Book Review: BEAK OF THE FINCH by Jonathon Weiner

Beak of the Finch – Jonathon Weiner, winner of The Pulitzer Prize, honored nature writer and lover.

Author’s note: The following is a book report presented by me to the Center For Inquiry Indiana, 2007 and modified 2011.

“The process of evolution is not an event that happened in the past, it is happening this very moment all over the earth.” Jonathon Weiner

 There are disbelievers. Creationists have rejected the science of biological evolution. They say, Prove it and I will believe it. When it is proven they say, I don’t believe the proof, or I choose my faith over your proof. There is little we can do to change the minds of such hardcore believers. They are satisfied to remain ignorant. Well educated theologians, religious scientists, and philosophers claim that atheists are not open minded. It’s pure bunk. They are the ones that are not open minded and the following series of quotes by the cream of Christian pundants prove my point.

The following  quotations are from Donald Prothero’s book “Evolution – What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters” 

 “Saint Ignatius Loyola of the Jesuits wrote, “To be right in everything, we ought always hold that the white which we see is black, if the church so decides it.”

 Kurt Wise, one of the few young earth creationists with a legitimate background in paleontology, a Ph.D. from Harvard, wrote, “I am a young earth creationist because that is my understanding of the scriptures. As I shared with my professors many years ago when I was in college, if all the evidence in the universe turned against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the word of God seems to indicate.”  “Creation isn’t a theory. The fact that God created the Universe is not a theory – it’s true. However, some of the details are not specifically nailed down in the Scriptures. Some issues, such as a creation, a global flood, and a young age for the earth are determined by Scripture, so they are not theories. My understanding of the Scripture is the Universe is in the order of 6,000 years old. Once that is determined by Scripture, it is a starting point that we build theories upon.”

 St. Augustine recommended that the faithful not debate scientists for fear that the literal interpretation of Genesis would discredit the faith. He wrote that it was no longer plausible to claim that Joshua caused the sun to stand still in the heavens, that the earth was flat and was the center of the universe as described in the bible. He was afraid the world would laugh at those who argued for such anti-science beliefs.

 Duane Gish, Creationism’s main debater and spokesperson wrote “We cannot discover by scientific investigations anything about the creative processes used by the Creator.” And “ creation (science) is, of course, unproven and unprovable by the methods of experimental science. Neither can it qualify as scientific theory.”

 Creationist spokesperson Dembski wrote, “Any view of science that leaves Christ out of the picture must be seen as fundamentally deficient. The conceptual soundness of a scientific theory cannot be maintained apart from Christ.” Does this mean that all secular scientists and their research are wrong?

 Henry Morris, Creationist spokesperson, author of “The Genesis Flood wrote, “Creation science is a scientific theory which does not fit all the facts of true science as well as God’s revelation in the Holy Scriptures.” Also, “The main reason for insisting on the universal flood as a fact of history and as the primary vehicle for geological interpretation is that God’s word plainly teaches it! No geological difficulties, real or imagined, can be allowed to take precedence over the clear statements and inferences of Scriptures.” Also, when asked about his discredited positions after a debate with Christian evolutionary biologist Henry Miller, he replied to Miller, “You don’t realize what is at stake. In a question of such importance, scientific data aren’t the ultimate authority. Scripture tells us what the right conclusion is. And if science, momentarily, doesn’t agree with it, then we will have to keep working until we get the right answer. But I have no doubts what hat answer will be.”

The above Christians are not open minded by any definition of the term. They admittedly do not let facts get in the way of their supernatural beliefs.

Fortunately, most non-Creationists/fundamentalists, including most Christians, accept evolution. (About 50% of Americans, and a much higher percentage in other western countries and Japan.) However, even when science-minded people look at nature around them, they don’t see change. How nice it would be, they say, to actually see evolution happening rather than just reading about it and taking the word of experts.

Most of us fall into that category. We accept evolution but would be hard pressed to explain it or defend it in any detail. Don’t feel badly about that inability. You are not alone.

