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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, natu 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.


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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, natu 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.

30 review for The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time

  1. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    Wow. When I joined Goodreads a few months back, I set two rules for myself: first, to review books as I read or re-read them, and second, to be sparing with my ratings. I've not given any book five stars this summer. This is the first. Weiner won the Pulitzer for general non-fiction with this book in 1995. He utterly deserves it. While it's not difficult to find an interesting non-fiction book, and not too hard to find a truly gifted writer (the market's competitive like that), finding someone who Wow. When I joined Goodreads a few months back, I set two rules for myself: first, to review books as I read or re-read them, and second, to be sparing with my ratings. I've not given any book five stars this summer. This is the first. Weiner won the Pulitzer for general non-fiction with this book in 1995. He utterly deserves it. While it's not difficult to find an interesting non-fiction book, and not too hard to find a truly gifted writer (the market's competitive like that), finding someone who discusses science with such evocative, expressive language is a rarity. Neither too dry nor too familiar, Weiner's writing is as wonderful as his subject matter. Rosemary and Peter Grant are two evolutionary biologists who did what no one had attempted to do before: beginning in the early 70's, they studied, measured, and documented every detail of the finches on Daphne Major, one of the Galapagos islands, in an effort to determine if evolutionary changes could be observed over a span of decades instead of eons. Amazingly, they succeeded far beyond their expectations: selection does not occur at the glacial pace Darwin envisioned, but at a flickering rate measurable over years, seasons, and days. The smallest differences -- so small that no one had thought them worthy of study prior to the Grants -- have an effect so profound on a population that it's literally visible to the naked eye. A fabulous description of the dedication, tedium, and sheer amount of number-crunching involved in field research, Weiner talks to many of the biologists inspired by the Grants: those studying fish, insects, and viruses -- those gathering data that Darwin never thought possible to observe in the span of a single human lifetime.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Chrissie

    This is not a bad book; it is OK. There is room for improvement. It is a book of the popular science genre. Having read them before, you know what is in-store. The book is about evolution, and so about Darwin, natural selection and survival of the fittest. Its central focus is a study of finches on Daphne Major, an island of the Galapagos archipelago. Ancestors of the finches studied were collected by Darwin on the HMS Beagle journey to the islands in September and October 1835. The study was led This is not a bad book; it is OK. There is room for improvement. It is a book of the popular science genre. Having read them before, you know what is in-store. The book is about evolution, and so about Darwin, natural selection and survival of the fittest. Its central focus is a study of finches on Daphne Major, an island of the Galapagos archipelago. Ancestors of the finches studied were collected by Darwin on the HMS Beagle journey to the islands in September and October 1835. The study was led by Peter and Rosemary Grant, began in 1973 and had been in progress for almost two decades when the book came out, in 1994. Thirteen species of finches have been studied, studied meticulously. Body measurements, food and water availability, weather conditions, breeding habits and their song—all were noted. Every bird is measured and tagged. Every bird is recognizable by Peter and Rosemary, and there are a lot of birds these two have kept track of! The study is large! The statistics have been crunched and analyzed in sophisticated computer programs at Princeton. The effort and time and work devoted is impressive, yet the author’s manner of excessively praising the Grants is out of place. Other field studies are spoken of too. Studies of sticklebacks and guppies are two which I found interesting. I would have appreciated more such studies. They are concisely handled. The book emphasizes the speed with which natural selection can take place. Five times our biosphere has been in a period of such rapid change as that we are experiencing now. The book needs a better layout and organization. I prefer the rigor of scientific analysis. I am not looking for lyricism in a book such as this. The book is repetitive. Had it been properly edited and tightened it would be half its length. The book ends on a philosophical note warning of the consequences of increased gas emissions and global warming. Victor Bevine narrates the audiobook. He is not hard to understand but I could have done without his dramatization. His impersonation of Darwin was ridiculous. I have given the narration two stars. The basic problem is that there is really nothing new or outstanding presented. I would have preferred simply a clear, concise presentation of the field studies and what each showed, without excessive padding and repetition.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Karl-O

    I'm ashamed to say that I didn’t know until recently (after reading Dawkins’ magnificent book The Ancestor’s Tale) that evolution can in fact be observed happening in real time and not only in as short a time as centuries, but also in decades and even years. In that book, Dawkins spoke about Rosemary and Peter Grant in relation to their work on the Galapagos Islands on Darwin’s finches and how they showed the role of evolution in explaining the immense diversity of life. I tried to find a book o I'm ashamed to say that I didn’t know until recently (after reading Dawkins’ magnificent book The Ancestor’s Tale) that evolution can in fact be observed happening in real time and not only in as short a time as centuries, but also in decades and even years. In that book, Dawkins spoke about Rosemary and Peter Grant in relation to their work on the Galapagos Islands on Darwin’s finches and how they showed the role of evolution in explaining the immense diversity of life. I tried to find a book on the subject and came across this one, which was also mentioned in the Bibliography of The Ancestor’s Tale. First, there is a thing that I didn’t appreciate much in this book, and that is the style in which it was written. Scientific books with journalistic and literary tones annoy and distract me a lot and if it were not for that, this book would have easily earned a perfect 5 star. It is unique and intelligent, written sometimes with beautiful Dawkinsesque prose about the elegance and magnificence of evolution with beautiful allusion to the Judeo-Christian myths in a manner that didn’t suggest supernatural elements which can sometimes be imprudently used in scientific books. I actually quite liked that since I happen to find the Judeo-Christian myths of creation beautiful. The Beak of the Finch had some very interesting ideas about the different paths evolution follows under different circumstances, such as when a species is being subjected to opposing selection forces by both sexual and natural selections, or when droughts and floods occur in successions. Also, one of the most interesting ideas was the fact that when zooming-in on the evolutionary history, the transition is often jagged and goes back and forth on the same or different paths. Another powerful idea was speciation and how it occurs without necessarily being always caused by geographical isolation. It only suffices that certain members of a species adapt to a different lifestyle from that of the others while living in the same environment, and given enough time the two groups can diverge to form different species following different lifestyles. And finally, demonstrating the role of hybridization in speciation was really interesting and informative. The Beak of the Finch is not as much focused on finches as its title suggests. In fact, the author believes that the finch's beak can be used to symbolize evolution itself, given the powerful insights it gave the scientists who studied it since decades, and most importantly its historical significance because of Darwins' visit to the Galapagos. It is a delightful idea and symbol. Evolution is indeed a fascinating and important topic and this book clearly shows how it is happening all around us. We like to think that it happened a long time ago and long stretches of time are needed for its latest effects to surface. Weiner shows how this is not always the case and how evolution can proceed with varying speeds under different conditions. He shows the extent of the effects of our actions on the evolution of almost all the species around us including of course our own. It is nice to remember that Heraclitus was right in saying that everything flows, which is not only true as regards the atoms of our bodies which are being replaced as I write these words, but also in relation to the changes that our species undergo as long as we have enough time, wisdom, and chance to be here.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Diane S ☔

