Tan Wen-Yi ULS2202: Evolution September 19, 2010 Review of Jonathan Weiner¶s The Beak of the Finch

In The Beak of the Finch, science writer Jonathan Weiner chronicles and presents the research of Peter and Rosemary Grant, evolutionary biologists who have been observing finch species for over twenty years in the isolated island of Daphne Major. The book traces the Grants¶ seminal study of the finches, which provides direct evidence for natural selection. However, as Weiner shows, the Grants¶ research also challenges the Darwinian paradigm of evolution. In Darwin¶s view, evolution by natural selection involves slow, microscopic changes only observable through the fossil record. However, the Grants¶ work reveals the evolutionary process as far more rapid and dynamic than what Darwin conceived. After elucidating major aspects of the Grants¶ research in The Beak of the Finch, Weiner zooms out to a broader viewpoint; he highlights immediate implications of evolutionary biology on ecology and medicine, raising pressing and present questions founded on the bedrock of inquiry that Darwin and the Grants, among others, have pioneered. In The Beak of the Finch, Weiner adopts as a central issue of discussion the concept of adaptive radiation, which is demonstrated by the Grants¶ research. As Weiner presents, adaptive radiation refers to the evolution of phenotypical diversity among the finches over generations, resulting in species which are physiologically distinct and play different ecological roles. The beaks of the finches on Daphne Major are morphologically diverse. Each species has a beak which equips it to feed on a certain kind of seed. The Grants¶ research shows that the birds engage in this ³eccentric specialization´ when food and weather conditions are harsh on the island (Weiner 18, 66). For example, geospiza magnirostris, with the largest beaks of all the finch species, would feed primarily on big and heavy seeds which other birds are unable to crack; geospiza scandens, the cactus finch, possess long and thin beaks to harvest cactus seeds for food (Weiner 58). In the case of extreme selection events such

Weiner turns his attention to matters closer to the immediate lives of his readers. the Grants and their protégés were able to observe minute physiological changes that occurred between generations of finches. He demonstrates the fragility of ecological habitats. species may exhibit ³virtually no change´ and evolution may appear to happen infinitesimally slowly ± a view held with conviction by Darwin himself. These features are µselected¶ for their importance to the finches¶ reproductive fitness level. and even modern medicine. Weiner draws on the Grants¶ research to depict living organisms in a constant state of flux from generation to generation (111. but according to this view. as in the case of the magnirostris magnirostris finch species in the islands of Santa Cruz and Floreana (Weiner 246). conservation. This could force existing species to evolve at an accelerated pace. In the later sections of The Beak of the Finch. terming them the ³resistance movement´. As evidence of the potent nature of . or conversely drive them to extinction. the Grants¶ research provides direct evidence for the evolution of physiological diversity in finch species over an observable period of time. However. Having established the swiftness of the evolutionary process as shown by the Grants. Over cumulative time.as droughts. adapting to its environment (250). Weiner also expounds on a familiar ecological example: the evolution of pesticide resistance in crop-ravaging pests. and inherited by the next generation (Weiner 81-82). Weiner puts a spin on how we view the µconservation¶ of a species. Moreover. Weiner suggests that evolution has urgent implications on ecology. providing as illustration how slight changes like the introduction of invasive species or other disturbances could drastically alter an ecological environment. the survival of a species migrated or re-introduced into a habitat may well be dependent on its ability to ³evolve into a new form´. only the finches whose morphological features are best adapted survive the harsh conditions. These adaptations may go unobserved. By showing that natural selection leads to modification with descent. the dynamism which with organisms evolve would make it impossible to ever preserve a species as a static form. Weiner confers upon these chemical-resistant pests a maverick nature. 202).

evolution. Coli bacteria exposed to an antibiotic. pesticides select for genetic traits that make the pests most resistant to the destructive chemicals. In Weiner¶s narrative. As poisons in the living environment of pests. Weiner raises examples of insects which evolved resistances to specific chemicals in as few as two to six generations (Weiner 253). and continues to perpetuate a sense of urgency towards this. including David Lack and Robert Bowman (Weiner 146). Those who followed in the Grants¶ footsteps are documented in heavier detail: Trevor Price. with ³powerful mathematical tools that did not exist in the 1970s´. Weiner cites antibiotic resistance as a growing ³global epidemic´ (257). whether against pests or viruses. was able to apply partial regression analysis techniques to isolate specific physiological features of the finches that were . work instead as selection pressures in favour of the unwanted organism (Weiner 266). the introduction of new technologies and methodologies has served to illuminate new areas of research. Similar selection pressures take place in the evolution of antibiotic resistance in bacteria which attack the human body. These pesticide-resistant pests embody the highest levels of reproductive fitness. He explains that the use of pesticides creates selection pressure for pests such as Heliothis virescens. In an experimental colony of E. He warns us of the ³terrible irony´ involved in present approaches towards medical and ecological solutions ± that the measures exerted by humans. He provides the reader with an introduction to those who have preceded the Grants in studying the Galapagos finches. producing findings that would have previously been inconceivable. A strong aspect of Weiner¶s account is the emergence of a historical sequence by which research about Darwin¶s finches has panned out over the years. creating a new colony of bacteria immune to the antibiotic (Weiner 258). who then inherit the selected trait (Weiner 253). cells which carried resistant genes survived and multiplied. a student of Peter Grant. What is striking about the use of such a recognised example is Weiner¶s convincing portrayal of this ecological reality as inseparable from evolutionary biology. They are able to survive in poison-ridden environments for the longest and produce the most offspring. a moth species frustrating cotton farmers in North America.

