Today I finished reading 'The Beak of the Finch' by Jonathan Weiner. Overall, I was pretty impressed. The book focuses on two Princeton Evolutionary Biologists- Peter and Rosemary Grant, who have been visiting the Galapagos Islands for decades. While I've studied biology for a long time, I actually haven't read much in depth about evolution per-say, and I checked out the book from the Somerville Public Library and read it over the last week.
Because the Grants and their research teams have returned to these islands year after year, they have been able to chronicle the rise and fall of these birds over time. Remarkably, they have been able to capture and tag thousands upon thousands of individuals, measure their morphological features, and track the lineages of over two dozen generations of birds. It is truly an impressive feat- especially when one considers that the major island they monitor, Daphne Major, is a pretty barren volcanic rock in the ocean.
The central theme of the book is that evolution is an ever-present, extremely active force. It is happening right now, everywhere around us. The Galapagos Islands offer a great view of selection pressures and adaptive radiation in ground finches, in part because of their relative isolation and harsh, variable climate. The text also discusses many of the Grants' students, which have gone on to excellent careers of their own. Notable model systems include three-spined stickleback fishes, stream guppies in Trinidad, and the classic case of peppered moths in Industrial Revolution Britain. For me, the best part of the book was the explanation of selective pressures across all these model systems, as well as the descriptions of varied ways that species navigate their unique fitness landscapes. One gets the feeling that there are equally compelling stories everywhere, if one just looked, and, I guess that was the point.
One place I felt the book fell flat was in addressing the underlying molecular mechanisms of evolution, and I think this is largely due its age (it was published in 1994). In the last 19 years, DNA sequencing technologies have utterly changed the way that evolution can be (and is) studied. The book mentioned that the Grants' were taking blood samples, and one could imagine a massive genotype-phenotype analysis with the data they have in hand. In fact, Arhat Abzhanov, when he was a postdoc with Peter Grant, published a paper in 2006 (sorry for the paywall) that found calmodulin levels had a huge impact on finch beak morphology. It turns out that Abzhanov is just across the river in the OEB Department at Harvard- which is really cool. He lists some interesting papers, including some reviews, on his OEB website.
While evolutionary developmental biology is not my field or my main interest, I found this book and these notions really stimulating. Again, sequencing technology is already really changing the types of experiments one could imagine doing. Recent work from Cori Bargmann's Lab, in particular this Nature paper from 2011, looks at these ideas in nematodes. There is also the awesome E. coli long-term evolution experiment- 50,000 generations of bacteria, which have all been frozen down and are sequenceable. There are many great papers from that project that are worth digging up- I was turned onto this project because of a publication that came out in Nature last year.
There are obviously many other popular science books on evolution, and some are on my list-- in particular I might try something from Stephen J. Gould. Recommendations are welcome! In the meantime, this book has inspired me to re-start "Evolutionary Dynamics" by Nowak, which I wandered away from after a couple of chapters. It should be a good quantitative treatment of some of these ideas.