    Thoughts soon.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Ali

    "We are doing what the dinosaurs did before us, only faster. We bring strangers together to make strange bedfellows, and we remake the beds they lie in, all at once." "We are doing what the dinosaurs did before us, only faster. We bring strangers together to make strange bedfellows, and we remake the beds they lie in, all at once."

  6. 4 out of 5

    Dan

    A woodpecker finch becomes possible only on an island without a woodpecker, a warbler finch only without a warbler. A flower-browsing finch becomes possible where there are no bees and hummingbirds—and on islands where bees have now invaded, many of Darwin’s finches have given back the flowers. The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner won the Pulitzer Prize for Non Fiction in 1995. This book gets high marks as an homage to Darwin. it follows a husband and wife’s two decade long biological survey A woodpecker finch becomes possible only on an island without a woodpecker, a warbler finch only without a warbler. A flower-browsing finch becomes possible where there are no bees and hummingbirds—and on islands where bees have now invaded, many of Darwin’s finches have given back the flowers. The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner won the Pulitzer Prize for Non Fiction in 1995. This book gets high marks as an homage to Darwin. it follows a husband and wife’s two decade long biological survey of finches beginning in the 1970s on a remote and tiny volcanic island, Daphne Major, in the Galapagos. The study on Daphne Major was a first as it tracked natural selection in near real time by measuring every finch’s beak and other physical characteristics. The living laboratory was in effect a closed system. There are only a handful of plants and seeds so the scientists knew which seeds each species of finch ate. They saw which species of finch were more likely to survive during droughts and which finches thrived during the wet years. They used a lot of data to exploit the minute differences of beak length and width from one generation to the next. This was all possible because the finches have no fear of humans and have no predators or competition other than finches. There is discussion of cross species breeding which is more common than scientists once realized, of adaptive radiation where a single species diverges into two species, competition between birds and bees and a whole host of evolutionary topics. The scientific content in this book is a full five stars. The writing style is breezy, for a science book, and at least four stars. The big picture focus and interpretability is a full five stars. The organization could have been a little better and the book is a little too long for its message, my only criticisms. 4.5 stars. There aren’t that many science books written for a general audience that are this thought provoking and well researched and interpreted. Some of the credit should go to the Grants of course — the couple who ran this first study of its kind.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Paul

    As Jonathan Weiner points out in this classic of science writing, the word "evolution" comes from the Latin word for unfolding, rolling out like a scroll. That's an appropriate concept for this book, which unfurls before the reader an impressive array of late-20th-century scientific research into natural selection, sexual selection and speciation – all of it hammering home again and again: Not only was Darwin right, he was righter than he knew. As the book's title implies, Weiner focuses on Darwin As Jonathan Weiner points out in this classic of science writing, the word "evolution" comes from the Latin word for unfolding, rolling out like a scroll. That's an appropriate concept for this book, which unfurls before the reader an impressive array of late-20th-century scientific research into natural selection, sexual selection and speciation – all of it hammering home again and again: Not only was Darwin right, he was righter than he knew. As the book's title implies, Weiner focuses on Darwin's finches, the baker's dozen of Galapagos species whose beaks so aptly tell the tale of adaptation and selection. But he doesn't stop there. Weiner shows us sticklebacks in British Columbia, fruit flies in labs all over the world, guppies in Venezuela, moth DNA in Ontario, and numerous other animals in numerous other places where scientists are observing evolution occur in front of their faces – a process much faster and more powerful than Darwin could have dreamed. What is most remarkable, however, is that this book was published in 1994, yet it remains deeply relevant. Weiner was arguably 15 years ahead of his time in describing the threat of bacteria that evolve resistance to antibiotics, and his description of evolution sparked by global warming and other human-caused processes now seems almost quaint in its cautious notes of alarm. He describes cactus finches that mutilate and sterilize the very plants on which they rely for their existence, imperiling themselves and their species so they can get at the cactus nectar a few hours earlier than the others. The tragedy of the commons is not just a human one; as it turns out, the individual selfishness that makes evolution (and capitalism, not to put too fine a point on it) work collectively can backfire on birds, too. Weiner's main argument is that evolution for more than a century was criticized by advocates and opponents alike for being mainly theoretical or logical; it couldn't be observed, couldn't be tested, couldn't be proven. Therefore, it wasn't "real science." Peter and Rosemary Grant's 30-plus years of work with the Galapagos finches have put to rest that argument once and for all, Weiner argues. Evolution by variation and natural selection can be observed, and it has been. It can be successfully tested, and it has been. Not only a logical extrapolation of the fossil record and the selection imposed on pigeons and dogs by breeders, Darwinian evolution is in fact scientifically sound and much stronger a force than even its proponents realized. Evolution is a not a river of sludge, moving so slowly you can't notice except through conjecture. Rather, it is a swift-moving current, a series of waves battering a coastline, and we – humans, other animals, plants –are pulled and pushed by the water moving in and out. That said, Weiner seems to want to make an additional argument. He sprinkles the book with quotes from and allusions to the Bible. He sets up some prominent creationists as foils for the Grants' work. He gets some comments from the scientists he interviews about their interactions with creationists. Several chapters reference creation, metaphysics and God. But in the end, Weiner can't seem to get onto the page whatever it is he wants to say about the perceived conflict between science and faith. He worries at it like a dog with a bone, but he never sinks his teeth into it. The string is left untied, like a line of data with the final numbers erased. Nevertheless, Weiner has written a monumentally helpful book, one that could easily be considered a sequel to Darwin's classic On the Origin of Species, so well does Weiner explicate and demonstrate Darwin's theory. I'll be recommending this to anyone interested in learning more about what evolution is and whether it's real.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Amanda

