on June 2, 2000
Weiner's The Beak of the Finch is a positively brilliant work on the topic of evolution. A great introduction for the student of evolutionary biology, or the layman. Weiner's book destroys two of the greatest myths about evolution. 1. It's slow. 2. It can't be observed. The study of the Galapagos Finches not only proves the importance of evolution as a contemporary subject but as one that can be observed RIGHT NOW in the world around us. It's almost astonishing to see how simple evolution truly is, how it occurs in quantifiable baby steps that we can see, if we only take the time to carefully observe. Weiner not only demystifies evolution, but makes it as a topic, thoroughly accessible to the interested layman. His prose is neither dry nor technical and in fact, makes for quite an enjoyable read. I wholeheartedly recommend this book.
on October 3, 2001
Weiner sets the reader down with the ghost of Darwin, on the Galapagos Islands where the Grants have been studying since 1973. He introduces us to 'Darwin's finches,' the same birds Darwin observed and wrote about in "Origin of the Species".
We're introduced to a populationg that is perfect for evolutionary studies--a limited number of species in a closed ecosystem on an isolated island. Darwin couldn't have known what his observations would lead to so many years later, but Weiner shares with us the Grants meticulous study of over 20 generations of finches. Thousands of individual birds were measured, and their progeny tracked. Through this book, we see what they saw--evolution in action.
Weiner weaves facts into a nice story. The book is engaging and reads like a novel, so much so that my 13 year-old daughter is now reading it.
The conclusions (and no, this isn't a spoiler) are that evolution by natural selection occurs and that selection can occur quickly (it's not always a slow process). Weiner (and the Grants) also touches on speciation in fish populations, and bacterial and viral evolution.
This was required reading in an introductory evolution class in college. I hope, someday, students in high school will be assigned this book. It was excellent, and will probably be wrapped up as Christmas gifts for a few of my friends and family.
on May 29, 2001
Weiner has written a great book on evolutionary science. Instead of a frozen doctrine whose outlines are generally agreed upon as a quasi-religion, Weiner demonstrates how the modalities of evolution - how it actually occurs in nature - are still under investigation. It is a snapshot of an evolving science, carried out over a lifetime of research by two distinguished scientists.
One of the particular things they are attempting to observe directly is a speciation event - the creation of a new species of finch - which we long assumed must take place over geologic time and hence is unobservable. But in the process, Weiner reviews the notion of evolution, with fascinating tidbits from Darwin's original research and thoughts on these same finches of the Galopagos. It is a brilliant portrait of the cutting edge in science as well as a detailed review of many basic notions of evolution.
It is also a beautifully written book, indeed a masterpiece of elucidation. And it is all hard science, rather than the pseudo-scientific pap that passes for it in so many popular magazines today. While its rigor makes the book a challenge to read, it is well worth the effort.
Recommended, one of the best pieces of scientific journalism I ever read.
on January 7, 1999
Writing about science, scientists, and history in a way that keeps an educated layman absorbed is an extremely difficult craft. This writer is so adept at it that his Pulitzer Prize was almost inevitable; and I'll now read everything he writes. The Beak of the Finch is about what Darwin deduced from limited observations, which only in the past couple of decades has been confirmed and better understood by biologists. The book focuses on the work of Peter and Rosemary Grant and their students in the Galapagos Islands, which Darwin visited on the Beagle. I picked up this book before going to the Galapagos--as should everyone lucky enough to do that--but it would be just as fascinating for the armchair traveler and the would-be or wannabe biologist. I marked numerous passages to read to wife and teenaged kids on our trip, and even the most cynical and anti-school of the kids rated it extremely interesting and beautifully written. The shocking punch line: "Nearly half of all Americans say they don't believe the theory of evolution."
on July 23, 1999
The main complaint I have about the book is a matter of individual taste: the efforts to lend personal colour to the characters are ham-fisted, Reader's Digesty, and generally out of line with the rest of the book's quality. I have no objection to the personal touch in dealing with the work of researchers, in fact I actively enjoy it, but it requires a delicate touch and in this book it does not get it. For instance, I hardly could care less what brand of Mac adorns whose desk, whether edible or computational, and don't like having to wade through that sort of detail to get at the beef.
