Tag Archives: Book review

The Beak of the Finch – A short book review

In 1995, Jonathan Weiner’s The Beak of the Finch (1994) won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. As one of the most beautifully written books I have read on the topic of evolutionary biology, it is clear to me why Weiner won this accolade.

The Beak of the Finch – book cover

Weiner’s book follows Peter and Rosemary Grant – biologists, as well as husband and wife who have dedicated their careers for understanding evolution. Every year for twenty years, The Grants have travelled to Daphne Major, an island in the Galapagos archipelago in order to study the different species of finches that live there. The archipelago and its flora and fauna are significant in the field of evolutionary biology. Indeed, they may be regarded as the birthplace of this field of science. In 1835, Charles Darwin himself visited the Galapagos while travelling on the HMS Beagle. His observations and interactions with the plants and animals are thought to be the catalyst for his groundbreaking masterpiece The Origin of Species.

Peter and Rosemary Grant collecting data at Daphne Major. Image credit K.T.Grant – New York Times 2014

Over twenty years, The Grants, measured and recorded the sizes of the finches beaks as well as eating, breeding and nesting habits. Through Weiner’s evocative writing, the readers feel as if they are on the island alongside The Grants, experiencing their joys and sorrows as they spend months living rough to collect the data. The hand drawn sketches throughout the book by their daughter, Thalia Grant adds a ‘field-journal’ element to the book. Her drawing skills were honed while being home-schooled on Daphne Major by her parents.

The island of Daphne Major in the Galapagos. Image credit: Parer and Parer-Cook – New York Times 2014

The author does not ignore the significance of Darwin. Throughout the book, Weiner draws on Darwin’s own field notes, letters and quotes which provide valuable insight into how he developed the theory of evolution. So much so that it feels like the reader is having a conversation with the man himself. Neither does Weiner gloss over some of the weaknesses of Darwin’s theory, such as his belief that evolution is a slow process which manifests only after many generations.

Indeed in The Beak of the Finch, the data gathered by The Grants over the past two decades demonstrates that evolution can be a dynamic and rapid process. For instance, The Grants noted a shift in the average size of the beaks in the finches born after a severe drought or an intense wet season. Within each chapter, Weiner draws on a number of other researchers who are working with fish, moths and flies who have found similar trends to The Grants.

The reference to other research projects provides a refreshing break from The Grants and their finches as the book becomes repetitive in the middle with multiple references to the various species of finches on Daphne Major. Further, some readers have criticised Weiner for his foray into religion and philosophy towards the end of the book arguing that this inclusion is either unnecessary or superficial. Personally, I did not find this distracting as I think Weiner’s intention is to invite his readers to examine the relationship between religion and evolution themselves.  

Despite the criticisms, The Beak of the Finch is a fantastic read. Weiner writing style achieves a great balance between adventure, emotion and it serves as a masterclass for those interested in science writing. It is a book that I would highly recommend to anyone, particularly students who are interested in understanding evolution or as a gentle introduction to Charles Darwin and The Origin of Species.

Gaia: A new look at life on Earth – A short book review

Lovelock’s Gaia: a new look at life on Earth (first edition – 1979) is a seminal piece for contemporary conservationists. The theory grew from his work in the 1970s to develop scientific experiments to find life on Mars. Specifically, what would life on Mars look like? To help answer this question, he turned his thoughts to the existence of life on Earth.

Earthrise: The first image of the Earth from space taken from Apollo 8 in December 1968. To some, this is the most influential, environmental photo ever taken. Image credit: NASA.

According to Lovelock, Gaia is a very complex, hyper-connected entity which has natural checks and balances to help maintain a state of equilibrium. And it is this perfect harmony that is the cauldron that sustains and nourishes life on Earth. For Lovelock our actions can have unintended and unpredictable consequences.

Gaia: a new look at life on Earth is written for a general audience and Lovelock has managed to skillfully blend scientific facts with daily observations. His book is logically structured as each chapter is dedicated to a specific aspect of the Earth’s marine, terrestrial and atmospheric environments. He also uses graphs – albeit sparingly – throughout the book to support his arguments. Indeed, he manages to take the readers on a rich and enlightening journey in his short book.

Sadly, Lovelock’s grand vision of Gaia is muddied in his book. Some sections of the book are repetitive. Despite his use of simple language, some readers might not enjoy Lovelock’s over-reliance on chemistry when explaining the functions of terrestrial, marine and atmospheric environments. His choice of words, such as ‘cybernetics’ and ‘circuits’ when referring to Gaia’s invisible connections might add to the reader’s confusion.

Perhaps, the greatest flaw is not in Lovelock’s writing skills or the structure of the book. It is in the theory itself. His Gaia operates in a perfect system where many forms of pollution such as ozone and greenhouse gases will be naturally dealt with. This view runs the risk of creating a false sense of security given the immense environmental and climate challenges we are facing.

Despite his best efforts though the first publication of Gaia was not well received by the scientific community. His peers considered the theory a heresy – grounded more in theology than in science. However, over the years, his theory has evolved (just like theories do) into something more palatable – a more holistic approach to understanding life on Earth.

Lovelock’s Gaia: a new look at life on Earth (first edition – 1979), is a polarising book. Some conservationists dislike it. Yet there are others who use Gaia as a banner to rally the masses. For me, the desire to read the book was more to get an understanding into the thinking behind Lovelock’s Gaia as well as an intrigue to see how (and if) the theory had evolved since it was first penned. At the very least, I am thankful that Lovelock planted the seeds of thinking about the world in a very different way.

The Hidden Life of Trees – A short book review

Ever wondered what stories your favourite tree was hiding? What secrets you could learn if you could just understand those whispers in the wind? Peter Wohlleben’s book; The hidden life of trees (Figure 1) brings the possibility of communicating with trees a little closer.

Cover of the Hidden Life of Trees
Figure 1: Cover of the Hidden Life of Trees

A forester-turned-conservationist, Wohlleben has spent the better part of two decades managing one of the oldest forests in Hűmmell, Germany. His daily wanderings through his forest has given him an opportunity to observe the social relationships trees have with one another. In his book, he sheds light on how trees talk to each other, how they share resources and defend themselves against pests and even care for the young and the elderly.

It turns out that trees use their root and fungal networks to create the ‘wood wide web’, an organic infrastructure that connects trees in a forest together. In Wohlleben’s book, the forests quickly become a self-regulating entity with Gaia-esk undercurrents.

Indeed, reading Wohlleben’s book makes you feel like he has spent his days exploring Tolkien’s Fangorn Forest (Figure 2). Where one day he wandered too far and too deep and found the Ents. If it were not for the light sprinkling of scientific citations about new research into how trees use sound, taste and smell to communicate, you too would be lost in this fantasy world.

Figure 2: Peter in his beloved forest. Image credit: Sally McGrane, New York Times (2016)
Figure 2: Peter in his beloved forest. Image credit: Sally McGrane, New York Times (2016)

Sadly, some audiences may find Wohlleben’s book a difficult read. There are some parts of the book that come across as being both poorly written and structured as if Wohlleben has failed to completely grasp the complexities of his forest. However, you would be more inclined to forgive him as the book was originally published in German and then later translated into English.

On the whole, Wohlleben’s book seeks to shift the paradigm when it comes to the protecting forests. Specifically, how the current approach to conservation would change if we could understand their ‘language’ and the conversations taking place within a forest. Until then, I suspect a walk in the park or through a forest will never be the same for those who read ‘the hidden life of trees’.