    This was a really interesting look into the constant evolution of finches in the Galapagos. Parts of it were a little slow (and I definitely got bogged down by the constant repetition of "beak" and "finch," though that probably couldn't be helped, given the subject), but other parts were very interesting. The writing was also very good. My least favorite part was the last few chapters when the author got away from finches and switched to humans. I can see why he would do it because it's interest This was a really interesting look into the constant evolution of finches in the Galapagos. Parts of it were a little slow (and I definitely got bogged down by the constant repetition of "beak" and "finch," though that probably couldn't be helped, given the subject), but other parts were very interesting. The writing was also very good. My least favorite part was the last few chapters when the author got away from finches and switched to humans. I can see why he would do it because it's interesting to think about human evolution through the lens of finches, but it seemed like a weird transition to me. Overall, this was pretty quick and interesting to read, even if I probably won't ever need to know anything about finches again.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Rossdavidh

    The finches of the Galapogos Islands rank right up there with Newton's apple and Galileo's telescope in the iconography of science, and like them, are as much fiction now as fact. There is a great deal of accumulated storytelling around the nugget of truth about Darwin's finches. While they did influence Darwin's thinking, they were just one of many, many species (or groups of species) to do so, and his notes do not reveal them to have been any sort of trigger for a Eureka moment. To give just o The finches of the Galapogos Islands rank right up there with Newton's apple and Galileo's telescope in the iconography of science, and like them, are as much fiction now as fact. There is a great deal of accumulated storytelling around the nugget of truth about Darwin's finches. While they did influence Darwin's thinking, they were just one of many, many species (or groups of species) to do so, and his notes do not reveal them to have been any sort of trigger for a Eureka moment. To give just one example, Darwin's long association with pigeon fanciers was at least as influential on his thinking. The Galapogos finches are, however, a great illustration of how evolution does and doesn't work, and in recent decades they have come in for almost unparalleled scrutiny. The primary reason why, is a married couple named Peter and Rosemary Grant. The Grants, and their many colleagues and especially graduate students over the decades, have studied the several related finch species of the Galapogos Islands, down to the individual bird. They measure beak dimensions, reproductive success, parentage, wing length, coloration, etc. etc. They repeat this for bird after bird, on a particular islet (small even by Galapogos standards), until they have measured (and banded) virtually every single bird. They repeat this year after year. It was already, in the early 1990's when this book was written, enough to show something that most scholars of evolution in the decades after Darwin had assumed could not be seen: evolution in progress. Because they are relatively new to the islands (in evolutionary terms), and because periodic El Nino and La Nina events shove the islands' climate from dry to wet and back again over the years, the finches of the Galapogos are by no means evidence of the much-cited "delicate balance of nature". They are, in a sense, perpetually unbalanced, and traits like beak length (which impacts what kind of food they are able to eat, and how efficiently they can do it) show trends visible over the course of a decade or less. Well, visible if you study it in as much detail as the Grants do; the changes are sometimes measured in tenths of millimeters over the course of a year. But, how can we know that these changes have anything to do with natural selection? What if it is simply a difference in diet (owing to differences in how much rain falls), causing the birds to grow either larger or smaller beaks? To know that, you would need to keep a ridiculously vast and detailed family tree of all the finches of the tiny islet that the Grants have made their particular object of study. Fortunately, that is just what the Grants did. They know what birds had great reproductive success, and what birds did not, and how many offspring they all left behind, and how much reproductive success those offspring have had. The book has several dozen illustrations, some taken from Darwin's original books, and some by the Grants' daughter, Thalia, who appears to be a quite talented artist. I especially liked the ones by Thalia Grant of a finch taking a ride on a Galapogos tortoise, and a finch hunting flies on an iguana. The tortoise and iguana, both much larger than the respective finches which perch atop them, appear to take little notice of it, as if bird and reptile are living in entirely different timescales. Jonathan Weiner does a great job of showing us both the day-to-day efforts required to collect this data, and the year-to-year and decade-to-decade progress of the Grants in collecting it. He can effectively communicate something as abstract as an evolutionary fitness landscape, and how drought and flood can push the species of Galapogos finches around it. It was a fascinating, yet oddly effortless read, as concepts that were mind-bending to 19th century scientists can get communicated to someone like me, who has no professional background in the field. This kind of thing doesn't just happen accidentally; Weiner must have worked hard at making it that easy for us. Rarely has learning been so thoughtfully and skillfully provided to the reader, it would be a shame to pass it up.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Michael Perkins

    nice little film to go with this book.... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mcM23... nice little film to go with this book.... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mcM23...

