Two Books about Skeletons [Review]

Unnatural Selection

by Katrina van Grouw
Princeton University Press, 2018

How does evolution happen? This is the behind Unnatural Selection, written by natural history curator and illustrator Katrina van Grouw. She approaches it from a direction unfashionable these days, though one that Charles Darwin received inspiration from: the selective breeding of domesticated animals. Unnatural Selection is a book about the skeletons of dogs and cats, pigeons and ducks, compared and contrasted with each other, and if you think one chicken breed, say, is much the same as another, their bones tell a different story.

pigeon heads by katrina van grouw

Pigeon Diversity, (c) Katrina van Grouw

In addition to the mouth-watering pencil illustrations (dark graphite on rich, toothy paper, loose enough to display character, yet tight enough for scientific accuracy) there are stories about genetics, scientists of the past, anthropology, and the breeds themselves. Take, for example, the tale of the crested chicken. Some chicken breeds, such as Polish, sport a ruff of feathers on top of their heads. Unusual, but no big deal; there are plenty of birds with crests. But what lies beneath that feather cap, that’s a different story. There’s a hole in the skull, a fatty pad, and sometimes extrusions of bone sticking out of that pad, and the feathers themselves don’t belong to the head, they are those of the tail. It’s a mutation of more than a few feathers growing where they shouldn’t. The unasked question is, how does a single mutation start a cascade of effects to create the hole, the pad, the horns, the foreign feathers?

It sounded to me like the genes that grow feathers on the bird’s fatty rump somehow triggered the same growth on the head – an error of placement and developmental timing. Such a mutation, the book suggests, could have created a new race of horned and frilled chickens, if they found the right environment and were allowed to expand within it, becoming, in short time, a new species. Evolution may move by leaps as well as gradual adaptations, and if the book is firm on anything it’s that genetics isn’t always neat and tidy and doesn’t always follow the rules. Creature and environment work in conjunction with each other. If there is some environmental advantage for the chicken to have this odd headgear, it will survive and perpetuate. Or, perhaps not, but the genes are still there, waiting for their moment. It’s only a matter of time before they pop out again.

As a book about a specific branch of hard science Unnatural Selection was too anecdotal, but as a series of essays continuing on each other, it worked well and for me filled in some of the gaps from my more convention reading in genetics (I cannot recommend She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, by Carl Zimmer, highly enough.)


Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs

by Paul Koudounaris
Thames & Hudson, 2013

Heavenly Bodies, in contrast, is a book about human bones and an overlooked era of history – post-Reformation in the Germanic nations of Europe.

Catholics there were still reeling from the influence of Martin Luther and so, to bolster up the people’s faith, the Vatican decided to ship, wholesale, skeletons of Christian martyrs – or what they assumed were Christian martyrs – from a recently discovered catacomb near Rome to churches, parishes, monasteries and convents for veneration and display. These skeletons were revered as much as those of the saints were, for in the violence of the Reformation many churches had been looted and their relics destroyed. These “martyrs” filled in a vital gap for the community. As their identities were never known they were given new names and histories and received a lengthy treatment to render them as objects of display – cleaning, articulation, and sumptuous clothing. The bare bones were decorated with elaborate whorls of gems both real and glass, held in place with gold or silver wirework. Finally they were given positions of honor in the church in lifelike poses.

heavenly bodies

Such a display may seem macabre or horrifying to the people of today. Yet it was very natural to the people of the time. The bones were meant to evoke awe and faith, and even generated a vital sense of community. The author is clear-eyed and articulate, approaching the skeletons sympathetically while acknowledging their dubious exhumations. In fact, he dedicates the book to the anonymous artists behind the skeletons’ creation, for they are indeed works of art. The book is filled with sumptuous photographs of the detail involved and the effect they created in their environment, the churches. Sadly, some languish today out of the public eye, moldering in attics or warehouses.

Heavenly Bodies has a gothic, baroque vibe, but I wouldn’t call it a horror book. The emphasis was on life, not death. The skeletons, as macabre as they were, were an affirmation of faith and hope, like the painted clay muerto figurines of the Mexican Day of the Dead. The Mexican caricaturist Posada endowed them with a bizarreness that hipsters adopted with irony; recent depictions in American culture are more decorative. But in actuality the muertos are not meant with irony or a love of death. They are closer in spirit to the jeweled skeletons of those German churches. One is sanctified, the other folk; yet both arise from faith.

In all, two very good books combining both art and science, and recommended.


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