The Beak of the Finch

by

Jonathan Weiner

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The Beak of the Finch Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Jonathan Weiner's The Beak of the Finch. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Jonathan Weiner

Jonathan Weiner was born into a Jewish family in New York City in the 1950s. After graduating from Harvard University in 1976, he went on to teach writing at Princeton University, Arizona State University, and Rockefeller University before being named the Maxwell M. Geffen Professor of Medical and Scientific Journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Weiner received the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for The Beak of the Finch, which is his best-known book. He is also the author of Time, Love, Memory, a book about the American physicist Seymour Benzer, and Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality, a scientific take on the search for the Fountain of Youth. Weiner lives in New York City with his wife Deborah Heiligman, a children’s writer who has also published books on the life and times of Charles Darwin and his wife, Emma.
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Historical Context of The Beak of the Finch

The Beak of the Finch was researched and written in the early 1990s, and it focuses primarily on the research conducted by Peter and Rosemary Grant in the Galápagos Islands throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. The early 1990s were a period of time during which science was advancing rapidly, with new forms of DNA sequencing technology available all the time. Thus, the scientists working in the early 1990s were able to build upon the data that scientists like the Grants had compiled in earlier years and learn new things from it. Rather than just observing finches and measuring their beaks, for instance, researchers could extract DNA samples from the finches’ blood to learn new things about their ancestries and their evolutionary patterns. The 1990s were also a fraught time as the AIDS epidemic was spreading all over the world. Seeing new and deadly viruses in action spurred many researchers to consider how unseen things like diseases were evolving, spreading, and adapting.

Other Books Related to The Beak of the Finch

The Beak of the Finch is a unique book in that it takes inspiration from both modern research in the field of evolutionary biology, as well as the foundational texts upon which the field was built. The most seminal text in the field is, arguably, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which was published in November of 1859. Darwin himself built on the research of scientists like the geologist Charles Lyell (Principles of Geology, 1833) and the botanist Carolus Linnaeus (Systema Naturae, 1735). Darwin’s work inspired the writings of scientists like David Lack (Darwin’s Finches, 1947) and Peter and Rosemary Grant (40 Years of Evolution: Darwin’s Finches on Daphne Major Island, 2014). Biographers have long studied Darwin’s diaries in order to better understand the man whose controversial views forever changed the course of human understanding. Adrian Desmond’s Darwin: the Life of a Tormented Evolutionist was published in 1994, around the same time as The Beak of the Finch, and it sought to contextualize the era in which Darwin lived, worked, and wrote, as well the pressures he faced as he faced by coming forward with controversial theories that flew in the face of Creationism.
Key Facts about The Beak of the Finch
  • Full Title: The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time
  • When Written: Early 1990s
  • When Published: 1994
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Nonfiction, Science Writing
  • Setting: Princeton University, The Galápagos Islands
  • Climax: The El Niño of 1982 arrives in the Galápagos islands, bringing torrential rain and, with it, the stark and undeniable reversal of a selection event that had initially pressurized the island’s finches to develop larger beaks in the preceding dry season.
  • Antagonist: There is no traditional antagonist in The Beak of the Finch, though humanity’s influence on the Earth’s species’ evolutionary patterns could be seen as an antagonistic force.
  • Point of View: Third Person

Extra Credit for The Beak of the Finch

Surviving and Thriving. In the 1980s, the Grants discovered a new kind of finch on the island of Daphne Major—a hybrid finch that they nicknamed the “Big Bird.” While many selection events can produce new hybrids, these hybridized animals often die out. But the “Big Bird” lineage—the Grants are still hesitant to call the lineage an entirely new species—is thriving on Daphne Major, and there are roughly 30 of them still on the island.