In every other respect the book is a fine piece of work, valuable and entertaining. The treatment of the themes, the subjects and the material is well balanced. Weiner structures the subject and the contexts competently and coherently. The book obviously took a large helping of hard work to write and to research. In spite of the title, the Finches, though they are the main protagonists and endearing to boot, do not obscure the main theme, which is at all times the effect and mechanism of natural selection in evolution.
Apart from the grounds for my one opening complaint, the book is well, clearly and pleasantly written. I strongly recommend it to anyone with an interest in biology, professional or not. I suspect that many readers will wonder what I was grousing about. And in case anyone with an even greater distaste for those passages feels tempted to drop the book in irritation, I urge them to grit their teeth, skim the offending bits and bear it. There is plenty of Good Stuff to compensate for the annoyance, and I cannot think of any other book which so accessibly, lucidly and persuasively covers the same material.
on July 2, 2008
Beak of the Finch appears to be unique among popular evolution texts in the way that the author illustrates his points by highlighting measurable changes in the physical attributes of animals to prove the validity of Darwin's thesis: that plants and animals, through selective breeding, sprout biologically advantageous features.
His main subject are (no surprise) the finches first recorded in detail by Darwin in the 19th century. A band of researchers making meticulous observations and measurement over three decades, have compiled a catalog of data so extensive that meaningful averages have been firmly established to show how certain species of finch have responded within a handful of generations (or less!) to pressures exerted on them by their local environment. Clear variations in beak depth and width have been observed in response to adverse weather, bountiful food, scarce food, plant changes, nesting habitat availability and more. Such factors have directly altered these finches -- within the scale of far less than a human lifetime -- where it was once thought that "evolution in action" could _never_ be observed. True, the measurable average change is neither enormous nor startlingly obvious, but it's real none the less.
Interspersed with this tale of observation and measurement is a good narration of how Darwin himself gradually shifted from pious adherence to Creationism to a truth he could no longer deny in the face of what he considered to be incontrovertible evidence.
A good book, but it loses steam towards the end as the observations of the finches is not quite meaty enough alone to fill an entire book. The author moves on to some other notable examples of observable evolution such as moths and apple flys. This material, while casually interesting, made for less compelling reading.
on April 11, 1998
"The Beak of the Finch", subtitled, "A Story of Evolution in Our Time", is a truly amazing book. Its principle topic is the work of Peter and Rosemary Grant, who have been studying the finches of the Galapagos Islands ("Darwin's Finches") in great detail since 1973. They have collected and analyzed data on 24 generations and close to 19,000 individual birds. The result of their work is empirical proof of Darwin's theory of evolution, along with a tremendous amount of new data concerning the mechanisms of evolution and life. The author (Jonathan Weiner) quotes liberally from Darwin. Of course Darwin was not right in every detail, but modern work is validating much of the speculation of "Origin" and other works. Some points I gleaned:
Natural selection works much more quickly than Darwin or anyone else had, until recently, realized. Under extreme selection pressure the finches were recorded evolving in one direction, then another. The reason the pace has been misjudged by several orders of magnitude is that the effects follow environment, and tend to net out over long periods of time, leaving the impression of a much slower pace.
The theory of evolution has been rigorously proven through the traditional scientific method of exact hypothetical predictions confirmed with experiment and observation.
Stephen J. Gould mentions frequently that the observation of evolution is neither unknown or even rare. I learned from Weiner that observed incidents are not necessarily subtle or obscure, and learned about many fascinating specific cases.