  11. 5 out of 5

    John

    A cripplingly tedious account of cripplingly tedious field work that tends to confirm things that you thought were totally obvious. For most people with a high school education, natural selection, at the level depicted in the book, is pure common sense. Environmental pressures favor the survival/fecundity of certain phenotypes that then tend to displace others. Sexual preference, adaptive behaviors, and cross-breeding affect this in several ways and, if the pressures are extreme, the changes can A cripplingly tedious account of cripplingly tedious field work that tends to confirm things that you thought were totally obvious. For most people with a high school education, natural selection, at the level depicted in the book, is pure common sense. Environmental pressures favor the survival/fecundity of certain phenotypes that then tend to displace others. Sexual preference, adaptive behaviors, and cross-breeding affect this in several ways and, if the pressures are extreme, the changes can come fast. The selective process can move in many directions and can recede altogether with the arrival and departure of such pressures. You can write the whole substance of it on the back of an index card. However, the book invites you experience every trial and tribulation of the marooned Galapagian finches and of the pathetic scientists who waste their lives watching and measuring them. Predictable things happen in predictable ways. You are along for the ride. You could have read something else, but the reviews were so good you convince yourself that the book just HAS to get better soon. There are efforts made to spice up the narrative--the scientists heroically tell droll jokes in the face of unimaginable boredom, the finches are induced to enjoy inter-species necrophiliatic intercourse with decapitated bird cadavers—but no indulgence in humor or kinky sexcapades can make the finches very interesting. The book gradually runs natural selection down and pounds it relentlessly into the guano-encrusted tuff of Daphne Major. However, mere natural selection does not alone give you "evolution." The book only dabbles in the critical issue of speciation. It always refers to phenotypically distinct finch groups that tend not to interbreed as "species," but, amazingly, the book never attempts a formal definition of "species" and does little more than offer conversations amongst the forlorn scientists that the finch varieties indeed really just have to be separate species despite noisome interbreeding and whatnot. This could have been the interesting part—the critical part—where durable evolutionary divergence happens. Leave it to the finches to start interbreeding and melting back toward a single type. The book actually comes alive when it ditches the finches in favor of something (anything) else. Sadly, this happens in the final quarter, when you are also told of other things you already knew from high school and a few thing you might not have known (a real treat) and this happens at an intelligent pace (another treat). Then, to tie up the book, the author indulges in some big picture/philosophical treatments that are too repetitive and uneven to be very satisfying. Don't get me wrong, the book is very "well-written" in a mechanical sense. Truly artful biblical references and adroit and soothing language serve to dull the reader's suffering as the pages slowly go by. Even so, I have never hated the experience of a non-fiction work as much as this. I feel stupid for having finished it. I now hate "Darwin’s finches" and their vicissitudinous, environmentally selected beaks. What a waste of my time. I find myself hoping they soon go extinct and that the circumstances and causes of their extinction pass unobserved and unknowable. So, why do people like this tome? (1) Some readers may be surprised to discover what natural selection is, having neither any education nor imagination that would have previously acquainted them with the idea. (2) The book strives to support the theory of evolution, which many people reject for irrational or unscientific reasons. Many readers need to be associated with the smart crowd who like evolution and "liking" this book reaffirms their participation in that smart group and further assures them they are totally unlike the other group, who instead intensely dislike the book for analogous reasons. (3) They are, or are related to, one of the scientists whose tragic sacrifice on the altar of pointless empiricism is depicted in this heart-wrenching monument to wasted lives. --Recommended for scientifically inclined boys of middling intellect, aged 12 to 16 years.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Pamela

    In 1973 Rosemary and Peter Grant went to the Galapagos Islands to take a look at Darwin's finches. The two Princeton evolutionary biologists went to study the finches at first hand on Daphne Major, an even more isolated island in the middle of the Archipelago. These famous finches are the ones that Charles Darwin encountered during his voyage on the HMS Beagle and which inspired his ideas on evolution. The Grants went to see if they could observe evolution in action as they felt that even Darwin In 1973 Rosemary and Peter Grant went to the Galapagos Islands to take a look at Darwin's finches. The two Princeton evolutionary biologists went to study the finches at first hand on Daphne Major, an even more isolated island in the middle of the Archipelago. These famous finches are the ones that Charles Darwin encountered during his voyage on the HMS Beagle and which inspired his ideas on evolution. The Grants went to see if they could observe evolution in action as they felt that even Darwin did not completely understand his own theory and the evolutionary process was not always the slow and gradual one he believed it to be. They have been watching these finches ever since. What they have found is proof of evolution in action observable within the single life of a finch or taking place in just a few years. The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time is the story of how they did all this. In the approximately 30 years that the Grant's and their various assistants have been watching, these tiny birds have shown a remarkable ability to quickly adapt to changes in the environment, climate, and other pressures that nature puts in their path. The story here is absolutely an incredible one, told in exceptionally readable language. In addition to the finches, the author goes on to discuss other theories that came out of this work. Some of their former students went on to do their own experiments on hereditability, adaptation, hybridization in nature, bacterial resistance and resistance to pesticides. This is a book that should fascinate anyone with even a small interest in the natural sciences or just an appreciation of the diversity and wonder of this world we live in.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    The Beak of the Finch is an excellent introduction to contemporary evolutionary theory. There was quite a lot of detail about studies into the Galapagos finches, which was great! The finches & how quickly they are evolving is super interesting. I also have a new found appreciation for the lengths that ecologists go to for their field work. I think that this book struck a nice balance between hard science, human interest, history and philosophy. It is nice to learn a bit about the scientists' liv The Beak of the Finch is an excellent introduction to contemporary evolutionary theory. There was quite a lot of detail about studies into the Galapagos finches, which was great! The finches & how quickly they are evolving is super interesting. I also have a new found appreciation for the lengths that ecologists go to for their field work. I think that this book struck a nice balance between hard science, human interest, history and philosophy. It is nice to learn a bit about the scientists' lives, while still having the book firmly focused on their scientific achievements.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Dax

