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Gonorrhea. Bed bugs. Weeds. Salamanders. People. All are evolving, some surprisingly rapidly, in response to our chemical age. In Unnatural Selection, Emily Monosson shows how our drugs, pesticides, and pollution are exerting intense selection pressure on all manner of species. And we humans might not like the result. Monosson reveals that the very code of life is more fluid than once imagined. When our powerful chemicals put the pressure on to evolve or die, beneficial traits can sweep rapidly through a population. Species with explosive population growth—the bugs, bacteria, and weeds—tend to thrive, while bigger, slower-to-reproduce creatures, like ourselves, are more likely to succumb. Unnatural Selection is eye-opening and more than a little disquieting. But it also suggests how we might lessen our impact: manage pests without creating super bugs; protect individuals from disease without inviting epidemics; and benefit from technology without threatening the health of our children.



Introduction: Life-Changing Chemicals

Introduction. Life-Changing Chemicals

A leukemia patient who once ran marathons, now barely able to walk down the block, waits anxiously as his doctor struggles to find a drug that can outsmart chemo-defying cancer cells. An Iowa farmer scratches her head, wondering how to save her corn crop from weeds now resistant to the “once in a century” herbicide. A father paces anxiously by his daughter’s bedside, hoping that this next round of antibiotics will do the trick. Bedbugs spread throughout a home, tucking into floorboards and bedding—feeding on its slumbering inhabitants and driving them nearly insane. These aren’t scenes from the latest dystopian sci-fi novel; they are real problems, affecting people everywhere, and they all have one thing in common. We beat life back with our drugs, pesticides, and pollutants, but life responds. It evolves.

Emily Monosson

Unnatural Selection in a Natural World


Chapter 1. Discovery: Antibiotics and the Rise of the Superbug

“I see resistant staph all the time,” says nurse practitioner Maggie G. Her enormous blue eyes convey both the compassion and the weariness of someone who has seen it all. Over the course of 25 years, the Western Massachusetts nurse has treated farmers, hill-town hippies, and teens seeking treatment for STDs and fevers, as well as men, women, and children who walk for miles and wait patiently with festering wounds and suppurating tumors in the Sierra Leone clinic that she visits once a year. One constant throughout all of Maggie’s experiences is methicillin-resistant staph, or MRSA. Back in the late eighties, when Maggie was just finishing nursing school, MRSA was rare. But over the years she has witnessed the rise of this drug-resistant bug, tending to countless cases—one of the most memorable involved a young camp counselor whose infected toe turned into a life-threatening hole in her heart. When we spoke, Maggie was working with recovering addicts at a psych hospital. MRSA spreads so easily in needle-using addict populations through needle sharing or festering open wounds that Maggie says addicts are often treated “presumptively”—meaning the staff doesn’t always test but assumes drug resistance. It’s a reasonable assumption. In some places, nearly 50 percent of the needle-using population may be positive for community-acquired MRSA.

Emily Monosson

Chapter 2. Prevention: Searching for a Universal Vaccine

“Get the shot,” urged Annie. Her good friend and fellow physician K. was considering forgoing the yearly flu shot, even though it could mean losing her job at the hospital. K. was having health problems of her own, and like many chronic sufferers of undiagnosed illnesses, she had begun to wonder if all our Western medication was doing more harm than good.

Emily Monosson

Chapter 3. Treatment: Beyond Chemotherapy

“When I was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia cancer, my wife and I were both runners, training pretty high miles,” recalls Matt W., a 37-year-old physicist and father of three. “At the time I hadn’t noticed anything in particular was wrong. I had a few episodes of night sweats, but I didn’t put it all together.” But when Matt could barely finish a 5K race, it was clearly time to see a doctor. As a graduate student, he didn’t have a regular physician, so he went to a walk-in clinic. “The poor doctor, who had never seen me before, basically said ‘you’ve got white cells off the charts and your spleen is the size of a grapefruit.’” The diagnosis was leukemia. That was Friday. Matt was scheduled for the oncologist the following Monday, which “gave me and Elizabeth [Matt’s wife] all weekend to freak out about it.”

Emily Monosson

Chapter 4. Defiance: Rounding Up Resistance

Some call them “superweeds.” Weed scientist and anti-resistance zealot Mike Owen calls them “driver weeds.” No matter what you call them, agricultural weeds around the world are evolving herbicide resistance, a problem that some claim is one of today’s greatest threats to agriculture. “If you don’t control them,” insists Owen, “you will have a serious economic problem.” Herbicide-resistant weeds are gaining ground, and conventional farmers across the country are scrambling for solutions. The weeds that get Owen traveling across the country and around the world, appealing to farmers, academics, industry scientists, and ag management alike, aren’t just any resistant weeds. These are the horseweed, pigweed, waterhemp, and others that have evolved a stubborn resistance to Roundup, the “once in a century” herbicide. Resistant weeds, hundreds of different species, are spreading across the country at an increasingly rapid pace, infesting more than half of our nation’s crops. By the time you read this, their numbers will have increased.