It is generally thought evolution is a difficult subject to comprehend. It is something to be studied in college, something best explained by biology teachers and scientists. I don’t agree. I hope this short review of The Beak of the Finch answers some of your questions and enables you to explain this beautiful scientific principal to others.

Jonathon Weiner wrote The Beak of the Finch for you, for believers in evolution. Creationists will not read the book. Weiner tells the story of husband and wife researchers, Peter and Rosemary Grant, who spent the last thirty years studying Galapagos Islands finches. They and their students captured, measured, and banded the finches on several islands, especially one Island, Daphne Major.

It was a monumental physical task, never before equaled in field research. At the time of this book’s publication in 1995, over 18,000 birds had been studied, encompassing over 24 generations. As difficult as the island research was, the real work began each year when the Grants returned home to their laboratory in Princeton, NJ, put their data into computers, and analyzed it. The results substantiate Darwin’s breakthrough theory of descent with change, evolution.

One hundred seventy-five years ago, Darwin visited the Islands, studied the finches, concluded they were all one species with slight variations, and thought nothing more of it. It was not until many years later, he realized that there were many different species of finches on the desolate islands, all having evolved from a few founding finches blown 600 miles across the Pacific ocean from South America. Other migrants, arrived by ocean currents and storms, were hawks, owls, mockingbirds, iguanas, tortoises, insects, etc. Fortunately, a variety of vegetation accompanied the immigrants and found a home there as well.

 Why was the Grant’s research so challenging? When you stare at the hour hand on your watch, you cannot see it move? Why? Because your visual perception is not fine-tuned enough to see movement that slow. Although you know the hour hand, (and even the minute hand) is moving, you can’t see it.

If you snip a frame out of a movie film and examine it, you cannot you see any change or movement in the isolated frame. When you splice it back in and turn the projector on you see movement.

If you visit the Galapagos Islands and watch the beaks of the little ubiquitous finches, you cannot you see their beaks change in size and shape. Why? Because beaks don’t change in the lifetime of one bird, but they do change progressively in successive generations. The Grants had to be patient and look carefully, very carefully, from generation to generation.

A casual observer cannot notice the difference in beak size and shape between generations. Evolutionary changes in beaks usually occur less than a millimeter at a time so they are almost impossible to see. The Grants measured every beak of every generation of finch with calipers. Their data were in numbers that could be analyzed by computer programs. Only then did they see the hard evidence of evolution about which Darwin and earlier researchers could only theorize.

The Grant’s research was so accurate that they were able to predicted beak change during drought times and rainy times, according to the type of food available. The finches evolved from one species of seed eaters (the founding birds) into several species of seed eaters, cactus eaters, insect eaters, fruit eaters, flower eaters, and blood eaters. Beak size and shape changed, as necessary, adapting to the type of food available.

Eventually, the cumulative changes in beak, leg, wing, and body size and shape, were significant enough to create new species of finch (speciation).

Normally, species do not interbreed, but in rare cases, they do (hybridization). Closely related species sometime interbreed and produce hybrid offspring. Hybrids rarely survive and breed successfully unless they are fortunate enough to have physical characteristics more suitable for survival than their parents. Normally, hybrids are sterile (a horse and donkey produce a sterile mule) but there are exceptions depending on how closely related the parents are. In order to survive and pass on their genes, finch hybrids would have to have been hatched at a time of severe and abrupt climatic change for which their parents were less able to adapt than they. This is most likely to happen in isolated habitats like on islands. Fortunately for us, and science lovers, the Grants have documented it.

Have you ever been asked, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”

This little question must have been first asked by a Creationist, trying to make a point about biblical creation. I still hear it offered as a clever conundrum, a supposedly unanswerable question. A basic understanding of evolution is required to answer the question and appreciate why the Grant’s research on the little volcanic islands thrilled the scientific world.