    Good book. I found just about every chapter interesting, but my attention would wane by the end of each chapter. Once I got the gist of the chapter’s content, the second and third examples were oftentimes unnecessary. Well structured and well written. I can see why it won a Pulitzer.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Ram

    A description of evolution research and results mostly in the Galapagos Island and mostly on the famous "Darwin Finches" with references to the research that Darwin himself conducted and the (wrong and right) conclusions that he came to. It seems that I have read so many books about Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" and so many books that refer to "On the Origin of Species" that it is about time I read "On the Origin of Species"…… To some extent, it is like the Bible, I prefer to read reference A description of evolution research and results mostly in the Galapagos Island and mostly on the famous "Darwin Finches" with references to the research that Darwin himself conducted and the (wrong and right) conclusions that he came to. It seems that I have read so many books about Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" and so many books that refer to "On the Origin of Species" that it is about time I read "On the Origin of Species"…… To some extent, it is like the Bible, I prefer to read references, books about and interpretations of the Bible than reading the book itself……. Hmmmm….. Interesting and significant comparison……..In many levels. The book itself gave various examples where we (i.e. researchers) can see evolution happening in our lifetime and less. We are introduced to the research done by the Peter Raymond Grant and Barbara Rosemary Grant, a British couple, who studied finches for over 20 years , mostly in one secluded Galapagos Island named Daphne Major,. The finch population in this island is small enough so that the researchers could track and record practically each individual bird from birth to death, but large enough to have diversity with thirteen species of finches. Five of these are tree finch, one warbler finch, one vegetarian finch, and six species of ground finch. The Weather of this Island is extreme, with some dry years and some especially wet years. The effect of the weather on the population size, behavior , size of beak and other parameters, clearly showed natural selection even in very few generations. Except for the work of the Grants, the book discusses other similar researches and conclusions, and how the result of these researches coexist with the way Darwin saw things as reflected in his books. I admit that I found the book a bit garbled. The examples that were given, were convincing but in my humble opinion , I have seen more convincing examples in many other book like The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions or Why Evolution Is True Or many of Richard Dawkins books. My mind may be saturated from so many evolution books or this book may be out dated or just not well written, but I did find it boring and over detailed at some points.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Sher

    Extraordinary. This work expands upon the two biographies I read recently about Charles Darwin and evolution. Weiner is a fantastic writer. He takes a science subject and makes it understandable and then at the end of science-sections he inserts beautiful almost poetic prose that makes you sigh. The setting is a tiny island called Daphne Major in the Galapago Islands, and the work is about a 21 year finch study conducted by Rosemary and Peter Grant. The Grants have proven that evolution can happ Extraordinary. This work expands upon the two biographies I read recently about Charles Darwin and evolution. Weiner is a fantastic writer. He takes a science subject and makes it understandable and then at the end of science-sections he inserts beautiful almost poetic prose that makes you sigh. The setting is a tiny island called Daphne Major in the Galapago Islands, and the work is about a 21 year finch study conducted by Rosemary and Peter Grant. The Grants have proven that evolution can happen quickly, and that pressure makes species evolve. Interspersed are passages from Darwin's works and also summaries of his thoughts. It's also explained where Darwin's work is incomplete. Other studies are also detailed that deal with different species such as moths and guppies. I had a lot of questions as I read the book, and pretty much all of them were answered by the time I got to the end. Questions like how do pesticides and antibiotics make creatures evolve, and why don't humans show the variations that Daphne Major finches do? How did consciousness evolve? Well, that question isn't answered, but it is addressed. I leave this work looking forward to reading some of Weiner's other works, and I am wondering how species will evolve in response to the pressures of climate change. Plus, can bees evolve and save themselves? Some scientists recommend this route (recent edition of National Geographic) talks about this- though others worry they will go extinct before they can evolve to be mite and pesticide resistant. So much to think about in this book- timely!

