The beak of the finch : a story of evolution in our time

by Jonathan Weiner

Paperback, 1995




New York : Vintage Books, 1995.


Winner of the Pulitzer Prize Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize 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 in the tradition of Stephen Jay Gould. With a new preface.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member JBD1
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member TheGreyCrane
This is one of the great works of modern biology up there with Richard Dawkins. And if I had a time machine this is the book I would take to show Darwin
LibraryThing member GoofyOcean110
One of the best forays into evolutionary biology. An excellent job at both explaining the process of evolution, changes that can be observed, and personalizing the experience by feeling like you get to know the researchers behind the science. Phenomenal science writing.
LibraryThing member lorax
It is said that God knows the fall of a sparrow, but Peter and Rosemary Grant know the fall of every finch on Daphne Major, a tiny uninhabited island in the Galapagos. For decades they have been conducting a meticulous study of "Darwin's finches", several closely related species of finches on the
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islands, and have conducted one of the very few studies tracking natural selection and evolution of vertebrates, or of any species in the field rather than in the lab. Every finch is banded and meticulously measured, and the change in various traits documented over the generations. It is impossible to read this book and not come away with an appreciation for the power of natural selection.

One of the details I hadn't appreciated is that evolution isn't just slow because changes are tiny, but because most of the time there are a variety of selective pressures pushing in different directions. The Grants observed a measurable and statistically significant change in the average beak size of the finches in response to a single catastrophic drought; however, a few years later, a massive El Nino produced another measurable effect in the opposite direction. So evolution dithers around the current average conditions, but several drought years in a row -- perhaps the result of climate change, for instance -- could produce a measurable effect much more quickly than I imagined.

This is engagingly written and well-aimed at the intelligent layperson who doesn't know the details of biology; it perhaps errs a bit on the side of caution (explaining the evolution of antibiotic resistance in bacteria, for instance, which is pretty well-known and could probably have been assumed), but overall I recommend it highly.
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LibraryThing member Jsaj
A bit outdated as there has been a lot of new information on evolution since this book's publication, but it remains an excellent book about evolution and natural selection. In addition to clearly stating the evidence, Weiner presents a very interesting story of the researchers.
LibraryThing member Sandydog1
This a very well-written, meaty book. Many examples of evolutionary change that happen, even over just a generation or two. Excellent and deserving of the Pulitzer.
LibraryThing member lisamwill
Great, scientific discussion of Darwinian selection and evolution
LibraryThing member ccosner
I had not imagined a book could be this eye-opening. It truly adds to one's understanding of how evolution works. Read _The Origin of Species_ first, or at least get a solid grounding in Darwin's ideas about natural selection and evolution.
LibraryThing member Cygnus555
If you have ever had any question about the reality of evolution, read this book. I walked away with a clear understanding that it is not a question of faith vs. evolution... evolution just is.
LibraryThing member yapete
Good read. A bit slow in parts, but a nice example how thorough science works.
LibraryThing member co_coyote
This is a wonderfully told story of two scientists, Peter and Rosemary Grant, who have spent over 20 years studying the finches Darwin discovered on his voyage to the Galapagos Islands. What the Grants and their numerous graduate students have discovered is evolution in progress, in real time,
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happening as we watch. Jonathan Weiner is a thoughtful and insightful writer who brings field research to life.
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LibraryThing member isetziol
This is one of the best books on evolution for people with no background in science that I’ve read. Weiner, a science writer, illustrates Darwin’s theory with examples from the work of contemporary biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant. A must-read if you’re contemplating a Galapagos trip.
LibraryThing member bookcaterpillar
One of the finest science books that I have read. Read this right before a trip to the Galapagos and am so glad that I did. You'll never look at a finch the same way again!
LibraryThing member Stbalbach
I asked someone what one book by, or about, Darwin would they recommend, and they gave this book. It explains Darwin's ideas very well along with the most recent findings and things even Darwin did not imagine how powerful and widespread evolution is. This book is so well written - on the level of
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literary masterpiece - it is on many school circulars. It will change the way you see nature as "infinitely more fluid, shifting, alive. It will seem like a different planet.." Indeed.
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LibraryThing member jjmcgaffey
An interesting view of the Grants' study of finches in the Galapagos - and some fascinating implications, continuations, and conclusions drawn from the same. The first two-thirds of the book is a quite detailed description, including quotes and first-person reports, of the twenty-plus year (as of
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1994, when the book was published) study of the finches on Daphne Major and other islands in the Galapagos; the methods used to determine variation (beak measurements, mostly), the results of odd weather - drought and flood - on the finches and their variation, and the interim conclusions drawn from analysis of this data. Then it goes on to discuss other analyses, revealing similar (though less visible, and overlooked until they knew what to look for) patterns of variation in response to events in other populations. Throughout, it's related back to Darwin's perception of evolution as slow, with the data contradicting that. Evolution happens constantly - it just, usually, flickers back and forth on a continuum, so looking at a distance there's no great change. When situations continue to lean one way, changes become stronger, more widespread and more permanent...for a limited definition of permanent, since the flicker of changes continues. I spotted the link to diseases half a chapter before it was directly discussed, but once it was mentioned it was covered quite thoroughly. All in all, a fascinating book, that makes sense out of a good many things I knew but didn't see patterns in. This is one that will permanently change my view of the world.
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LibraryThing member gilbertine
This is the book that really makes clear to me, a science novice, how evolution works. Interesting back story, clear writing, concise explanations.
LibraryThing member iayork
The Beak of the Finch: Brilliant writing and organization shows that evolution can occur in as short a time frame as two years. Never boring. The non-scientist will find this book of our changing world a good read.
LibraryThing member purplehena
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.
LibraryThing member Paulagraph
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member weird_O
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member streamsong
Nearly everyone has heard of the Galapagos Islands and the finches which sparked many of Darwin's theories of evolution.

