The Beak of the Finch


The Bogus Logic of The Beak

People who have served in the Armed Forces may be familiar with the expression, "If you can't dazzle then with your brilliance, baffle them with your baloney." The Beak of the Finch uses such laughable logic, it is remarkable that anyone would believe it. The book does such a terrible job of presenting a case for evolution and history, that the only logical conclusion is that the book's true intent is to disprove it.

 
Jonathan Weiner, The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time. New York:
Alfred A. Knopf, 1994. ISBN 0679400036.

 
"It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof." --Thoreau, Walden
This book claims to be about evolution, centered in the location made famous by Charles Darwin, the Galapagos Islands. I read this book on the recommendation of a good friend who knows I am interested in birds and thought I might get something out of it. Indeed, the few parts of the book actually about the Gouldian Finches of the Galapagos Islands are fascinating. The book records in detail some of the trials the Dr. Peter Grant family endured in studying these birds on a hot volcanic rock. However, the writers and editors of the book avoid simple logic and put a spin on history that is misleading. The facts and logic presented in The Beak of the Finch really make the book's author out to be a closet creationist.

 
It just so happened that at the same time I read this book, I was reading The Storm Petrel and the Owl of Athena by Louis Halle. Half of The Storm Petrel is on the bird life of the Shetland Islands, another isolated natural system. Halle, though an evolutionist, devotes a whole chapter on how the Shetlands and other islands conserve species. (Halle. 1970, 155ff.) Where species have changed their habits, it is most often due to adaptation to humanity. He compares the wild starlings, house sparrows, and rock doves found on the Shetlands with the more domesticated versions of these birds found on the continents--and to some degree even in the main village of the Shetlands. The island birds are more like their original wild forebears. I mention this now because it will come back to haunt us later.

 
Logical Fallacies
By the first thirty or so pages I had found two logical fallacies and at least one historical inaccuracy in The Beak of the Finch. The fallacies were significant. The historical point was minor, but could be misleading. The fallacies would continue through the book.

 
Page 10 says "Evolutionists are watching life evolve" on different islands. Well, not on the Shetlands, if Halle's observations are accurate. One reason given is that islands are "a closed system." I am not sure how closed any place on earth is any more; however, the Grants (the scientist couple doing the research reported by The Beak) were certainly careful to keep their little island as closed as possible. They washed themselves carefully, watched for any alien seeds they might bring, and so on. The great irony is that after twenty five years of observing, the net result is no change: Individual variation from year to year, surely, but nothing even remotely approaching one species turning into something else.

 
The Problem with Using Breeders for Analogies
Page 30 describes the "law of succession" (not plant or forest succession). This is adjunct to evolution. Is it truly a law? Can it be observed? Can it be repeated experimentally? Well, he says, Darwin showed that breeders can produce varieties of breeds of dogs and pigeons. Both Darwin and Weiner spend a lot of time on pigeons.

 
There are several problems with this. One, breeders are outside intelligent operators. They are not natural forces. Second, and what will prove to be most significant, they still breed pigeons. The pigeons never become another species, regardless of the exotic traits they display. They are still pigeons. Even Darwin backer Sir Charles Lyell noted, "There is no good evidence of spontaneous generation, and breeders know only too well that they cannot change one species into another." (Ruse, 1979, 81)1

 
Now Darwin suggested that at some point perhaps species could become something else. He was speculating. He used pigeon fanciers as an analogy for the forces of