April 15, 2009

The Beak of the Finch

The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner is truly a masterwork.  It is an example of what popular science writing can be.  Not only is it not technical and not dumbed-down, it's highly engaging and readable.  It mostly covers the research done by the Grants on the finch populations in the Galapagos Islands, but it follows other paths to show off the main idea that evolution by natural selection is not only a slow and gradual force, but something that can be witnessed as it's happening.

Here, as in almost all writing, it is the powerful metaphors that make the book.  To help you get your mind around the idea that natural selection is a slow gradual process and one that is chaotically happening all the time all around us, Weiner asks us to imagine the plume of an erupting volcano.  Up close it is a roiling, unpredictable confusion of ash and smoke.  From a distance it is an almost solid billowing plume that seems to change very little from one moment to the next.  It's this kind of writing that 

We would be wise to heed the information we learn from this book.  It lays out not only what is happening and why and how but what it means to our health and welfare.  A misunderstanding of the power of natural selection has led to the failures of pesticides and antibiotics, among other things.

As Weiner writes, "For better and for worse, this may be one of the most dramatic moments to observe evolution in action since evolution began" (p. 277).