Thursday, March 26, 2015

Book Review - The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner

Communicating science to the public is one of the goals of this page. To accomplish this we include a variety of articles, including reviews of books on scientific topics.

One such book is The Beak of the Finch written by Jonathan Weiner. The book won a Pulitzer Prize for its ability to communicate evolutionary science in language that most people can understand.
Published in 1994, The Beak of the Finch blends the ongoing work of evolutionary biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant with the historical work of Charles Darwin.

Author Jonathan Weiner knows how to write a story. Beginning with the Grant's work on Daphne Major, a desolate "minor" island in the Galapagos archipelago, Weiner interweaves their exciting findings regarding beak variability in Darwin's finches with insights from Darwin's own writing and the work of other researchers. For the then 20 years (now 40 years) the Grant's and their rolling cadre of graduate students have investigated how the finches came to evolve into their varied niches. They painstakingly measured and identified every individual finch on the island and tracked them through generations. Importantly, the book explores how the birds continue to evolve in a dynamic process that sometimes pushes them in one direction, then the opposite.

For example, a once in a century drought favored those species and variants with larger bodies and beaks as only they can crack the limited hard-to-eat seeds. With vast numbers of birds dying, the survivors pass along their genes and ensuing populations show the larger sizes. But then a once in a century flood during an El Nino year reverses this trend, with mostly the smaller bodied and/or beaked birds were favored. The dynamics revealed by these two opposite extreme events  dramatically furthered our knowledge of the life histories of these birds and how speciation works in real time.

Interspersed with the historical records of Darwin and the current measurements of the Grants are side examples of other research work, some done by former graduate students who are now professors in their own right. The examples show that these processes can be observed not only in other birds, but in fish and various flies and other insects.

The penultimate chapter acknowledges that even 25 years ago scientists were already understanding that human activities were causing the climate to change. The unique location of the Galapagos - half the year warmed by the North Equatorial Current and half the year cooled by the South Equatorial Current - puts the islands in the cross sights of man-made climate change.

Despite the technical nature of the material, the story and writing are very accessible to the interested general public. I highly recommend everyone read it.