The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner

There have been many fine books regarding evolution and Darwinian ideas written by names we are all familiar with: Dawkins, Gould, Dennett, Eldredge, etc. All these books are good with their own particular perspective on an evolutionary principle. However, I would like to point out a book you may have overlooked.

While studying in England a couple years back, I ran into a relative of Charles Darwin after visiting Darwin’s house (now a museum). During my long conversation with the relative, he spoke of his life as an engineer and it was only now in his retirement that he had taken up an interest family history. While looking into the ideas Darwin developed, there was one book he felt truly gave a view of the big picture of what evolution represents and of the people who continue to study the story of life. That book is The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner.

The Pulitzer Prize winning book, written in 1994, tells of the work Peter and Rosemary Grant of Princeton University have done on the Galapagos Islands for the last 20 years. (It has now been 30 years since their work began. See my article on “Nobel Conference explores The Story of Life” in the November/ December 2003 Minnesota Atheist for more information.)

The book majestically covers the Grants’ work studying the finches on Daphne Major Island and the incredible discoveries that they’ve made. Through conversations with the Grants, their colleagues, and marvelous, accurate drawings from their daughter (who has grown up on the island), Weiner is able to weave together a narrative of the methods of biologists, their discoveries, and what it means and implies for them to have actually measured and witnessed Natural Selection in action.

The book is a masterful collection of science, biography, environmental studies, and elegant narrative. If you want to understand what biologists do and what we can – and have – learned about evolutionary studies, then pick up this book. – Brett Welch

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