Darwin's Finches

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Whilst I was on my sick bed I did a bit of reading. Day time television leaves me quite empty; in fact I would rather scrape my eyes out with tiny little rusty pins than watch most of what is on offer. So I spent the time in between bouts of mucus expulsion finishing off half a dozen of the books that I had meant to finish some time ago. I then managed to make a start on The Beak Of The Finch by Jonathan Weiner, which is quite simply stunning.

Many UK birders will have heard of Peter Grant, the bloke that knew a fair bit about gulls but died too soon, but is still rightly credited on the new Collins guide. The very observant will have noticed that he is referred to as Peter J Grant. That is because there is another Peter Grant working in the field of ornithology, and he is arguably the more important. He, and his wife Rosemary, are the main human subject of the book Darwin’s Finches (you can probably guess which birds take up a lot of the space). Without going into too much detail, they carefully picked an island in the Galapagos, and studied all the finches on it. For nearly twenty years. They didn’t just study them by walking about and watching, after a few years they had almost every bird on the island ringed, weighed and measured and by continuing this they produced a staggering amount of data across many generations, which showed how evolutionary factors were working in real time and this is the most important part of the book in my opinion.

Evolution deniers are stupid. Note that I am not referring to creationists - that’s a whole different rabid beast of mentalists. No - evolution deniers. You may come across them, and there are arguments that will be presented around misinformed rubbish like ‘you can’t see evolution happening’ and ‘evolution theory cannot be proven’ and you may wish that you had the counter argument. This book, essentially the work by the Grants, is the proof in real time.  It shows the vicissitudes of the forces that impact on the lives of these birds in a very restricted arena (a metaphorical Petri dish if you like) and the reaction of the species, the interaction of similarly related species and how they respond in the short term to environmental forces that in the study period swayed from prolonged drought to an exceptional El Nino occurrence. In short, it proves evolution. It makes you realise that evolution is going on all the time, everywhere – but we cannot see it. The Grants, because of the beautiful and savage isolation and containment of the finches on Daphne Major, could see it.

If you have any interest in evolution, get this book and read it. It is very good indeed and I cannot recommend it enough.  It didn't win a Pullitzer prize for nothing.

A Pied Wagtail doing evolution.


Anonymous said...

Um, are you sure you don't mean 'The Beak of the Finch'? Which is certainly a fabulous book.

Thing said...

That's what I said! ;-)

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