Simply put, when an egg is fertilized, parental DNA undergoes several changes due to replication and recombination. Usually, this process occurs accurately, but occasionally and fortunately for all life, “mistakes” are made; units of DNA (genes) are omitted, misplaced, or rearranged, creating a variation or mutation in offspring. Human twins can have identical DNA but other siblings do not. Changes outside the genes (epigenetic) effect the expression of the genes but not the actual DNA itself. Understanding epigenetic changes is extremely important to our understanding of evolution. The changes are fast, and temporary but may determine whether or not a species survives and passes on its long term genetic changes.

If a variation (mutation) enables the offspring to better adapt to local conditions, the offspring flourishes at the expense of the parent, and others of its species not as fit, and passes alone that variation. Eventually the parental animals die off and are replaced by slightly different animals, almost indistinguishable from the parent, but not yet a new species. It takes researchers, such as the Grants, with patience, calipers, fine nets, traps, computers, scales, blood sampling technology, and DNA testing capability to find and document the tiny ongoing changes between parents and offspring.

So, what does this have to do with chickens and eggs? The egg is still a chicken egg, slightly different, but not enough to classify it as a new bird species. It takes more variation, a changing environment, time, and many more generations, to make a new species. Speciation never happens between two generations. Like the two consecutive frames from a roll of movie film, you will not notice evolution in the short term, but in the long term, it becomes evident. The terms microevoluion and macroevolution are confusing because they refer to the slow changes and fast changes, respectively. But, there is only one kind of evolution.

What about crocodiles, coelacanths, sharks, ginkgo trees, and the myriad of animals and plants that have not evolved for many thousands of years? Did evolution stop working? Why there are only thirteen different species of finches? Should not ongoing DNA mutations and natural selection, create more species of finches radiating out from the original stock? Should we not see more of a variety of animals on the earth? Why doesn’t evolution always work?

The answer is simple. The principals of evolution are always working. Not only does evolution create new species, it also causes what seems to be stagnation or even a reversal of change. If a runner jogs in place or on a treadmill, he may not be moving, but he is still jogging. DNA “mistakes” continue to occur but will not survive if they are not useful and give an animal a competitive advantage over others of its kind. Stagnation, like jogging in place, is still evolution in action.

Heavier beaks, longer claws, smaller wings are a handicap if they are not needed for survival, and an advantage if they are needed. The Grants discovered that just a half millimeter change in a finch’s beak was enough of a factor to determine whether it could out-compete other finches including its parents. One half millimeter was enough to tip the balance in favor of the new bird which would survive to bear offspring and insure the survival of its DNA. The Grants discovered and proved that Darwin’s finches evolved a fraction of a millimeter at a time, too slow to be seen by the human eye but not too slow to be measured and documented.

There is similar evidence. What the Grant’s did with finches has been duplicated with fish, insects, other birds, and bacteria. Unfortunately, hardcore Creationists will not accept the documented evidence as presented by the Grants and other researchers. Soft-core Creationists may suspect it to be true, although seldom admit to it.

How can we best convince Creationists that evolution really is happening? I recently had a chance to do just that with a relative of mine. In the course of an unrelated conversation, I innocently used the “forbidden E word,” evolution.

He stopped me and announced, “Before you say anything else, you should know that I do not believe in evolution.”

Although I knew he was a religious person, I was surprised at this admission because I had not suspected he was a Creationist. He had a Bachelor’s degree and a Masters in education, was intelligent, had held several prestigious jobs including elementary school teacher, and was generally knowledgeable about most things.

Frankly, I believed he had misspoken. “Oh, come on.” I said. “You can’t be serious. You really do believe in evolution. Maybe you don’t exactly understand what evolution is, but you believe in it. Most non Evangelical Christians do.”

“No” he replied. “I know what evolution is and I don’t believe it.”

I still did not believe he really understood, so I tried to explain. “Have you ever taken an anti-biotic, had a flu shot, or been vaccinated?”

