Matt Ridley: Cities Are the New Galapagos

Matt Ridley in Human Progress:

Easter Monday bank holiday feels like a good moment to put aside politics and consider something far more portentous: evolution. Recently I was walking alongside a canal in central London, surrounded by concrete, glass, steel and tarmac, when I heard the call of a grey wagtail. Looking to my right I saw this bold, fast, yellow-bottomed bird, which I associate with wild rocky rivers in the north, flitting into a canal tunnel. Later that week I stared up at two peregrine falcons circling high above parliament — and got funny looks from passers-by.

Like other cities, London is increasingly home to exotic wildlife and is as biodiverse as some wildernesses. Mumbai has leopards, Boston turkeys, Chicago coyotes and Newcastle kittiwakes. Suburbs are already richer in wildlife than most arable fields in the so-called green belt, making environmental objections to housing development perverse. Gardens, ledges, drains, walls, trees and roofs are full of niches for everything from foxes to flowers and moths.

Two Czech scientists counted the species of plants in the city of Plzen compared with a similar area of surrounding countryside. In the city the number of species had risen from 478 in the late 19th century to 773 today. In the countryside it had fallen from 1,112 to 745.

Since most animals have shorter lifespans than us and no welfare state, they are genetically adapting faster to the concrete world than we are. A fascinating book by a Dutch biologist, Menno Schilthuizen, called Darwin Comes to Town, documents just how wide and deep this urban wildlife evolutionary pulse is. We have unleashed an unprecedented burst of natural selection.

More here.