Enchanted by evolution

Enchanted by Daphne: The Life of an Evolutionary Naturalist
by Peter R. Grant

Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2023
$44.00 / 9780691246246

Reviewed by Loys Maingon


Peter and Rosemary Grant’s work is one of the twentieth century’s most important contributions to our understanding of, and an expansion of, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. In an America where 40% of the general population and 25% of university graduates still believe in Creationism1, the work of Peter and Rosemary Grant at Princeton University may be almost as isolated and inaccessible as Daphne Island on the outer reaches of the Galápagos. Their work is best summed up by Ryan Calsbeek and quoted by Peter Grant: “a team of field biologists [who] would spend decades of their lives camping on rocks in the middle of nowhere… spawned the single greatest legacy of modern field studies in the middle of nowhere.”

Ecologist Peter Grant. “A large part of Grant’s good fortune is credited to UBC…”

While the substance and details of that research are best available in two fairly recent excellent books,  How and Why Species Multiply: The Radiation of Darwins Finches (Princeton University Press, 2008/2011) and 40 Years of Evolution: Darwin’s Finches on Daphne Major Island (Princeton University Press: 2014), this autobiography, which ironically traces the evolution of “Peter Grant” and to a lesser extent “Rosemary Grant  (née Matchet),” provides a quick overview of their research and an insight into how they got there, which is not really found in their scholarly works.  This will therefore be of interest to younger biologists.  To appreciate what Grant presents it helps to remember that Grant did his PhD on the relationship between evolution and ecology. As he notes in the section on his work at McGill in the late sixties and early seventies, that relationship was not always well-appreciated in academia.  The autobiography is about the impact of Grant’s social ecology and his personal evolution.  Like his work, it is about the circumstances and events that shaped his environment, the choices he made and, as he himself notes, the element of luck that made his personal evolution as an eminent, globally-recognized scientist possible.  

This 2011 title by the Grants discusses what had been learned about new species through the study of the finches made famous by Charles Darwin

The autobiography ends with a telling short epilogue that focuses on a secondary theme that runs throughout the text, namely luck or good fortune. Evolution is always part luck, part choice.  A large part of Grant’s good fortune is credited to UBC, which accepted both him and Rosemary when they were simultaneously turned down by UC Berkley. Grant thanks both institutions!  Grant tried to return to Vancouver first in the 1970s when he was about to move from McGill to Ann Arbor, only to find that UBC had no openings, and then in 2007 upon retiring from Princeton when rising Vancouver real estate prices had already made the move prohibitive. (BC’s loss.)

The autobiography is very much about his trajectory from a disadvantaged background in a class-conscious England, raised by his divorced father, and the adversities of growing up as a child through the Second World War.  Yet, even through the shortages and duress of the war he had the good fortune not only to survive when 7,500 other schoolchildren his age were killed in the blitz, but to be sent into the countryside, first with relatives, then to a private school, where he first discovered his innate interest in nature. As he notes, however traumatic the blitz evacuation may have been for British children these formative experiences were: “traumas that influenced our developing personalities but did not impede successful careers.” Trauma is not just character-building – it is an evolutionary opportunity for the prepared mind.  Adverse events direct evolution – that is a theme central to the Grant’s Galápagos research.

40 Years of Evolution: Darwin’s Finches on Daphne Major Island (2014) continued to chronicle the work of Grants through their study of finches and what it tells us on the steps leading to evolution

The war traumas compounded by initial privations and difficult family circumstances move him in the postwar period to make important educational choices. Notwithstanding his father’s limited means, he chooses to attend the Whitgift Middle School which provides him with a “calm and respectful” atmosphere where “it felt like being in the country.” It is a pivotal choice for his future.  Whitgift provides him with a good structured education and marks sufficient to squeak into Cambridge. As all young men of his generation, he has to do two years of National Service in the army. Again, this apparent setback provides opportunities to develop his interests in architecture and cultural history as well as travel, which become important themes in themselves which he develops in his Cambridge years and highlights in the remainder of the biography.

