I'm ashamed to say that I didn’t know until recently (after reading Dawkins’ magnificent book The Ancestor’s Tale
) that evolution can in fact be observed happening in real time and not only in as short a time as centuries, but also in decades and even years. In that book, Dawkins spoke about Rosemary and Peter Grant in relation to their work on the Galapagos Islands on Darwin’s finches and how they showed the role of evolution in explaining the immense diversity of life. I tried to find a book on the subject and came across this one, which was also mentioned in the Bibliography of The Ancestor’s Tale.
First, there is a thing that I didn’t appreciate much in this book, and that is the style in which it was written. Scientific books with journalistic and literary tones annoy and distract me a lot and if it were not for that, this book would have easily earned a perfect 5 star. It is unique and intelligent, written sometimes
with beautiful Dawkinsesque prose about the elegance and magnificence of evolution with beautiful allusion to the Judeo-Christian myths in a manner that didn’t suggest supernatural elements which can sometimes be imprudently used in scientific books. I actually quite liked that since I happen to find the Judeo-Christian myths of creation beautiful.
The Beak of the Finch had some very interesting ideas about the different paths evolution follows under different circumstances, such as when a species is being subjected to opposing selection forces by both sexual and natural selections, or when droughts and floods occur in successions. Also, one of the most interesting ideas was the fact that when zooming-in on the evolutionary history, the transition is often jagged and goes back and forth on the same or different paths. Another powerful idea was speciation and how it occurs without necessarily being always caused by geographical isolation. It only suffices that certain members of a species adapt to a different lifestyle from that of the others while living in the same environment, and given enough time the two groups can diverge to form different species following different lifestyles. And finally, demonstrating the role of hybridization in speciation was really interesting and informative.
The Beak of the Finch is not as much focused on finches as its title suggests. In fact, the author believes that the finch's beak can be used to symbolize evolution itself, given the powerful insights it gave the scientists who studied it since decades, and most importantly its historical significance because of Darwins' visit to the Galapagos. It is a delightful idea and symbol.
Evolution is indeed a fascinating and important topic and this book clearly shows how it is happening all around us. We like to think that it happened a long time ago and long stretches of time are needed for its latest effects to surface. Weiner shows how this is not always
the case and how evolution can proceed with varying speeds under different conditions. He shows the extent of the effects of our actions on the evolution of almost all the species around us including of course our own. It is nice to remember that Heraclitus was right in saying that everything flows, which is not only true as regards the atoms of our bodies which are being replaced as I write these words, but also in relation to the changes that our species undergo as long as we have enough time, wisdom, and chance to be here.