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15th Annual Los Angeles Times Book Prizes : WINNER: JONATHAN WEINER 'THE BEAK OF THE FINCH' : The Beak That Brings Life

November 13, 1994|CAROL J. LONSDALE and HARDING E. SMITH | Carol Lonsdale is a research scientist at Caltech. Harding Smith is a professor of physics at UC San Diego. They were 1994 science book prize judges

Charles Darwin never imagined that it would be possible to observe the effects of natural selection during a human lifetime, let alone in the mere span of a few years. The theory that took seed with his foraging and collecting in the Galapagos Archipelago was thought by this scientific visionary to be a matter of centuries, with the evidence to be found in the fossil record and the diversity of living forms. Most people today still assume that this is the case.

Winner of the 1994 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Science and Technology, Jonathan Weiner's new book "The Beak of the Finch" lays to rest this supposition with the engaging narrative of a modern scientific study that will forever change the way that we view evolution: the work of Princeton biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant, who have spent the last two decades studying the process of natural selection on the Galapagos finches that caught the attention of Darwin 150 years earlier.

The Grants have had the vision, the tools and perhaps most critically, the perseverance, to return season after lonely season to the small volcanic outcropping called Daphne Major to watch the finch population. This isolated rock among the isolated Galapagos Islands is perhaps as close as biologists will come to the ideal evolutionary laboratory. Here the Grants and their team, which often included their daughters, Thalia and Nicola, recorded the response of the finches to their environment by painstaking measurement of body dimensions, detailed monitoring of eating habits, and tireless monitoring of birth and death of the hundreds of finches that they learned to recognize by sight.

Weiner vividly recounts how the finch population dwindles, by 85%, in response to a two-year drought, then rebounds as the rains return. But the finch population, both in terms of the survival rate among species and the characteristics within species, shows dramatic changes in this cycle. Remarkably, it is small differences in the size and shape of the beak that effect life or death.

During drought, selection favors the birds with larger beaks, mostly males, who can crack the larger, tougher seeds and who can attract the dwindling female population; beak size increases in response. When the rains come, producing an abundance of smaller seeds, the selection subtly changes and smaller beaks have an advantage. The Grants not only recorded the process of evolution as they watched, but through careful analysis could also identify the selection effects and responses. The Grants' research is a pioneering study, but Weiner carefully places it in context among a spectrum of other stories of dramatic evolution. This is a rare book: "The Beak of the Finch" is at once absorbing science history, deftly crafted popular science treatise and engaging personal narrative. Fittingly, it is beautifully illustrated by drawings by Charles Darwin and Thalia Grant. 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. And it has an important message: Humans are driving Darwin's process in our own modern time, from the appearance of tusk-less African elephants to the development of drug-resistant bacteria and pesticide-resistant pests. The story is told with humor and perception; the message is well documented and plainly stated. The book is eminently accessible to the lay reader but thought-provoking to the professional scientist. Both will find it a delight to read. In this remarkable book, Jonathan Weiner demonstrates that the "Book of life is still being written" and points us toward "the hand that writes."

LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK PRIZES / SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY: Nominees

THE BREAK OF THE FINCH: A Story of Evolution in Our Time, by Jonathan Weiner (Alfred A. Knopf)

UNCOMMON SENSE: The Heretical Nature of Science, by Alan Cromer (Oxford University Press)

SIGNS OF LIFE: Language and the Meaning of DNA, by Robert Pollack (Houghton Mifflin)

WHY ZEBRAS DON'T GET ULCERS: A Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Disease, and Coping, by Robert M. Sapolsky (W.H. Freeman)

THE END OF EVOLUTION: On Mass Extinctions and the Preservation of Biological Diversity, by Peter Douglas Ward (Bantam Books)

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