Though Cambridge, from which he graduates with a “lower half of a second-class degree,” is formative, it is UBC that becomes pivotal in his career.  Beyond acceptance it is the mentorship of Ian MacTaggart Cowan, whose connection to Peter Larkin that provides Grant with financial support for his first evolutionary research project on an uninhabited island of the Tres Marias off the Mexican coast.  Larkin and Cowan had accompanied H.R. MacMillan of MacMillan Bloedel on his fishing trips to identify the fish that MacMillan caught! MacTaggart Cowan persuaded MacMillan to fund Grant “to study birds on the Tres Marías islands for a PhD.”

Peter Grant once shared an office with naturalist and conservation biologist Bristol Foster, who was at one time Director of the Royal British Columbia Museum. Photo Friends of Ecological Reserves

Readers familiar with UBC will find numerous interesting references to Grant’s social ecosystem during his four years there. The associations are indicative of his broad interests in the natural sciences and the arts.  And it should be noted that unlike many of today’s technocratic-minded scientists who people our universities, Grant stands out, as many of his generation, as a literate and cultured scientist who promotes and understands the relationship between the arts and the sciences.   He shared his office with Bristol Foster who would go on to be instrumental in BC’s Ecological Reserves programme, and remained a close friend. His travels in the USA put him in contact at Point Lobos with Floyd Saint-Claire, then of Rutgers University, who would go on to teach French literature to this wayward scholar at UBC in 1970. (The list of serendipitous social connections is endless, almost to the point of annoyance.)

The Tres Marías opportunity becomes pivotal to his career because although he goes on after UBC to a post-doc at Yale and a professorship at McGill, the Yale and early McGill years are interesting, but somewhat lacklustre. Yale puts him in the orbit of the leading lights of 1960s North American ecology such as Evelyn Hutchinson and Robert MacArthur, who are recognized influences on questions and methods but they do not provide the kind of broad research opportunities offered by UBC. There are trips to Iceland and Iran, but the research is fragmentary and seems to lack focus.  

In 1972, Ian Abbott contacted Grant from Australia to seek support for research on the Galápagos Islands. Grant obtained generous stable funding from McGill University. The research project began in 1973 and got Grant back into evolutionary bird research on the uninhabited island of Daphne Major comparing finch populations. In large part this was on the strength of his UBC Tres Marías experience, and it is critical to his success. This research, on which his career and reputation was built, would continue over the next forty years. It was halted only in part by age, but in the end the real catalyst was “increasing bureaucracy associated with permissions and permits.”

Geospiza fortis at a cactus flower. Photo Peter and Rosemary Grant

The achievements and insights are really what is most likely to interest the reader. Though traced incidentally through the autobiography with the description of each voyage to Daphne Major Island, the insights are summarized in seven points. There is an important heuristic element in his experience.  Whereas the autobiography deals extensively with his travels and the many annual trips that he and Rosemary undertake to conferences and teaching positions, the research is confined to Daphne Island and adjacent Galápagos Islands. The constraint of working in a restricted environment “with little scope for experimentation” imposes the need for constant observation and measurement. It is from this apparent adversity that he and Rosemary are able to make momentous discoveries in the field of evolution that would have been impossible otherwise.  As he notes even with this level of success, they were handicapped by the fact that they made observations over relatively short periods of two to three weeks, and would have greatly benefitted from twelve-month periods.  The point is that, productive ecological research requires an intimate knowledge of the temporal and spatial dimensions of a research site, which is rarely possible within standard academic research programmes that are all too often “colonial expeditions” devoid of an intimate knowledge of place.

Rainforest on Cocos Island, Costa Rica. Photo Peter and Rosemary Grant

It is the knowledge that the Grants get of Daphne Island that enables them to observe evolution in real time and discover that contrary to Darwin’s assumption that evolution proceeds very slowly, speciation can take place very rapidly in a matter of a couple of generations in small populations. They observe how the choice of mates is governed by learnt parental features rather than genetic predisposition, and hybridization can lead to evolutionary change and speciation.