American farmers have never realized a net gain against insects by use of insecticides. When the cotton fields were cleared of "pests" in the forties, adjacent species began invading their crops almost immediately. Pesticides, of course, select for pesticide resistant insects. Before pesticides were introduced farmers lost 7% of their crop to insects. In 1993 the number was 13% and has risen steadily since the first pesticide was introduced. The irony is that the farmers being destroyed by the inevitable forces of evolution are deep in the cotton/bible belt, where they are simultaneously (not all of them of course) trying to keep their schools from teaching evolution, thus crippling the chances of saving their crops.
Antibiotic resistance is, of course, taking the same course as pesticide resistance, threatening everyone's health. I had missed the point that the same fundie saying s/he doesn't "believe" in evolution is likely aware of one of it's most immediate effects, bacteria surging ahead in our ongoing war.
I gleaned a pretty good grasp of how divergence and speciation occur in the absence of geographical barriers. This has been a stumbling block to understanding for me, because the geographical separation requirement seemed too rare for the effects attributed to it. Very briefly, when a species is severely stressed by changing environment, there are commonly two or more survival niches best addressed by different evolved configurations (beak shape and overall size, in the case of the finches). Offspring suited to a niche survives, and by staying out of each others' niches, the separating groups survive and prosper. Speciation can occur if the conditions favoring the separation persist long enough.
"Preserving a species" is an almost meaningless statement. Species are constantly in evolutionary flux, and the descendents of animals we preserve will likely not be the same species, especially if we introduce or reintroduce them to the wild.
on February 22, 2007
I have read much on evolution, and the evolution controversy in (primarily) the United States. This book does a wonderful job of demonstrating how scientists, right now, are recording and observing natural selection in action. Before I read this book I was not aware of how much information we really have about evolution and natural selection occurring in "the wild" on an everday basis. This book provides thorough mathematical evidence and predictive models of how natural selection changes the morphology of Darwin's Finches on the Galapogos Islands. It interleaves that story with a decent primer on evolution and snippets of other, similar research, going on right now too.
For example, it describes some fasicinating experiments conducted showing how quickly natural selection will change the color of Amazonian guppies based solely on the color of the rocks in the pools in which the guppies live, and the frequency of predation. It is amazing. As I read more about evolution, I see that rates of evolution vary widely. Evolution operating slowly (over 1000's or millions of years) is pretty obvious. This book provides a window into the amazing world of "rapid" evolution.
The best part about it is that it is as much a journalistic endeavor as a well-written book. This is NOT a polemic about why evolution is better than other ideas. This book simply reports the facts. If you don't understand evolution or believe it can be true after reading this book, then you aren't really trying to understand.
Finally, this book deserves the awards and accolades. It is well-written, well-researched, and well-organized. I don't give many books five stars, but this one is worth it. I would recommend it for anyone: scientists, kids, and just people interested in learning and fascinated by the world around us.
on February 10, 2004
"The Beak of the Finch" analyzed many of Darwin's theories on evolution. Most of the book follows the Grant's as they study thirteen species of finches on the Galapagos Islands, especially the island of Daphne Major. The Grant's studies focused mainly on how the finches reacted to environmental changes and how natural selection influenced their evolutionary change. Jonathan Weiner also provides insight into other experiments done by other scientists on finches and other species.
The book was an interesting read and the author did a good job of keeping complex science concepts simple for the purpose of suiting every type of reader. He included the stories of the Grant's and numerous other scientists to keep the novel interesting and not strictly scientific. The novel was presented in a story-like fashion on how evolutionary concepts were supported.The idea that evolutionary changes are always occurring and that the results of evolution can be seen in both short and long time periods is presented in the novel. Overall, the book was enjoyable and gave the reader valuable insight on evolution and Darwinism.
on July 10, 2006
I have been raised in a highly fundamentalist environment, and had little idea what evolution or natural selection actually was before I read this book. It could not have been explained to me in a simpler or more understandable way. I was even more astonished to discover that evolution by means of natural selection is happening right now, not only to finches or guppies or soapberry bugs, but to every living thing around me. I am always seeking books that will make me think about the world in which I live. This is such a book.