  17. 4 out of 5

    Krishna

    This is a remarkable book, aiming primarily to correct the misconception that evolution is too slow a process to be witnessed in any living person's lifetime, so slow that it can for all practical purposes be considered to have stopped. Buttressing this misconception is the observation that no person, living or dead, has observed the emergence of any new species. Jonathan Weiner corrects this misconception by pointing to several long-running field observation studies that have documented dramati This is a remarkable book, aiming primarily to correct the misconception that evolution is too slow a process to be witnessed in any living person's lifetime, so slow that it can for all practical purposes be considered to have stopped. Buttressing this misconception is the observation that no person, living or dead, has observed the emergence of any new species. Jonathan Weiner corrects this misconception by pointing to several long-running field observation studies that have documented dramatic shifts in the variability of animal populations in very short periods of time. But first a definition. Evolution is commonly understood to represent the emergence of new life forms; but Weiner uses a more scientifically sound, yet narrower definition: a change in the distribution of an attribute in a population (neck length, cranial size, etc.). One "darwin" equals a 1 percent change in an attribute over one million years. This is a glacial pace of change, but what field researchers observe is that change happens much faster over shorter periods of time. Periodic climatic cycles dramatically affect the survival rate of individuals, often affected by microscopic differences in attributes. The survivor population therefore can demonstrate sharp changes in variability. However, climatic cycles often reverse themselves, and the population reverts to the pre-bottleneck distribution. Averaged over time, the evolutionary rate appears to be much slower than the periodic zigs and zags. Weiner's primary source of information is the remarkable long-running study of six species of Darwin's finches on one small island in the Galapagos, by a husband-and-wife team of evolutionary biologists, Peter and Rosemary Grant. Returning every year often for six months at a time to Daphne Major, a dormant volcanic cone, the Grants studied the finches for three decades, tracing our entire family trees. One big drought event early in their study showed that survival rates were affected by microscopic differences (millimeters) in beak length, allowing some birds to break open larger tribulus seeds, dramatically increasing their survival rate. After the natural selection of the drought, sexual selection kicked in: with far fewer female survivors, only the largest males could find breeding partners, further reinforcing the preference for size. In one short year, the Grants were able to demonstrate rapid evolution in size and beak length (several thousand darwin units). But natural selection and sexual selection do not work in parallel always. In another remarkable study, John Endler studied guppies in mountain streams in Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago. His special interest is on the bright (almost neon) spots on the bodies of male guppies. Males with bigger and more colorful spots are more attractive to females, but it also increases their visibility to the guppies' natural predator, chiclid fish. Colorful males reproduced more successfully and passed on their trait to offspring - but only if they survived long enough to mate. Endler found that the color pattern of male guppies varied based on the presence of predators in the mountain streams in which they lived: moreover, controlled experiments in the artificial ponds he set up back on campus showed that the distribution of color patterns adjusted quickly, in the space of a few generations, depending on the presence or absence of predators. One other interesting finding is that species adjust not just to the presence of predators, but also to the presence of other species that occupy similar ecological niches. "Character divergence" or differentiation happens when species that compete for the same resources develop traits that allow them to exploit other available resources. Eventually, this differentiation can lead to speciation. Weiner states that speciation is not a one-way street. Species can split as well as fuse, for example through hybridization that creates an intermediate type better adapted to the specific environmental conditions available in that territory. But hybridization is normally a dead end, since successful species occupy "ecological peaks" - a form particularly well-adapted to that environment. Since hybrids are likely to display intermediate traits, they will not occupy an ecological peak making them less fit. But rapid environmental change can create the conditions for hybrids to flourish. And not just environmental change - the same stresses can be introduced by the proliferation of new diseases or the arrival of invasive species. Weiner corrects another misconception about species formation. It is commonly supposed that speciation requires physical isolation of a population. In such isolated populations, mutations accumulate over time with the result that the populations diverge over time. Weiner however points out that speciation can happen entirely due to behavioral causes ("invisible coasts"). For example, males and females can choose mates matching slightly different characteristics, which over time leads to divergence. The case in point is Darwin's finches: though they look identical to the untrained eye and the species often browse in mixed groups, individuals of any one species are much much more likely to choose mates displaying specific bird songs, nest building practices and other behaviors. Careful experiments showed that Darwin's finches have a vocabulary of songs, which sons often learn from their fathers (though sometimes from other males in the same area). This ensures that their mates too would be from the same species, since preference for songs seems to be species-specific. However, hybrid pairs when they form are fertile, and some recent data suggests that hybrids may be successful in times of environmental change. In addition to providing a fresh perspective on evolution, Weiner has also succeeded in writing a beautiful travelog. Far from being a barren expanse of rock and cactus, Daphne Major emerges with its own natural beauty: bursting into a mantle of green after the rains, sea squalls rolling in from the ocean, low hanging clouds brushing the volcanic peak in the rainy season, cactus blossoms blooming, the shimmer of sun on hot rock.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Simmons

    The single best non-academic, book-length riposte to doubters of natural selection. Brilliant and accessible to readers without any special scientific background, patient and uncondescending toward creationists (though firmly dismissing creationist claims), it made for the perfect accompaniment to my recent Galapagos island trip. You will also learn more about — and enjoy learning more about — finches, and El Niños, and the Humboldt current, and Darwinian angst than you ever thought possible.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer Glass

    Lots of people I know rave about this book, but my feeling was…. Zzzzzzzz (snore). Unless you are an avid bird-enthusiast, this book feels very repetitive, and overly complimentary to the Grants, almost as if it were an advertisement for their work. They are wonderful people (I met them recently when they came to my university to give a talk) but if Jonathon Weiner spent so much time with them, didn’t he observe anything less flattering? That would have made them seem more normal and less saintl Lots of people I know rave about this book, but my feeling was…. Zzzzzzzz (snore). Unless you are an avid bird-enthusiast, this book feels very repetitive, and overly complimentary to the Grants, almost as if it were an advertisement for their work. They are wonderful people (I met them recently when they came to my university to give a talk) but if Jonathon Weiner spent so much time with them, didn’t he observe anything less flattering? That would have made them seem more normal and less saintly and….blah. Wasn’t Rosemary ever jealous or upset that Peter got all the credit for what was half her research? Didn’t she ever want to become a professor, too? She didn’t directly address this during the luncheon I went to during their visit, but I was tempted to ask (I didn’t). I wish Jonathon Weiner had included tension in the book, it would have made it infinitely more interesting. And the final doomsday chapters (species destruction, antibiotic resistance, global warming etc etc.) felt very cliche. Guess it was written in the mid-1990s when we all hadn't heard quite so much about these topics but these days.... yawn.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Tatiana

