The Beak of the Finch
Posted on by Dr. Shirley Tilghman
Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer. In his brilliant debut novel, this American writer, who was born in Vietnam, uses the end and aftermath of the Vietnam War as a dramatic backdrop to explore the nature of identity and conflicts of loyalty, The anonymous narrator is a jumble of identities—the son of a Vietnamese woman and a French priest; a Communist working undercover as an aide to a South Vietnamese general; and a blood brother of both a C.I.A. assassin and a Vietcong leader. He believes in the revolution, but is haunted when he is required to murder in its name, and, ultimately, is abandoned by its leaders.
The narrative begins with a vivid portrayal of the last days of the fall of Saigon, as the narrator works feverishly to extract himself, his general and family off the rooftop of the American embassy. They ultimately land in California, where the general immediately begins to plot his return to Saigon. The narrator is hired to advise a filmmaker (referred to only as “the auteur,” but clearly meant to be Francis Ford Coppola) on a film about the war. The narrator believes he has been hired to give an authentic voice to the Vietnamese, whose sufferings and struggle have largely been untold in the West, but he fails in tragicomic fashion. In the end, the narrator is torn in two by his competing loyalties to politics and friendship. This is a deeply moving story of a young man in search of meaning in his life.
Jonathan Weiner,The Beak of the Finch. The Pulitzer Prize winner for non-fiction in 1995, this masterful book tells the 25-year story of Peter and Rosemary Grant’s study of evolution in real time in the Galapagos Islands. Beginning in 1973, the Grants, who recently retired from the faculty of Princeton University, camped several months every year on a barren rock (Daphne Major) in the Galapagos, meticulously documenting the changes in size and shape of the beaks of Darwin’s famous finches in response to changes in climate. Thanks to the dramatic 1982-83 El Nino, the Grants were able to show that as the normally arid climate, which selected for finches with sturdy short beaks that are good at cracking dry hard seeds, became tropical, finches with long narrow beaks that could drink nectar from the now-abundant vegetation came to predominate. Natural selection in action! In the course of telling this extraordinary story of scientific inquiry, Weiner writes clearly and engagingly about how Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace developed the theory of natural selection, and why it is the cornerstone on which all of biology rests.
Shirley M. Tilghman, PhD is president emerita and professor of molecular biology at Princeton University. She is well known for her scientific achievements as a mammalian developmental geneticist and for her national leadership on behalf of women in science. Her many accolades include: a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for Developmental Biology, the Genetics Society of America Medal, and the L’Oreal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science.