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

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

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by Jonathan Weiner

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The Beak of the Finch tells the story of two Princeton University scientists - evolutionary biologists - engaged in an extraordinary investigation. They are watching, and recording, evolution as it is occurring - now - among the very species of Galapagos finches that inspired Darwin's early musings on the origin of species. They are studying the evolutionary process… See more details below


The Beak of the Finch tells the story of two Princeton University scientists - evolutionary biologists - engaged in an extraordinary investigation. They are watching, and recording, evolution as it is occurring - now - among the very species of Galapagos finches that inspired Darwin's early musings on the origin of species. They are studying the evolutionary process not through the cryptic medium of fossils but in real time, in the wild, in the flesh. The finches that Darwin took from Galapagos at the time of his voyage on the Beagle led to his first veiled hints about his revolutionary theory. But Darwin himself never saw evolution as Peter and Rosemary Grant have been seeing it - in the act of happening. For more than twenty years they have been monitoring generation after generation of finches on the island of Daphne Major - measuring, weighing, observing, tracking, analyzing on computers their struggle for existence. We see the Grants at work on the island among the thousands of living, nesting, hatching, growing birds whose world and lives are the Grants' primary laboratory. We explore the special circumstances that make the Galapagos archipelago a paradise for evolutionary research: an isolated population of birds that cannot easily fly away and mate with other populations, islands that are the tips of young volcanoes and thus still rapidly evolving as does the life that they support, a food supply changing radically in response to radical variations of climate - so that in a brief span of time the Grants can see the beak of the finch adapt. And we watch the Grants' team observe evolution at a level that was totally inaccessible to Darwin: the molecular level, as the DNA in the blood samples taken from the birds reveals evolutionary change. Here, brilliantly and lucidly recounted - with important implications for our own day, when man's alterations of the environment are speeding the rate of evolutionary changes - is a scientific enterprise in the grand m