Emily Monosson

Chapter 5. Resurgence: Bedbugs Bite Back

“I was so sleep deprived from worrying and from the itching, I was literally going crazy,” recalls Abby of her bout with bedbugs. “The bites were in rows: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They were terrible bites that itched like nothing before.” Desperate for relief, Abby took to sleeping on an air mattress in the middle of the kitchen floor. She’d hoped the problem was fleas, possibly brought in by the cats—at least fleas are easy to kill. But that wasn’t the problem. It was bedbugs, which, says Abby, are endemic in town. As a physician and director of a local community health center, she ought to know. She’s since seen plenty of bedbug bites and plenty of denial. Abby suspects that, for years, patients with oozy welts caused by bedbugs were misdiagnosed by physicians and nurse practitioners as scabies or flea bites—both easier problems to remedy. The real cause was overlooked for good reason. Like once-common diseases, bedbugs had become part of our history, banished from our homes and apartments decades ago. But now they are back with a vengeance. Pest-management professionals like Orkin and Terminix publish an annual list of top bedbug cities. In 2012, Philadelphia topped the Terminix list, while Chicago topped Orkin’s. Reported infestations have risen dramatically over the last two decades. In their 2013 survey

Bugs without Borders

, the National Pest Management Association reports that nearly 100 percent of the pest-management companies surveyed had been called upon to deal with the bugs, up a few percentage points from previous years and far more than a decade ago. And there is no end in sight.

Emily Monosson

Natural Selection in an Unnatural World


Chapter 6. Release: Toxics in the Wild

“When that


article on tomcod was published,” recalls geneticist Isaac Wirgin, “I’d never been so popular.” His phone was off the hook with calls from the

New York Times


National Geographic

, National Public Radio, and even the Associated Press. Atlantic tomcod, improbably celebrated by the Québécois each winter, are ugly little fish that also make their home in the PCB-laden Hudson River, fodder for the much more popular bluefish and bass. Wirgin and colleagues had just published a paper confirming that Hudson River tomcod had evolved resistance to incredibly high concentrations of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), the chemicals responsible for turning the majestic Hudson into the largest Superfund site in the nation. Over a period of 30 years, General Electric, the company that promised “We Bring Good Things to Life,” released an estimated 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the Hudson.

Emily Monosson

Chapter 7. Evolution: It’s Humanly Possible

On a cold Wednesday evening after a presentation on pollution and evolution at Boston’s Arnold Arboretum, I was asked a question I’ve struggled with ever since I began thinking about toxicants and evolution. I’d just rattled off a list of synthetic chemicals that are now part of our chemical environment: plastics, pesticides, flame retardants, PCBs. Usually after a presentation, the discussion revolves around how we can do better: improve toxicity testing, regulation, and management, or rely on green chemistry to create less harmful chemicals. But this time, perhaps making a bit of mischief, an audience member asked, “If we can’t rein in these chemicals, why bother? Why


let nature take its course? You know, survival of the fittest?”

Emily Monosson

Beyond Selection


Chapter 8. Epigenetics: Epilogue or Prologue?

The Hunger Winter was brief but devastating. Lasting from November 1944 to February1945, harsh winter conditions, combined with a Nazi blockade, caused massive starvation in occupied regions of the Netherlands. Over four million men, women, and children starved; tens of thousands died. But life went on. Women became pregnant, the next generation was born, and all of it was recorded in health registries. Decades later these registries provided invaluable insights into the interaction between environment—in this case, the nutritional environment—and genetic expression, or phenotype. For epidemiologist Lambert Lumey, molecular epidemiologist Bas Heijmans, and colleagues, the records offered a treasure trove of data on mothers, fathers, children, and grandchildren affected by the tragic conditions. From the statistics, the lasting effects of starvation began to emerge clearly: women whose mothers were malnourished while pregnant were at risk for obesity later in life; adults conceived during the famine had a higher risk of developing schizophrenia; most surprising, grandchildren born to daughters carried by mothers malnourished tended to be heavier. Other than genetic mutation, which was unlikely, how could starvation influence subsequent generations well beyond those that were exposed? One answer is epigenetics: biochemical modifications that alter genetic expression but do not alter DNA sequence.

Emily Monosson


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