When he replied he replied, “Yes”, I asked,

“Do you know why antibiotics are less effective now than ten years ago, or why you should take flu shot every year, or why flu vaccine can’t be mass produced and stored for future use, or why HIV medications are less affective now and have to be constantly revised?”

He did not answer, so I continued. “Bacteria and viruses change rapidly. That change is a perfect example of evolution and natural selection in action. No intelligent, educated person can doubt it; no biologist can refute it, although a fraction of one percent try unsuccessfully.”

My relative seemed uncomfortable and said he did not want to talk about it any more, so I let the matter drop. I felt he had enough to ponder for a while, and although he would never admit it to me, his belief system was put into review mode. He did not need me in his face anymore.

I have discovered that the best way to influence someone is not by direct confrontation. Backing people into a corner will only strengthen their defenses and close their ears. Fast conversions from superstition to evolution seldom occur. There are very few “born again evolutionists.” It took Darwin over six years of thoughtful and agonizing research, to gradually reject his Creationist views and formulate his beautiful and exciting new theory. Science education is usually a matter of slow deliberate study and rational thinking as apposed to emotional conversion.

 Good strategy wins battles. A good general chooses a terrain favorable for his forces, and so should someone who wishes to prove a point about science.

 The 2011 July issue of The Skeptical Inquirer offers some good advice about framing a discussion or debate. Rather than a frontal attack, a little strategy is advisable. The Art of Persuasions in Politics (and Science) by Benjamin Wolozin, is informative.

Wolozin recommends a book by cognitive psychologist, George Lakoff’, Don’t Think Like an Elephant. I have not read it yet but it is on my list.

Wolozin writes, “The book’s fundamental message is that to be persuasive, speakers must address the underlying cognitive framework first, and they must provide an alternative framework willing to be considered by listeners before mentioning any facts. Facts are a slap in the face of a Creationist.”

“Unless listeners accept a new framework of thinking, they will dismiss any facts that disagree with their old cognitive framework, and all arguments will fail.” This premise makes sense in politics, and most other debates.

In summary, my initial comments concerning evolution, put my relative on the defense. He felt I was attacking his religious beliefs, his way of life, his intelligence, the very essence of his being. Subsequently, he resisted everything I said. If I had to do it again, I would not have implied he did not mean what he said, and he did not know what evolution really was. Most of all, I should not have made him appear stupid by suggesting he did not know that bacteria and virus are continually evolve. I put him into the defensive mode, he felt cornered.

A more effective approach would be to avoid use of the “E word” completely. Perhaps later in passing I could have asked him if had his flu shot, and mention that it was a pain to have to get a new shot every year because the virus evolves and becomes resistant. I could have mentioned that I wish there was a medication on the market to keep us from catching colds this winter. I should have casually mentioned and the old antibiotics are not effective anymore because the bacteria have become immune to them, by evolving. He might have listened if I exclaimed, “God Damn it! Evolution causes so much suffering and death all over the world! Evolution really screws up farmers because insects evolve an immunity to pesticides and destroy their crops.”

By changing the cognitive framework of the discussion, from attacking him to attacking nasty viruses, bacteria, and evolution, he might not have resisted the facts as he had done. The facts could be presented without dwelling on the “E word.” With a little strategy, I could have made my point and planted several small seeds of doubt into his closed mind. Again, fast de-conversions don’t happen; the evolution stew needs to simmer, and be stirred occasionally and inconspicuously.

The Grant’s research is impressive but there are many other evidences of evolution. Anthropology, geology, archaeology, paleontology, cosmology, and biology are a few of the many sciences that confirm evolution. I read somewhere that 99.85 percent of physical scientists know evolution to be true. The .15 percent who do not, are to no one’s surprise, Creationists.