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Weiner follows scientists Peter and Rosemary Grant who, for the past 20 years, have studied the continuing evolution of the beaks of finches in the Galapagos Islands. (June)
Library Journal
This is an account of Peter and Rosemary Grant's research on the microevolutionary modifications that occur in finch beaks as they adapt to environmental changes. Analysis of data collected from 18,000 birds on a Galpagos island over 21 years conclusively demonstrates that the pressures of natural selection are currently altering wild populations. Also, by incorporating others' work on present-day evolutionary variations in fish, insects, and microbes, Weiner (The Next One Hundred Years, LJ 2/1/90) challenges the concept of evolution as a time-frozen process. Harmonized with the writings of Charles Darwin, this book provides the facts to bring alive evolution as an ongoing process. Highly recommended for general collections, but informed readers would do better with Peter Grant's own Ecology and Evolution of Darwin's Finches (Princeton Univ. Pr., 1986).-Frank Reiser, Nassau Community Coll., Garden City, N.Y.
John Mort
"We will now discuss in a little more detail the struggle for existence," Darwin said, and that's what Weiner does, too, in his account of the study of Galapagos finches undertaken by Peter and Rosemary Grant some 20 years ago. The Grants set up camp on Daphne Major, an island of sheer cliffs and no freshwater except for what falls from the sky, but such inhospitable features ensured that finches would follow their life cycles without human interference. The Grants have documented some 13 species of "Darwin's finches," including one that is flightless; one that cohabits with marine iguanas; one, the vampire finch, that lives on blood; one that is entirely vegetarian; and one, the cactus finch, that makes tools with its beak. The Grants caught and banded thousands of finches and traced their elaborate lineage, enabling them to document the changes that individual species make, primarily to their beaks, in reaction to the environment. (During prolonged drought, for instance, beaks may become longer and sharper, to reach the tiniest of seeds.) Even more fascinating, the Grants have documented changes in DNA among their birds, suggesting a refutation of creationism, if one were needed, and leading Weiner to declare that "Darwin did not know the strength of his own theory. He vastly underestimated the power of natural selection. Its action is neither rare nor slow. It leads to evolution daily and hourly, all around us, and we can watch." An engaging account of a seminal study that introduces the reader to Darwin and to the dedicated, tireless biologists who have proved him right.
From the Publisher
The Beak of the Finch is brilliant . . . one of those rare books that permanently alters one’s view of nature and even of life and death.”
—Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone
“Evolution in the flesh, a landmark in evolutionary studies.”
Los Angeles Times
“Evocative writing, exhaustive research, and Weiner’s memorable portrait of the engaging Grants assure The Beak of the Finch membership in the select pantheon of science books that spark not just the intellect, but the imagination.”
Washington Post Book World
“Admirable and much-needed . . . superb at explaining very complex scientific and philosophical concepts in lucid prose. . . . Weiner’s triumph is to reveal how evolution and science work, and to let them speak clearly for themselves.”
The New York Times Book Review
“A sparkling exploration of the single most powerful and compelling force in nature.”
Philadelphia Inquirer
“This is science writing at its most accomplished: both an account of how science is done and an eloquent illustration of why we do it.”
Globe and Mail (Toronto)
“Wise and intelligent . . . Weiner’s engrossing book shows just how profoundly Darwin underestimated the power of his own ideas.”
The Sciences
“It has every chance of becoming a classic.”
The Times (of London)
“This is an exceptional book, artfully crafted, lucid and richly descriptive. It is the best exploration of evolution written in recent years. It conveys a powerful insight into life that helps us to understand the fundamental forces of nature and our relationship to the world about us. Highly recommended.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer
“First class . . . one of the best pieces of science writing that I have read in a long while.”
“Spectacular, page-turning . . . the ideal book to recommend to any doubter who asks, ‘where’s the evidence for evolution.’”
Sunday Times (London)
“Jonathan Weiner is a science writer who makes complex research accessible to the ordinary person, and he does so with wit and style. . . . Reads like a combination detective story and adventure book.”
Dallas Morning News
“Leads us deeper and deeper into what Darwin called ‘the mystery of mysteries’. . . . Weiner picks up the pieces of this puzzle and holds them up to the light at just the right angle. . . . He leaves us with not only a greater understanding of the forces of nature but also a greater sense of wonder at creation.”
Chicago Tribune
“Lyrical . . . as intimate, precise and meticulous as his subject’s groundbreaking work, and deserves to have the same wide influence.”
The Economist
“An invaluable living lesson in evolutionary change.”
San Diego Union
“This remarkable book will forever change your sense of the pace of nature—once you’ve read Weiner s elegant and absorbing account, the world will seem infinitely more fluid, shifting, alive.”
—Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature
“Well-written, fascinating . . . this classic of science writing deserves to be as widely read as any Tom Clancy thriller.”
Roanoke Times & World-News
“Combines vivid and witty on-the-scene reporting with a sound and evocative explication of Charles Darwin’s place in the history of ideas. Succinct and highly readable, The Beak of the Finch is science writing of a high order.”
—Timothy Ferris, author of Coming of Age in the Milky Way
“Darwin’s finches make for a scientific thriller . . . in The Beak of the Finch, Jonathan Weiner took me on an astonishing voyage of discovery that, in many ways, is a sequel to the most famous scientific voyage in history.”
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
“[An] engaging narrative of a modern scientific study that will forever change the way that we view evolution. . . . This is a rare book: The Beak of the Finch is at once absorbing science history, deftly crafted popular science treatise and engagingly personal narrative. . . . It has an important story to tell, not only of Darwin’s finches and evolution but also of the way that forefront scientific research is carried out.”
The Los Angeles Times Book Review
“This book is an extraordinary achievement. It is carefully researched, impeccably crafted, unflinchingly dramatic, yet conscientiously scientific.”
School Library Journal

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
1st ed
Product dimensions:
6.66(w) x 9.55(h) x 1.35(d)

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