Evolution in a toxic world

How life responds to chemical threats


Natural Defense
Natural Defense guides us through a lively, provocative consideration of more ecologically balanced approaches to a disease-free future…Monosson presents a vision for a future in which we embrace our role in—and learn to harness the transformative potential of—the planet’s web of biological relationships. In that humility, we may finally find the North Star on our journey toward a sustainable, healthy future.”


“Reading this compact, compelling book is mostly an uplifting experience—Monosson does, after all, spotlight solutions—but the environmental and public health problems for which they are designed can be formidable….With a willingness to stand back and look at the world in a different way, perhaps we will enter a new age of working with nature as we continue to improve human well-being.”

(Earth Island Journal)

“Monosson offers a positive outlook on the future of plant protection and our subsequent health benefits with innovative scientific advancements that look to germs and bugs to work with nature instead of fighting against it.”

(Food Tank)

“[Monosson] is a good writer, and this volume reads well and easily even by non-scientific readers.”

(San Francisco Book Review)

“A timely message of hope…[Monosson] argues that we can achieve better (i.e., more targeted and sustainable) outcomes to control pests and pathogens through new ecological understanding, technologically advanced diagnostics, and modern tools that harness the previously hidden powers of our microscale natural allies…a fascinating and thought-provoking read.”


“Despite the ravages described, the book sounds some optimistic notes promoting sustainability. This is about translational science taking research and technology from bench to bedside and farm field.”


“In Natural Defense: Enlisting Bugs and Germs to Protect Our Food and Health, Dr. Emily Monosson takes us on a tour of new technologies coming down the pipeline, based on biology and often high-performance computing rather than chemistry…Natural Defense is well-written and accessible, full of anecdotes and real-world examples and not too heavy on jargon.”

(Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences)

“An extraordinary study that is impressively ‘reader friendly’ in organization and presentation…unreservedly recommended.”

(Midwest Book Review)

“Monosson shows us how to borrow the best from nature and technology to protect people, plants, and the planet. A must-read for anyone looking for sustainable solutions for fighting infection and maintaining health.”

(Daphne Miller MD, author of “Farmacology: Total Health from the Ground Up”)

“In Natural Defense, Emily Monosson introduces readers to scientists grappling with both human and landscape health and trying to work with, instead of beat back, nature. A hopeful vision of how humans might thrive on this planet.”

(Kristin Ohlson, author of “The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet”)

Unnatural Selection
“[An] examination of rapid evolution driven by artificial poisons. [Monosson’s] tour takes in antibiotic-resistant staph bacteria, herbicide-resistant agricultural weeds, DDT-resistant bedbugs and the blue crabs of Piles Creek, New Jersey. Living in a soup of pollutants including mercury and hydrocarbons, these decapodal survivors display altered behaviours as well as resistance. Monosson ends with a thought-provoking look at epigenetics—evolution “beyond selection”.”


“…a stealth lesson in basic biology — just the book to give to a friend or family member who thinks that evolution has little to do with day-to-day practicalities.”

(Los Angeles Review of Books)

“This fascinating and thought-provoking book…Monosson eloquently and in layman’s terms describes how life is resilient and details case studies of organisms that have rapidly evolved to overcome whatever (usually chemical) ways of killing them we humans have concocted.”

(National Nurse)

“WOW! This deceptively slender book packs a helluva powerful punch….Unnatural Selection is an engaging and eye-opening book that is essential reading for everyone—city dwellers and country folk alike—who lives on planet Earth….Like reading a dystopian novel, this book will capture your imagination and keep you awake into the wee hours. But unlike a dystopian novel, the author actually proposes evolutionarily-sound strategies for what we can do to stop the damage before it becomes lasting.”

(The Guardian’s GrrlScientist blog)

“disturbing but fascinating…bright, clear, and accessible prose…A concise book with a powerful message.”


“It is an honest attempt to wake us up and realize the bigger and more complex picture nature shows us.”

(San Francisco Book Review)

Unnatural Selection is a well-written book in the tradition of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. It usefully updates that epochal work, engagingly presenting new research on the impact of chemical products from herbicides to antibiotics, both on other species and on ourselves. Despite its elegant brevity, it covers a satisfying breadth of ecological and evolutionary concerns in environmental toxicology. It can be safely offered as recommended reading for biology undergraduates, congressional staffers, or general readers who are concerned about the environment.”

(Trends in Ecology & Evolution)

“Toxicologist Monosson looks at the alarming effects of rapid evolution caused by pesticides, antibiotics and pollutants.”

(Toronto Star)

“The power of evolution, toxicologist Monosson (Evolution in a Toxic World) demonstrates, is quite amazing: when strong selective pressure is coupled with short generation times, significant changes in populations can occur over very brief intervals. … She concludes with an interesting, if tangential, discussion of epigenetics.”

(Publishers Weekly)

“Part science-lover’s paradise, part horror novel, Monosson describes these human-influenced evolutionary terrors in fascinating detail.”