    This book is really important. The study of how micro-evolution happens from one year to the next to the next in the Galapagos gave me a lot of insight into how the environment shapes species. Traits are constantly changing, yet the graph jitters back and forth around some more-or-less average value. It's really not average, though, because climate, rainfall, etc. are all fundamentally chaotic systems. Organisms tend to track generation by generation the conditions as they fall out. Over geologi This book is really important. The study of how micro-evolution happens from one year to the next to the next in the Galapagos gave me a lot of insight into how the environment shapes species. Traits are constantly changing, yet the graph jitters back and forth around some more-or-less average value. It's really not average, though, because climate, rainfall, etc. are all fundamentally chaotic systems. Organisms tend to track generation by generation the conditions as they fall out. Over geologic time that can either result in vast changes or effective stasis, depending on the situation. It's cool to picture how macro-evolution happens as a result of thousands of years of micro-evolution.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Rachel

    It took me awhile to read this, simply because I was working a ton in June and this is not a reflection on the book. I loved this - it was mind blowing, eye opening, engaging, and informative. I would like to go read everything Peter & Rosemary Grant have ever written, and also go read Origin of the Species (again). The complex interactions that rule the world and the Galapagos were explained in detail and examples, which I found to be really helpful. I really enjoyed reading about the boom/bust It took me awhile to read this, simply because I was working a ton in June and this is not a reflection on the book. I loved this - it was mind blowing, eye opening, engaging, and informative. I would like to go read everything Peter & Rosemary Grant have ever written, and also go read Origin of the Species (again). The complex interactions that rule the world and the Galapagos were explained in detail and examples, which I found to be really helpful. I really enjoyed reading about the boom/bust of rain/drought and how that influenced finches to eat everything (rainy season) or very particular food items they are adapted for (drought), and how that further pushed/pulled the species closer or apart. I have always wanted to go to the Galapagos and this only added onto that desire. Maybe someday I'll get there - hopefully as a scientist, but if not that then as a visitor will work for me too.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Laura (Book Scrounger)

    Though it's 25 years old by now (showing its age a bit with discussions of 90s technology), this book was a fascinating look at a married couple of scientists who studied "Darwin's finches" for twenty years, documenting natural selection at work in a way that no one had been able to do before. It also looked at Darwin's writings and ideas in general, including how he came to his conclusions and what he simply didn't have the tools to know during his time. It was a neat glimpse at the rigor of sc Though it's 25 years old by now (showing its age a bit with discussions of 90s technology), this book was a fascinating look at a married couple of scientists who studied "Darwin's finches" for twenty years, documenting natural selection at work in a way that no one had been able to do before. It also looked at Darwin's writings and ideas in general, including how he came to his conclusions and what he simply didn't have the tools to know during his time. It was a neat glimpse at the rigor of scientific work, and leaves the reader with questions to ponder about biology (human and animal) and also how we're treating this planet now.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Ben

    This is a masterpiece of accessible science writing. Oftentimes, scientific people don't understand just how dumb non-scientific people are, but Jonathan Weiner does. Without being condescending, he explains why evolution is accessible knowledge and important to understand. Loosely following the decades-long study of Galapagos finches by Peter and Rosemary Grant, this book explains evolution in real time with the help of real people. I've always been frustrated by some of the gaps in evolutionar This is a masterpiece of accessible science writing. Oftentimes, scientific people don't understand just how dumb non-scientific people are, but Jonathan Weiner does. Without being condescending, he explains why evolution is accessible knowledge and important to understand. Loosely following the decades-long study of Galapagos finches by Peter and Rosemary Grant, this book explains evolution in real time with the help of real people. I've always been frustrated by some of the gaps in evolutionary theory - or at least as my nonscientific and unlettered mind perceives them. For example, what would consciousness be naturally selected for in humans? Why would constantly worrying about something you said to someone you barely know be selected for? After having a child and watching a newborn grow, why would our children be so monumentally helpless and unpredictable? At the same time, it's always seemed to me that humans have lived a particularly charmed evolutionary existence - walking upright, thumbs, language, brains that are far more developed that any other animal. The size of the Galapagos finches' beaks ebbs and flows depending on the seeds that are available due to the amount of rain, and that's fascinating, but humans write books about this stuff so it's not like all species are evolved at the same rate. This book addresses those questions with theories and examples and a life-affirming gentleness. The final pages of the book are beautifully written, as well, and give a fitting conclusion to such a deftly written book. I'd encourage you to read the book if you are perplexed by these issues because without spoiling anything, there are a lot of factors in natural selection dynamics that you probably aren't considering. The science in the middle of the book lost me for a few dozen pages, but the last one hundred tie everything together. Particularly convincing were the chapters on pesticides and antibiotics - which show evolution in spooky real time. Read this book and I promise that you'll have plenty to say the next time the dreaded topic of science comes up in conversation. Fantastic book!

