This summer, the students of the incoming freshman class were told to read "The Beak of the Finch" by Jonathan Weiner in preparation for their entrance into Brown University. The book tells the story of Rosemary and Peter Grant, evolutionary biologists whose research with Darwin's finches in the Galapagos Islands has brought a modern understanding of evolutionary theory back to the place where it all began.
As a former Perkins resident, I jokingly thought that I could sympathize with the difficulties of working on an island (figuratively speaking). Still, after just reading the summary, one may wonder why "The Beak of the Finch" was chosen for this year's reading assignment.
The Grants did give a lecture here last year, and the book anecdotally references Brown University in chapter 16. But the minor connections between the book and our university are icing on the cake; the book itself tells a story that any freshman in any college across the country could benefit from reading.
The book itself is a delightful read. Weiner's writing is elaborate and richly detailed, whether he's talking about history, adaptive landscapes or Tribulus mericarps — the spiked seedpods of a plant native to the Galapagos. Each chapter offers a unique viewpoint on some part of the evolutionary tale: some focus rather intensely on the Grants' research, while others discuss evolutionary science in a broader scope. These discussions are more than ordinary textbook arguments; they are so frequently injected with historical anecdotes and vivid metaphors that it can become difficult at times to remember where the discussion left off. Yet, it is precisely these tangents that make the story uniquely engaging. Much like the robust Tribulus and its seeds, each anecdote carries an insightful comment or two that makes its inclusion worthwhile.
For a book that primarily focuses on evolutionary research for over 200 pages, I was most impressed with the final section of the book — "G.O.D.," a tongue-in-cheek acronym for "generation of diversity." This section expands from merely discussing research and history to tackling the consequences of evolution from a philosophical point of view. After all, mankind is more than a casual observer; we are both participants and agents of selection in the "existential poker game" (as Professor David Rand so poetically words it) called survival. Weiner concludes his book by contemplating this unique niche that human beings fill in the environment — a reflection that is profoundly summed up in the book's final chapter, "The Metaphysical Crossbeak."
Even insignificant birds on a remote archipelago in the vast Pacific Ocean can be the inspiration for a captivating and thought-provoking tale, one that is particularly appropriate for incoming college freshmen. Beyond the romanticized retelling of Darwin's voyage, Weiner reveals the uncertainty and distress that Darwin felt while formulating his radical theory. Underneath the detailed discussion of the Grants' work, he relates the difficulties and frustrations that can bother even the most dedicated researcher.
These accounts teach a lesson in character from which we can all learn. As college students or as scientists, but as Brown students especially, we all share the quality of perseverance. We are always pressing forward, in spite of the obstacles and setbacks. Darwin boldly published his theory despite significant self-doubt. Through droughts, storms and mountains of data, the Grants boldly continue their groundbreaking research. As Brown students, we are also reminded to be bold — in our studies, our pursuits and our spirit.
Although the general purpose of summer reading is to broaden horizons, provoke thought and provide a common experience through which freshmen can connect, I would like to think that it also sets a theme for the first several weeks of college. As a freshman, I remember my first few weeks as a period of immersion, exploration and discovery, themes that played large roles in my own summer reading book, "The Places in Between" by Rory Stewart. Judging from the sentiments and ideas presented in "The Beak of the Finch," I predict the fall of 2009 will be a period of struggle and adaptation for some, diversification for others and self-discovery for the rest. This fall, a freshman at any other college might see matriculation as simply crossing the threshold into adulthood. I hope that the class of 2013 sees it as leaving the nest.