This is an in depth look at the evolution of these finches and the continuing selective pressure they are under as they continue to evolve, season by season, as each year brings a
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bit different conditions to these islands.

Most of this is seen through the lens of Peter and Rosemary Grant, two dedicated scientists who have devoted their careers to the teasing out the secrets of evolution as shown by these birds.

It's not just about finches, though, as later chapters deal with topics such as climate change, pesticide and antibiotic resistance.

This classic book was first published in 1995 and won a Pulitzer. Nevertheless, while older, the information is still solid. I feel this book is accessible and downright fascinating.
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LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
Islands are the perfect laboratory for studying a species. In the case of the Galapagos archipelago, the islands are isolated like a fortress; no one can easily arrive or depart. Princeton University biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant, along with their daughters, take a small group of scientists
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to help them investigate Darwin's finches. By the beak of the finch they are able to track an evolutionary journey through time. Beak of the Finch is an extraordinary account of survival of the fittest as it happened then; as it is happening right now. Our world is constantly evolving and adapting and we aren't done yet.
Word to the wise - listen to this on audio. John McDonough does a fantastic job. Weiner's writing may be approachable science, but McDonough's reading makes it all the more enjoyable.
As an aside, I love books I like to describe as "rabbit holes." They take me to knowledge I never would have learned otherwise. I think people describe the internet that way sometimes. In this case, I learned that when a finch is ready to mate its beak turns black. Who knew?
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LibraryThing member untraveller
Read while on Floreana Island in the Galapagos. At times the book was frustrating as all get out. I nearly gave up about 100 pages from the finish line, but glad I did not. The author does bring it all together, though not terribly neatly, in those last 100 pages or so. Negative: The main issues
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with the book are its redundancy and the ability of the author to wander off track, or so says the average (mas o menos) reader. There is much that is of use, however, and reading the book while in the Galapagos added another dimension to watching the little finches. Overall, tasty reading, if willing to put up with a meandering author.
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LibraryThing member Sander314
An interesting little book about real life study of evolution and the hard work and complexity of this research. It's a little dated by now, and a major downside for me was that it covers a lot of the same ground other books on evolution do.
LibraryThing member tkmarnell
This was a compulsory text for my class on Evolution during my undergraduate days, but it stuck firmly in my mind years after I moved on to other fields. Weiner's writing has a journalistic tone, but flows well and kept me consistently interested. He takes the mysticism out of Darwin's Theory of
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Evolution, describing key modern efforts to research speciation and clarify his ideas centuries after the HMS Beagle landed on the shores of the Galapagos islands. My one gripe with the book is its slight political slant, with anecdotes from researchers about one-upping religious zealots and a final chapter characterizing the bulk of the American public as closed-minded. A more tolerant approach could have opened up the audience to that same public. Otherwise, I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants a clearer understanding of evolutionary theory without the bulky textbooks.
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Pulitzer Prize (Winner — General Non-Fiction — 1995)
LA Times Book Prize (Finalist — Science & Technology — 1994)



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