  24. 5 out of 5

    Stephen

    This would be on my short list of best science books. Thrilling fieldwork. Especially poignant this month that we commemorate the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his “The Origin of the Species.” Weiner’s book details the study of Darwin’s finches by Princeton evolutionary biologists: Peter and Rosemary Grant. The Grants monitored every single finch on the island of Daphne Major in the Galápagos Islands over more than two decades. They This would be on my short list of best science books. Thrilling fieldwork. Especially poignant this month that we commemorate the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his “The Origin of the Species.” Weiner’s book details the study of Darwin’s finches by Princeton evolutionary biologists: Peter and Rosemary Grant. The Grants monitored every single finch on the island of Daphne Major in the Galápagos Islands over more than two decades. They recorded and made detailed measurements of every single bird and its offspring, generation after generation. Charles Darwin himself would have loved this book even though it proved part of his treatise wrong. Evolution is not a slow methodical process, requiring thousands of years to nuance changes in species. It can move much faster. And is observable from season to season dependent on the whims of the surrounding environment. As Darwin surmised (and the Grants demonstrate how) the numerous finch species that live isolated on these tiny islands all emerged from only one mainland species. If you are a naturalist and you asked me to recommend just one book, it would probably be this one because it dramatically illustrates just how dynamic nature truly is. Great story, told well.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Bill

    Let's start here: Someone really should invent a new word. Evolution, like gravity, is fact. It's far beyond theory status, as most people seem to use and understand the word. And dammit; it's not something you "believe" in (that would be like saying you believe in dirt). If you refuse to see that, you have an issue. You are somehow invested in believing something patently untrue. Why could that be? Dunno...it is completely baffling to me. This book ranks with McCullough's John Adams and Shirer's Let's start here: Someone really should invent a new word. Evolution, like gravity, is fact. It's far beyond theory status, as most people seem to use and understand the word. And dammit; it's not something you "believe" in (that would be like saying you believe in dirt). If you refuse to see that, you have an issue. You are somehow invested in believing something patently untrue. Why could that be? Dunno...it is completely baffling to me. This book ranks with McCullough's John Adams and Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in my list of non-fiction favorites. Clearly written, fascinating, enjoyable, clear, focused and concise, directed toward the layman but backed up with real science, verifiable facts and an ultimately undeniable thesis make for a book that should be required reading for everyone (it will be for my kids). The book seems to lose some steam towards the end as the author tries to make some larger points. In general, he's probably more or less on the mark, but perhaps he strays too much from his main topic and expands too quickly points which may seem obvious to some but are more questionable to others. Other than that, it's nearly perfect in its scope and tone. Highly, highly recommended...if you haven't read it yet, seeing that it was published in 1994.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Lara

    3.5 stars. Really interesting and very well narrated, but I will admit I got reeeally sick of hearing, "natural selection scrutinizes daily and hourly..." First of all, natural selection is not a dude with a magnifying glass. And second of all, soooooo repetitious! He said it about seven or eight times in the first fourth or so of the book. Too much! Finally on the third time, he at least added "metaphorically," which made me feel a little better. But still. It annoyed me. Other that that, it's a 3.5 stars. Really interesting and very well narrated, but I will admit I got reeeally sick of hearing, "natural selection scrutinizes daily and hourly..." First of all, natural selection is not a dude with a magnifying glass. And second of all, soooooo repetitious! He said it about seven or eight times in the first fourth or so of the book. Too much! Finally on the third time, he at least added "metaphorically," which made me feel a little better. But still. It annoyed me. Other that that, it's a good book, though I didn't think it was amazing. I found the last fourth or so especially interesting though, where Weiner talks more about how natural selection effects us today, and how it might effect us in the future, and isn't something that only applies to the past. We are hearing more and more about how there are various antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria and pesticide-resistant bugs around these days, so the examples of that were really pretty fascinating (and scary). Anyway, I enjoyed it, but am not convinced it was Pulitzer Prize-worthy. But then, it's the rare Pulitzer Prize winner that I do enjoy or am even interested in, so, as I have stated many a time, I may just have poor taste. Ah well.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Cathy

    In this book Jonathan Weiner shows us that natural selection is neither rare nor slow: it is taking place by the hour, and we can watch. If this notion thrills you, you will love this book. It's not just about finches, either; it's about all kinds of animals, and -- yay! -- humans, too. Weiner puts the microscope on enterobacteria in the human gut as they react to antibiotics, and he puts the lens on the Heliothis moth as it evolves to resist pesticides in the cotton fields. Finally, he zooms ba In this book Jonathan Weiner shows us that natural selection is neither rare nor slow: it is taking place by the hour, and we can watch. If this notion thrills you, you will love this book. It's not just about finches, either; it's about all kinds of animals, and -- yay! -- humans, too. Weiner puts the microscope on enterobacteria in the human gut as they react to antibiotics, and he puts the lens on the Heliothis moth as it evolves to resist pesticides in the cotton fields. Finally, he zooms back to show us that planet Earth is our Daphne Major, and that the variable human mind is our beak. You do have to wade through a few data-heavy sections that feel a bit like a doctoral thesis, but most of the writing is stunning: original, poetic, and absolutely dazzling.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Paul

    Timely for me since we were visiting Galapagos Isles while I read this. A great summary of best of where evolutionary science is heading...with Darwin's Galapagos finch as stars of the show with current research that is revolutionizing how we 'see' evolution in action. Great science writer...Pulitzer Prize in 95 for this book. Timely for me since we were visiting Galapagos Isles while I read this. A great summary of best of where evolutionary science is heading...with Darwin's Galapagos finch as stars of the show with current research that is revolutionizing how we 'see' evolution in action. Great science writer...Pulitzer Prize in 95 for this book.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Shane Phillips

    It got repetitive. Let me some up. No rain: things happen to the finches and certain types are selected. Lots of rain: things happen to the finches and certain types are selected. #no spoilers on what. It was interesting the quotes from Darwin and the implications on modern results. As a non-scientist, it dragged on a little to much for me to follow.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Katy

    Great beginning and end, but it was a bit slow for me in the middle.

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