The Galapagos Test Site

Book: The Beak of the Finch, by Jonathan Weiner

Pulitzer Prize Winner, 1994

Maybe not often enough, we re-learn what we thought we already knew. The Beak of the Finch is that way. It upends on natural selection, adaptation, the origin of species. So much so that I wondered if I’d ever really studied any of it in school. And you don’t need to be a lover of birds to get sucked into this story. Weiner tells this very relevant, sometimes maddening story with the same depth and nuance of detail as any story you’ll read in the New Yorker. He is a great reporter and a gifted writer.

Global weirding, the mainstream lovefest for the metaphor of cloud networking, the futility of pesticides and dangers of antibiotics – these subjects are all the rage at the moment and Weiner was theorizing on all these fronts nearly 20 years ago now.

Weiner’s telling of the quest by corporate cotton growers to eradicate pests ends up being one of the most concise and amazing examples of adaptation and hybridization in the book. Each year, chemists funded by the agro-chemical industry dismantle the cellular coding of the Heliothis virescens moth in hopes of finding the killer pesticide to end all pesticides. And at the beginning of each season, the percentage of moths that die is very high. But quickly, with each life cycle of the bug, the percentage goes down. And as the growing season nears its close, more than ever are immune to the poison.

In the 1940s, the scourge was the boll weevil. DDT was the perceived cure. And it did wipe out the bugs, and all the birds that ate the bugs, so that “in biological terms, the cotton fields were left standing virtually vacant, like an archipelago of newborn islands – and out of the woods and hedgerows fluttered Helio virescens.” And chemists have battling the moth ever since, pouring on ever more poison to compensate for the ever weakening results.

The test site that is the cotton fields and that is the finches of the Galapagos is also that of humans among humans. And Weiner speaks to that underpinning of the book as well, of the human urgency to find what is our own, to discover our vocation, what we are made for. He quotes the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Each man has his own vocation. The talent is the call. There is one direction in which all space is open to him.”

But even then, even if on the level of the individual there is a somewhat rational fear that deep down we are all one-trick ponies – in spite of our giant brains – that concept pales in comparison with the ground Weiner tears open in the final pages of the book. He has been building toward it all along of course. But in many ways, there is no preparing for it. Or skipping to it. You have to let him get to it and it blows away any expectation. It’s nuclear grade.

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