It is interesting that Weiner chooses to discredit the rose-tinted. molecular biologists such as Peter Boag may use DNA sequencing to trace genetic mutations in the finches (Weiner 216). which Weiner describes as a ³Hollywood version of the romance of the mind´ (35). Weiner draws on Darwin¶s . Though interesting and by no means inaccurate. popular view of scientific development. A final comment remains to be made on Weiner¶s rhetorical style. Weiner successfully taps on such diverse scientific disciplines as computational and molecular biology to strengthen his account of different aspects of evolutionary research. which include related studies on evolution and several post-graduate research projects affiliated to the Grants. Weiner sets out to debunk certain narratives that have been popularly told in the history of scientific research. an excess of examples serves to dilute Weiner¶s lucid account of the Grants¶ work. but also run a higher risk of being noticed and consumed by predators (Weiner 91). His contemporary Dolph Schluter employed evolutionary simulations based on data detailing beak and seed sizes present on Daphne Major (153).µselected¶ from a drought of 1977 (Weiner 82). One of these is the ³fable´ behind Darwin¶s process of scientific discovery. Weiner produces an arsenal of examples. he uses John Endler¶s study of guppies to show how sexual and natural selection pressures may diverge ± male guppies sporting gaudy markings are more likely to attract mates and reproduce. The Beak of the Finch is made less satisfying a read by the overabundance of examples supplied by Weiner. Besides depicting the Grants¶ unique contribution to a tradition of research in the Galapagos. As a storyteller of science. On this note. favouring instead an ³Archimedean eureka´ moment where he ± inspired by the beaks of the Galapagos finches ± stumbles upon the theory of evolution. as his own narrative reveals a similar romanticism in telling the tale. Weiner also presents studies of soapberry bugs (229) and sticklebacks (187) as evidences of animal adaptations. With technology. For example. They begin to seem like prolonged offshoots of the central narrative rather than complements to it. This narrative overlooks Darwin¶s preliminary observations about different species of pigeon in local nurseries. In this aspect.

where one ³can almost see« the sculptor¶s chisel at work´ (206). By illustrating the applications and implications of evolutionary research. a more sober reader might likely be less impressed. In another episode. like Darwin¶s finches. This quixotic portrayal of evolutionary biology is continued when Weiner associates Darwin¶s finches with a sense of aesthetic charm. in a state of Heraclitean flux. yet does not isolate them from those researchers before and after them who have carried out diverse research in the Galapagos. Overall. Weiner¶s style certainly works to inspire a sense of awe in the popular audience. . but it is not Weiner¶s job to break new scientific ground himself ± rather.memoirs to conclude that the real ³eureka moment´ occurs when he pieces together the process of adaptive radiation. Weiner appeals to the moral and intellectual awareness of his audience. of the finches¶ adaptive features. Weiner¶s The Beak of the Finch provides for a general audience an excellent overview to major inroads in evolutionary biology. he is able to elucidate major evolutionary concepts such as adaptive radiation. Weiner does justice to the influential nature of the Grants¶ work. Michelangelo¶s sculpture has a form that is still half-encased in marble. stimulating even an aesthetic imagination of science. Using the Grants¶ research. comparing them to Michelangelo Buonarroti¶s Prisoners. At this moment. and that has made all the difference´ (184). the success of The Beak of the Finch lies in its ability to chronicle groundbreaking science in a way which stimulates the curiosity and imagination of his readers. A reader who is already well-versed in the literature of evolutionary biology may not take away new discoveries from the book. realizing that the natural selection of local species creates physiological differences over generations. without shortchanging their complexities. Weiner teeters on the edge of the bromidic: he writes. they took the road less traveled by. that ³two roads diverged. sexual and natural selection. ³(staring) up for the first time at the whole tree of life´ (141). However. however. Weiner likens this to living organisms. resulting in speciation and phenotypical diversity (142). Weiner paints Darwin as the awed visionary.

The Beak of the Finch.References Weiner. Jonathan. 1994. New York: Vintage Books. .

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