The Beak of the Finch

Dan, Michael, Ryan & Jack



Chapter 1 Summary
Chapter one is an intro to Peter and Rosemary Grant’s study of finches on Daphne Major in the Galapagos Islands. Starting out as a brief narrative of catching finches the chapter moves on to state that the Grant’s study “is the best and most detailed demonstration to date of the power of Darwin’s process.” Chapter one informs the reader that although Darwin never observed his process directly it is now possible to do so through studies such as the Grants.

Daphne Major is an ideal place to study evolution. Its isolation and simplicity are as close to laboratory conditions as one may find in nature. Hard to access Daphne is an inhospitable place with little if any human disturbances. The Grant’s camp near the rim of the volcano, the only suitable level camp site on the island and must haul all of their gear up from the sea on their backs.

Daphne Major

After capturing birds measurements are taken and a blood sample is collected. The amount of time the Grants have spent on Daphne has allowed them to collect an enormous quantity of data; data that allows them to see natural selection in the wild in a human life span.

The beginning and end of the chapter shed light on the manor in which the Grant’s and their assistant keep track of the inches on the island color coded leg bands help them keep track of the 400 finches on the island. By standing on Darwin’s shoulders and using modern computer power the Grant’s were able to watch the power of natural selection in action.

Bird Leg Bands

Discussion Questions
• What makes the conditions on Daphne Major so perfect for studying evolution in action? • How many other species of birds live on the Galapagos? Is a lack of other species part of what allowed finches to adapt to multiple niches? • Why is it necessary to conduct this type of research in the field?

Chapter 2 Summary
What Darwin Saw

Charles Lyell

Erasmus Darwin

Chapter two outlines the ideas and influences that brought Darwin from a Creationist to a proponent of his own theory of evolution. Darwin used what he learned from fellow naturalists like Charles Lyell, Robert E. Grant, his own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, and of course the variety of finches he collected on the Galapagos Islands to form his theory of evolution by natural selection. Overall, what he and a handful of others during the period saw, was that small scale changes over long periods of time can create big effects.

At 22, Darwin joined the voyage of the beagle and after visiting the Galapagos Archipelago and other locations around the world, he returned to England with many natural specimens including 31 finches from the Galapagos islands.

Darwin did not fully understand the significance of the finches until after donating all of his specimens to the Zoological Society of London where John Gold pronounced them as being 14 new species unique to the Galapagos islands. Darwin was surprised to learn that the strangely diverse group of birds he collected were all finches. Despite mixing samples of finches from two of the islands, Darwin began to realize that the Galapagos birds displayed variation from island to island.

Darwin, like Carolus Linnaeus before him, realized that local conditions can lead to local varieties of species. However, unlike Linnaeus, Darwin began to theorize that possibly an ancestral finch species could have populated the islands and diverged, generation by generation, creating different varieties that could continue diverging into different species marooned on their own islands, ultimately breaking the species barrier.

Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology taught Darwin that the earth’s crust has been changing over time and hinted at the concept that small effects, like erosion, can accumulate to large scale changes over geological time. Similarly, Darwin’s fossils from South America gave evidence for extinct relatives of living organisms.

From these findings Darwin postulated that species gradually become modified over time. For Darwin, these modifications in form might explain the gradiations in beak size, from very thick to very thin, seen in the finches he had collected. He predicted that these modified beaks were developed for different purposes on different islands.

Ancestral Canine

Knowing that breeders have shaped and molded plants and animals for centuries, Darwin began studying breeders and took up pigeon breeding himself. Darwin learned that breeders use the power of selection, choosing the best organism from generation to generation, thereby modifying and changing the species being examined.


Darwin’s personal collection of pigeons included a range of different varieties. When showing Lyell his collection of pigeons, Darwin explained that although they all look different they belong to the same species. The different breeds of pigeons that Darwin and Lyell pondered over were created by the simple act of selection by breeders over just a few generations leading Darwin to wonder “what nature could do over millions of years.”

Discussion Questions
• Why do finches play a key role in the Grant research party and Darwin’s evolutionary theory when compared to other organisms? • What have the grants done differently to support Darwin’s evolutionary theory? • Why were mockingbirds initially found to have diverging characteristics rather than the finches? • How did Principles of Geology sculpt evolutionary thought for Darwin? • What are some reasons for Darwin’s assuredness in relating dog/pigeon breeding to selection in nature? • During Darwin’s time, why would it be difficult to scientifically prove natural selection?