A Symposium on the Nature of Science
FINCH BEAKS CRACK MORE THAN SEEDSDavid J. Anderson
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The public's view of evolutionary biology is strongly influenced by political agendas pursued in boards of education, and by an emphasis on evolutionary pattern rather than evolutionary process. To an evolutionary biologist, the political agenda seems largely uninformed by biology's understanding of evolutionary process, and instead emphasizes the spotty fossil record (evolutionary patterns). Taking potshots at gaps in the fossil record is easy; tackling the abundant evidence of evolutionary processes in action is not. The beaks of Darwin's finches in the Galápagos provide a compelling case study of evolutionary processes in action. We know that beaks vary in size. We know that beak size can mean the difference between cracking enough seeds and starving. We know that offspring resemble parents in beak size. All of the essential assumptions for a model of evolutionary change by natural selection are met, and when biologists then looked for the predicted evolutionary pattern they found it. Students need to know this information about evolutionary processes to understand why biologists are impressed by the fossil record (patterns) that are much as predicted from the processes.
David J. Anderson
Department of Biology
Wake Forest University
Dave Anderson was born in 1958 in Ohio and grew up there. He went to college at Denison University, received a Master's degree in Biology from the University of Michigan, and a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1989. Along the way he worked as a field assistant to Drs. Peter and Rosemary Grant of Princeton University on their wonderful study of Darwin's finches, and now he does his own research in the Galápagos and elsewhere on the ecology and evolution of birds. Much of his research is on the evolution of breeding behavior in seabirds called boobies, and using satellites to follow other seabirds called albatrosses when they take long flights away from their nest-bound chick. He is insistent that science be done as a statement of a hypothesis that makes clear predictions, followed by collection of data that could prove that hypothesis wrong by not matching the predictions. Whether the hypothesis survives or dies, scientific progress has been made. This is the perspective that is pushed by his Albatross Project, in which K-12 classes participate in his satellite tracking studies via the Internet (www.wfu.edu/albatross). He is Associate Professor of Biology at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.
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Last Update: August 11, 2000