On their 1981 field season on Daphne, they even observe the evolution of a new finch species (“Big Bird”), which after DNA analysis turns out to be not the hybrid product of the species they reasoned it was, but the one they first observed and intuited. They ruled out the likelihood that the new parental bird was an Española Cactus finch (Geospiza conirostris), although they thought it looked like one, because of the unlikelihood that the new bird would have had to fly half-way across the archipelago to Daphne from the southernmost island. The lesson from that is that nature is unpredictable, and far more complex than we assume:

…. the discovery was sobering because it made us realize how we went wrong.  We should not have abandoned our separate and independent impressions, inscribed in our notebooks…, that 5110 was a G. conirostris, in preference for a more “plausible” alternative of G. fortis from a nearby island.  It was a lesson in distrusting the law of parsimony and its beguiling simplicity.

Even in science, the simplest explanation should never overrule empirical observation.

Peter Grant on Daphne Island. Photo: Peter and Rosemary Grant

Perhaps most importantly, their long-term observations allowed them to witness the continuous change of the flora and fauna of the island and how large abiotic events like El Niño can completely alter the species composition and ecology of a site, reset dynamics and evolution.  Notably “speciation can occur when improbable and unpredictable events occur together.” Speciation is then a response to abiotic changes in the environment which trigger protein-level responses, as suggested by “planetary biology.”2

Occasionally, particularly in the latter part of the text, Grant comes to reflect on the current climate change and biodiversity crises, in lectures he has given. He closes the autobiography with a reflection on Covid and the climate and biodiversity crisis: “our precarious dependence on the natural world being treated with respect was forcefully brought into sharp focus by a threat to human lives – a self-inflicted wound through mismanagement of the environment.”On the plus side, as his research indicates ecosystems re-organize and speciation endures through climatic upheavals.  On the down side, reading his autobiography is a glimpse into another era of bygone human generosity, prosperity, and stability.

The text only contains one serious factual error. In a reference to his meeting of “Jackrabbit Johanssen” at McGill’s Mt. Saint-Hilaire biological station, he states that Johanssen “was famous in eastern Canada for introducing downhill skiing…” Johanssen is famous for introducing cross-country skiing to all of Canada.  There is also only one typo – probably caused by automated spell checking and contemporary obsession with “apps”: “while the octopus app eared to be trying to shut the sea…” Otherwise a highly recommended well-written and informative autobiography!

G. scandens (cactus finch) cracking a cactus seed. Photo L.F. Keller
  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Level_of_support_for_evolution#:~:text=However%2C%20according%20to%20the%20Pew,existed%20in%20their%20present%20form. ↩︎
  2. https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.1069863 ↩︎


Dr. Loys Maingon

A graduate of the universities of St. Andrews, UBC, and Saskatchewan, Dr. Loys Maingon first taught environmental studies in 1986. An avid naturalist and a registered professional biologist, he is past president of the Comox Valley Naturalists and current webinar host for the Canadian Society of Environmental Biologists. From his home on the Tsolum River near Merville, he owns and operates an endangered plant nursery and oversees a number of regional conservation and heritage programmes. He is also Research Director of the Strathcona Wilderness Institute and does environmental consulting. Arrested at Clayoquot Sound in 1993, Loys remains a strong advocate for social, economic, and environmental change. He contributed a chapter to Clayoquot & Dissent (Ronsdale Press: 1994), and authored Field Guide to Basic Lichens of Strathcona Park (Strathcona Wilderness Institute Press: 2022).

Editor’s note: Dr. Loys Maingon has reviewed books by Joel Bakan, Melissa Aronczyk & Maria I. Espinoza, William K. Carroll (ed.), Philippe D. Tortell (editor), Daniel Pauly, Collin Varner, and Peter Wohlleben (The Secret Wisdom of Nature and The Hidden Life of Trees) for The British Columbia Review.


The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an online book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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