some level, beside the point. Instead, the book offers food for thought, and aims to give you new appreciation for the weeds in your driveway, the bugs in your porch lights, or the pigeons on your telephone wires. It succeeds; Darwin Comes to Town is a vivid portrait of a world changing to survive us.
The animals that are moving into built-up areas are adapting and even evolving at breathtaking speed in response to this new and richly varied ecosystem. Not only are those mosquitoes, for example, a new strain, they also vary according to which Tube line they inhabit. Evolution in the city is quick and precise. In saying this, Schilthuizen is taking on three centuries of literature and polemic that defends the virtues of rural nature against the vices of city life ... This is a spellbinding and important book. Its only notable flaws are the bewilderingly dumb title and equally dumb cover picture of a zebra on a zebra crossing. Never mind, the message is thrilling. We might be reasonably fearful of our vast urban agglomerations, but at least we can console ourselves that they are not the sterile, alienated wastelands of the post-industrial imagination. For us, and countless forms of our distant relatives, they are just a new home.