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Spotlighting Darwin’s finches
by Jake Highton
Nov 29, 2008 | 518 views | 1 1 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
SAN FRANCISCO — Darwinian evolution is familiar to nearly all high school biology students except those in the benighted hinterlands. But the Darwin story, although an oft-told tale, is endlessly fascinating.

Darwin was one of the great pioneers of the mind, ranking with Freud and Einstein.

So it is gratifying to see “Darwin’s Finches” spotlighted at the grand reopening of the wonderful California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park.

The Darwin exhibit shows visitors how 13 species in the Galápagos evolved from a common ancestor in South America, developing different beaks for different eating patterns.

Darwin was a 22-year-old naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle in 1835. The voyage led to his huge intellectual leap, “On the Origin of Species,” published in 1859.

That leap was put well by Richard Dawkins in “The God Delusion.” He quotes Phillip Johnson as saying: “Darwinism is the story of humanity’s liberation from the delusion that its destiny is controlled by a power higher than itself.”

But Darwin was wrong about the speed of evolution. He wrote: “We see nothing of these slow changes in progress.” This was disproved by the remarkable research of Rosemary and Peter Grant in the 1970s.

Their story is told by Jonathan Weiner in “The Beak of the Finch” (1994). The Grants showed that evolutionary change was happening now, not just something that happened aeons ago.

“Darwin did not know the strength of his own theory,” Weiner writes. “He vastly underestimated the power of natural selection. Its action is neither rare nor slow. It leads to evolution daily and hourly, all around us, and we can watch.”

There is no better place to watch than the Galápagos.

Darwin, with his great insight, concluded that the surviving species were not the strongest, not the most intelligent, but the most adaptable.

The Grants describe cactus finches: drinking cactus water, sleeping in cactus, copulating in cactus, nesting in cactus and eating cactus flowers, pollen and seeds.

Two finch species use tools, molding twigs to pry grubs from branches. But the most unusual finch is the vampire. It perches on the backs of boobies, drawing blood to drink.

The science academy offers so much more: rain forest, aquarium, planetarium, Philippine coral reef and an exhibit of California plants.

However, the academy “star” is the rain forest. You walk an ever-rising circular path, gazing at colorful tropical birds and watching butterflies float by. Some of the gorgeous creatures land on outstretched hands.

One of the enjoyable things about the museum is the interaction with visitors.

At the anaconda exhibit, a sleeve demonstrates how the snake squeezes its victims to death. Or, near the electric eel tank, you press two buttons simultaneously for a shocking shock. (The piranha exhibit is a tad disappointing. It has no water basin for visitors to feel the piranha’s nibbling power.)

Another San Francisco museum worth a visit is the Exploratorium, specializing in science, art and human perception. It has 500 exhibits, many of them interactive, where visitors can test minds, skills and reflex speed while learning how and why things work.

Perception and association often rule reality. I drank from a water fountain that looked like a toilet bowl. My wife and her daughter refused.

Irish brogue

I saw two J.M. Synge plays, “The Shadow of the Glen” and “The Playboy of the Western World,” staged by an Irish troupe at the Roda Theater in Berkeley.

The accent was so thick it was if they were speaking a foreign language. Moreover, I discovered that in reading the play later I needed a glossary (whisht means be quiet, skelping a beating, gallous splendid, gaffer a lad and da father).

“The Glen” (1903) is a good one-act play about a man who fakes his own death, a presumed death that pleases the man’s wife. The denouement? Good critics never reveal the ending.

“Playboy” (1907) tells the story of a young man, Christy Mahon, lionized by adoring peasant women despite his claim to have killed his father.

But as Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia phrases it: The plot “is a mere backdrop for the most fertile and vigorous poetic dialogue written for the stage since Shakespeare.” Critic Martin Seymour-Smith calls the language “exuberant, extravagant, tender, beautiful.”

Synge’s use of the word shift (chemise), offending prudish sensibilities, provoked riots at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. But Yeats defended the play, rightly calling for “the freedom of the theater.”

An artist’s vision should never be blunted or censored no matter what groups and individuals howl.

Jake Highton teaches journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno.
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December 07, 2008
I first read "Plaboy" in a World Drama class during my sophomore year at Slippery Rock. Your column makes me want to go back and re-read it. Would love to see a performance.

Joe LaRocca
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