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The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution…

The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time (original 1994; edition 1995)

by Jonathan Weiner

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1,217266,551 (4.2)81
Title:The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time
Authors:Jonathan Weiner
Info:Vintage (1995), Paperback, 352 pages
Collections:Your library, To read (inactive)
Tags:TBR, USA, Pulitzer

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The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time by Jonathan Weiner (1994)

  1. 10
    On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (Sandydog1)
    Sandydog1: If interested in the source, try Darwin's masterpiece.

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When in 1859 Charles Darwin published The Origin of the Species, he launched a storm of controversy that roils to this day. Scientists of his day were hardly convinced of Darwin's theory of "natural selection". During his years of study, research, and contemplation, Darwin amassed a mountain of evidence that evolution has happened. But the fact is that he never saw it happen.

In a famous passage in his seminal book, Darwin wrote:

It may metaphorically be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, the slightest variations; rejecting those that are that bad, preserving and adding up all that are good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers…. We see nothing of these slow changes in progress, until the hand of time has marked the lapse of ages, and then so imperfect is our view into long-past geological ages, that we see only that the forms of life are now different from what they formerly were.

[The Beak of the Finch], published in 1994, tells of a long-term (and still ongoing) research project that reveals evolution in action. Written by Jonathan Weiner, a teacher of science writing at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, the book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 1995. It's entirely readable. And it's an important report on what scientists now have observed about how natural selection works.

The project was launched in 1973, when Dr. Peter Grant and his wife and research partner Dr. Rosemary Grant, accompanied by several post-doctoral assistants, traveled to the Galápagos archipelago, and settled for a couple of months on a small, deserted, volcanic cone jutting from the ocean. Daphne Major, the Grants' island laboratory, has little vegetation but it's inhabited by frigatebirds, boobies, mockingbirds, hawks, and--most important--several species of finches, collectively known as Darwin's Finches. What the team did was capture, measure, and band every finch. The species of each finch was determined, and measurements of the birds were meticulously recorded in special waterproof notebooks. Meteorological data likewise was recorded daily. Close observation provided information about what the different finches ate, breeding preferences, longevity, and so on.

At the end of the season, the Grants returned home and keyed their data into a computer. They wrote scientific, academic papers describing their findings, gave lectures, taught in colleges. Most important, they repeated the enterprise year after year for two decades. They lived with and recorded the finches through the worst drought, a year in which many of the birds died of starvation. They collected data through the wettest year. And each fall, back at college, the Grants would transfer their handwritten records into the computer. A computer, of course, allows a massive database to be searched and sorted, and facts pertinent to questions, propositions, ideas, and theories are put at researchers' fingertips.

Alterations and variations in the beaks is telling. Weiner writes:

There are about nine thousand species of birds alive in the world today….Flamingos' beaks have deep troughs and fine filters, through which the birds pump water and mud with their tongues. Kingfishers' beaks have such stout inner braces and struts that a few species can dig tunnels in riverbanks by sailing headlong into the earth, over and over again, like flying jackhammers. Some finch beaks are like carpentry shops. They come equipped with ridges inside the upper mandible, which serve as a sort of built-in vise and help the finch hold a seed in place while sawing it open with the lower mandible.
   According to his
[Darwin's] theory, even the slightest idiosyncrasies in the shape of an individual beak can sometimes make a difference in what that particular bird can eat. In this way the variation will matter to the bird its whole life…"

Evolution by natural selection works. The Grants and their cadre of assistants have seen it. They have documented it. Their work has, of course, inspired additional such research around the world, focusing on other species of birds, of fishes, of insects. Research using DNA is ongoing, and it is demonstrating the evolution is in the world's DNA.
  weird_O | Feb 3, 2017 |
I have a science background but not in biology. I was amazed at hoe engrossed I became in this book as it described how the Grants show evolution in action by their finch observations on the Galapagos Islands. Who knew that millimeters of difference in beak size and depth affected the chances of survival of these birds.

The author reviews the research and conclusions of others doing similar research and how most of it fits together to enhance Darwin's work.

The information is revealed a little at a time but there is no lags in interest. This book revealed biological research to me in a manner I had never considered before.

If you are interested in Darwin and his work, I think you should read an amazing book on Darwin and Captain Fitzroy based on their diaries and the survey of the HMS Beagle as well as their lives in general. This book is a great companion read to this great work of non-fiction.

"This Thing of Darkness" by Harry Thompson
http://www.librarything.com/work/5107539/book/100912254 ( )
  Lynxear | Jan 25, 2016 |
A well-written look at contemporary evolutionary scholarship, mostly focused on the long-running detailed studies of Galapagos finches, but extending to work on guppies and moths and bacterial evolution as well. Weiner constantly brings the focus back to how the current work relates back to what Darwin himself thought and wrote about, which I thought a pretty effective stylistic device. Weiner ably conveys the way that evolution by natural selection actually works in practice, and that alone would make this book worth a read. ( )
1 vote JBD1 | Oct 26, 2015 |
Interesting read, yet I plodded my way through the first 250 pages. Hmmm. Perhaps I just needed to get to the Big Picture outlined in the last 50 pages (i.e., what it all means in the present and for the future). Fascinating as it should be, the detailed tale of evolutionary biologists' Rosemary and Peter Grant and their colleagues' measurement of finch beaks and collection of 20 years of data about the 13 species of Darwin's finches on the islands of Daphne and Genovesa in the Galapagos becomes a bit tedious at times. The book presents a clear and generally comprehensive survey of the study of evolution, however; how it has worked and is working still, how it operates right now in real time and not only in the past or always in slow motion. ( )
  Paulagraph | May 25, 2014 |
I had to read this for Core Bio in college. Did they think that, just because we weren't science majors, we would like to read entire books about science and write papers on them? I based my paper off the index. I don't think I did so hot on that paper. ( )
  purplehena | Mar 31, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 067973337X, Paperback)

Rosemary and Peter Grant and those assisting them have spend twenty years on Daphne Major, an island in the Galapagos studying natural selection. They recognize each individual bird on the island, when there are four hundred at the time of the author's visit, or when there are over a thousand. They have observed about twenty generations of finches -- continuously.
Jonathan Weiner follows these scientists as they watch Darwin's finches and come up with a new understanding of life itself.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:10:00 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

On a desert island in the heart of the Galapagos archipelago, where Darwin received his first inklings of the theory of evolution, two scientists, Peter and Rosemary Grant, have spent twenty years proving that Darwin did not know the strength of his own theory. For among the finches of Daphne Major, natural selection is neither rare nor slow: it is taking place by the hour, and we can watch. In this dramatic story of groundbreaking scientific research, Jonathan Weiner follows these scientists as they watch Darwin's finches and come up with a new understanding of life itself. The Beak of the Finch is an elegantly written and compelling masterpiece of theory and explication.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

» see all 2 descriptions

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