While evolution is an ongoing phenomenon, most scientists believe that the actual creation of new life is also ongoing. Weiner suspects that laboratory attempts to create life will eventually succeed in the near future. But, while we wait, other creation is occurring “daily and hourly in the hot springs on the ocean floor beneath the Galapagos, in the deep drowned rifts that geologists call Darwin’s Faults. But, in the ocean, of course, as fast as molecules make their first gestures toward life, they are devoured.” (by bacteria) “Creation in the sea has never stopped, but the nitch of life is already taken.” New creations face a very hostile environment from the older established creations.

Weiner surmises that Chimpanzees may be experiencing small, hesitant mental and physical evolutionary steps as early humans did millions of years ago, but their way is ultimately blocked by us. They may be “jogging in place” as the finches occasionally do. They have nowhere to run; soon they will not have enough room to jog in place.

 Summary: Peter Grant tells his classes at Princeton, “Evolution happens the whole time. Geneticists will tell you…that the genes in this generation are not precisely what they were the preceding generation. Nor will they be precisely the same in the next. And evolution is that change. And it is almost a certainty, a mathematical certainty that the genes will never be the same…You look out at the maple trees on this campus, or the robins, or the gray squirrels, and year after year they look the same. They aren’t. They’re different. But you can’t see it, the differences are too subtle…Evolution is change in variation.”

 Update on Finch research by he Grants. Peter and Rosemary Grant are in their thirtieth year of research and have amassed the largest database of evolutionary research on any one group of animals. Their research is likened to that of the obsessive Charles Darwin. They continue to publish and amaze the scientific world with data that proves evolution has and is occurring.

 Variety of life: Darwin took several years came to realize there were thirteen different species of finches on the Galapagos Islands. He also believed there were many other unique species of birds, insects, plants, reptiles, and even fish around the islands. Darwin was right. We now know there are over seven hundred different species of plants on the islands, and two hundred of them are found nowhere else on earth, and new ones are still being discovered and described. There is one species of Galapagos tomato, six species of prickly pear cactus, thirteen species of Scalesia trees, which puts them on a par with the finches, and a lawn garden daisy that has grown to the size of a tree. The Galapagos Islands are truly a perfect testing ground for evolution because of rapidly changing climatic conditions, rapidly breeding finches, and isolated islands.

 Back home in England, Darwin did a muddy experiment in his laboratory. He took three tablespoons of mud from different areas of a little pond on his property. He covered them next to the window in his study and observed what grew out of them. He writes, “I kept it covered up in my study for six months, pulling up and counting each plant as it grew; the plants were of many kinds, and there were altogether 537 in number; and yet the viscid mud was all contained in a coffee cup!” Darwin was amazed at his findings, and he would have been amazed to know that there are at least 15 million species of plants and animals on the earth today (a conservative guess because new life is constantly being identified and there probably are more species undiscovered than discovered).

Darwin would have been more amazed to know the fossil record proves there are at least a thousand times that many species (about two billion) that have already gone extinct. We are the few survivors! It is like we have won the multi-billion dollar lottery of life. Natural selection is ongoing, few if any of the animal and plant species present on the earth today existed a million years ago. Darwin’s muddy little garden plants were probably newcomers to this earth.

Warning:  Jonathon Weiner writes: “So far, despite our plagues, we have been lucky. In principal, a random mutation or hybridization event could someday create a virus that combines the airborne and infectious qualities of flu and the deadly, long-latency, slow killing qualities of AIDS. It hasn’t happened yet but there is nothing in Darwin’s process to prevent it…Our only real competition for dominance of the planet remains the viruses. The survival of humanity is not foreordained.”

Other dangers, relating to evolution, are pathogens and insects that have become resistant to man made controls. Man made toxins, over harvesting of natural resources, and climate change threaten us as well.

Human Nature: Evolution has endowed humans with a brain of a cave man. Mental evolutionary change has been jogging in place for fifty-thousand years. Our brains are barely able to plan for tomorrow, much less a hundred years in the future. Computer programs give us a glimpse into the disastrous direction we are heading; a direction that threatens our existence and planet earth. A changing climate, pollution and depletion oceans, destruction of forests, scarcity of fresh water, increase in disease, and over population, are just a few dangers.