(The Daily of the University of Washington)

Evolution in a Toxic World
“A new field is born—evolutionary toxicology*—and Monosson has opened the door for us.”
*While I really appreciate the comment, I need to note that back in 1994, John Bickham and Michael Smolen wrote about Evolutionary Toxicology, concluding that “…it is likely that most toxic chemicals in the environment will affect evolutionary processes.” Though they were talking modern times – the sentiment I think is similar. So I would propose that the term evolutionary toxicology applies both to geological time periods as in Evolution in a Toxic World, and to modern times as discussed by Bickham and Smolen.
Presents a slightly more technical topic and provides a much abbreviated set of stories to illustrate this super interesting idea. Prior to reading this I actually didn’t find evolution all that super interesting of a topic (shhh… don’t tell Bio1A) but this book really made me love evolutionary biology. Evolution in a Toxic World is a bit more technical than The Poisoner’s Handbook and a great way to put all of those details from NST110 into context.
“…it does provide detailed information about how life evolved to survive everything that our planet, other organisms and its own cells can throw at it through some fascinating examples.”

Science Illustrated

“Monosson posits that the field of toxicology should look to evolution to understand biological responses to today’s chemical threats.”



“A toxicologist traces how life evolved to deal with toxic substances and how this plays into chemical exposures today.”

Science News

Evolution in a Toxic World addresses the challenges posed to life on earth by a plethora of toxic threats. There are chapters dedicated to ozone, oxygen, metals, assorted chemical agents, cancer, etc. … The book serves as an excellent introduction to the topic of toxicology and evolution for the college student or general reader.”

Science Books and Films
“This 222-page book is a thought-provoking summary of an important but often ignored subject matter, evnironmental toxicology.”


BioScience Review by Judith S. Weis

“The book is written in an accessible style and is aimed at the general public, as well as at scientists. The third-person scientific writing is interspersed with personal anecdotes and thoughts, which should help to make the book more appealing.”


REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Evolution in a Toxic World: How Life Responds to Chemical Threats” by Emily Monosson

“Evolution in a Toxic World” is, in some ways, a story of the evolution of one toxicologist’s personal and professional evolution in a field that is, by her account, at last merging with the insights available from the field of evolutionary studies.  For it turns out that toxicology has much more to concern itself with than the occasional dramatic case of humans being poisoned by their own chemical creations.  The emerging reality about the interactions of thousands upon thousands of “new” chemical compounds with the evolved biology of every living thing is an area that requires careful study and new ways of defining just what dangers might lurk in our present and future environments (as altered by human activity).

The reality is this: we industrious humans have liberated tons of heavy metals and naturally-occuring materials from the earth through our mining and burning and manufacturing.  Along the way we have invented chemical compounds that have never existed in nature.  It stands to reason that such an environment — changed as it is from the one we evolved in — might produce some surprises in our biology, and this is proving to be the case.

But this case is sometimes subtle and nuanced — not always a tale of deathly poisons, but often of chemicals whose molecular shapes resemble hormones, say, and that fool living cells into taking them up in ways that alters reproductive cycles or DNA.

This book is not alarmist, even if there are alarming revelations as the author takes us along on her own journey into our evolutionary past in order to better understand the task that is before scientists such as her (and humankind).  it is a well-written, cogent and enjoyable book to read, well worth your time if for no other reason than the fact that you have to live your life in this new chemical world we have created.

I highly recommend this book.

t.n.s.r. bob

 The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!


Evolution in a toxic world | Book Review | Grrrl Scientist

The author investigates how from its very beginning, life evolved to deal with all sorts of toxins, a process that continues today, and she predicts what the future may hold.

Earth is a hostile place — and that’s even before one starts attending school. Even when life first sparked into being, it had to evolve defenses to deal with a number of toxins, such as damaging ultraviolet light, then there were toxic elements ranging from iron to oxygen to overcome, later, there was DDT and other toxic chemicals and of course, there are all those dreaded cancers.

In Evolution In A Toxic World: How Life Responds To Chemical Threats [Island Press; 2012: Guardian BookshopAmazon UK;Amazon US], environmental toxicologist Emily Monosson outlines three billion years of evolution designed to withstand the hardships of living on this deadly planet, giving rise to processes ranging from excretion, transformation or stowing harmful substances. The subtitle erroneously suggests these toxins are only chemical in nature, but the author actually discusses more than this one subclass of toxins.

The method that arose to deal with these toxins is a plethora of specialised, targeted proteins — enzymes that capture toxins and repair their damages. By following the origin and progression of these shared enzymes that evolved to deal with specific toxins, the author traces their history from the first bacteria-like organisms to modern humans. Comparing the new field evolutionary toxicology to biomedical research, Dr Monosson notes: “In light of evolution, biomedical researchers are now asking questions that might seem antithetical to medicine”. Continuing this analogy, she frames her argument thus:

“Simply put,” write Randolph Nesse and co-authors in the journal Science, “… training in evolutionary thinking can help both biomedical researchers and clinicians ask useful questions that they might not otherwise pose.” The same could be said for researchers and practitioners of toxicology. [p. 3]


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