In spite of our cave man brains, an enlightened few of the human species have identified the causes of our problems, have tried to address them, and have spread the alarm. Unfortunately, politics, nationalism, greed, lust for power, laziness, carelessness, and stupidity, and religion are huge barriers that may not be surmounted.

Religious beliefs have the potential to obstruct or assist in rational problem solving. End Times Predictions may be lethal to our survival. Why bother to take care of the earth when Christ’s second coming is imminent?

Evolution has provided humans with the mental capacity to save our fragile little blue planet. Although our cave man brains have the potential to solve environmental problems, we seem helpless. Unlike Darwin’s finches, blowing in the breeze of natural selection, we are blowing in the breeze of artificial selection. That breeze can take us to dangerous lands. We can control our future, but we seldom do.

Our gratitude goes to scientists, Peter and Rosemary Grant, and to science writers, Jonathon Weiner for using their cave man intellect so effectively.

The next time you talk to a creationist, tell him/her about Darwin’s finches. Talk about how evolution works through variation and natural selection. Talk about the tiny changes that animal and plant breeders have been successfully doing for about twenty-thousand years. Artificial selection breeding has created tangerines and tomatoes, goldfish and grain, percherons and ponies, tulips and turnips. Hardcore Creationists will not believe a word of it, but soft-core Creationists might think about it. At least you can feel good about having tried to spread the “gospel truth” of science.

Glossary:

Species – A naturally existing population of almost identical organisms that usually interbreed among themselves.

Sub species (variety, race) – a naturally existing population of similar but not identical organisms, which may, in some cases, be able to interbreed.

Genera – A broader population of less similar organisms that cannot interbreed.

Speciation – The process of forming new species through evolution.

Evolution (Macro and Micro) – The development of species, organisms, or organs from their original state to their present state. Microevolution is a term used by Creationists to explain small variations within species. In reality, micro-evolutionary changes add up to macro-evolutionary changes and the creation of new species over time.

Natural selection – The process by which those individuals of a species with characteristics that help them become better adapted to an environment tend to leave more progeny. Conversely, Those individuals, which are not as well adapted, tend to have fewer progeny. Eventually the better-adapted flourish and the others die out.

Sexual selection – The process by which males and females select mates according to appearance, behavior, vocalizations, etc.

Artificial selection – The process by which humans select and breed domestic animals and plants for certain preferred characteristics.

Genetic variation – The small natural differences that occur during exchange and recombination of genetic material (DNA, RNA.)

Mutation – A significant change, loss, or recombination of genetic material, usually resulting in a less fit individual.

Variation – Usually, a small change in genetic material.

Genetic drift (divergence) – A gradual change away from a basic stock or species.

Allele – Alternate form of a group of genes

Chromosome – Thread like strands of DNA and protein that carry hereditary instructions.

Gene – A unit of DNA and protein containing inheritable material

Genome – One complete set of chromosomes of any individual

Extinction – When a species or variety of animal or plant dies out all over the earth

Hybrid – The offspring of two different species or subspecies of animal or plant.

Genetic isolation – When an animal or plant becomes separated from others of its kind by geographical or other barriers.

Founding parents – The original animals or plants to have inhabited a particular location, from which other varieties evolve.

Missing links – A misnomer used by Creationists. Transitional forms connecting different groups of animals, for example fish and amphibians, reptiles and birds.

Radiation – Animals or plants changing in many directions away from an original form.

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About cgosling

I am a retired medical/scientific illustrator who has given up illustration to write about science, superstition, and secular humanism. I consider myself all of the following: atheist, agnostic, secular humanist, freethinker, skeptic, and nature lover. I have several published books but the mass of my writing is unpublished. I write children's fiction, poetry, essays, and several plays and radio theater shows, that are available as free downloads to be used on secular podcasts and meetings. They can be heard on Indy Freethought Radio. I hope some of my writings will be of interest to like minded freethinkers who I cordially invite to respond.
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