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one of these things is not like the other

Here's a couple of paragraphs from the generally excellent book, The beak of the finch, by Jonathan Weiner.

Many paths lay open when the finches first arrived, and the smallest flights and trials of their descendants were rewarded. That is why they have traveled in more directions than any other creatures on the islands, that is why they have evolved farther and faster than any other creatures: because they got here early.

Our own line is now radiating farther, faster, and in more directions than any other single species in the history of the planet - and for a similar reason. We are the first creatures to arrive in the strange territory we now occupy. We stumbled into our new niche before any other creatures on the planet. We discovered it.

What's wrong with the idea conveyed in this quote?

(PS Don't get me wrong - I thoroughly enjoyed the book, & it's well-worth reading again. But still - that particular concept could be better-phrased...)

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2 Comments

Strange. Without seeing the rest of the passage this is taken from, it's hard to work out what he's trying to say. What is this new niche we're supposed to have discovered? Seems to me humans occupy a great many niches, from seed eater (grazing on the cereal grasslands we've planted so widely) to ocean predator. And we've done that without any morphological evolution whatsoever, unlike the finches and their famous beaks.

And what does he mean with all that stuff about radiating farther and faster? If anything, the incipient and rather limited geographical radiation our species has undergone in the last hundred thousand years or so, seems to be being re-homogenised by international migration. I don't see how it's valid to compare the Galapagos finches' situation to our own.

I presume he's speaking metaphorically, about memetic evolution, but using words like "niche" and "radiating", which have well-defined meaning elsewhere, is simply confusing.

His whole metaphor here bothers me. He seems to be saying that humans are evolving in the same way that the Galapagos finches did - that we're demonstrating adaptive radiation as we expand into a range of ecological niches. But this is wrong - we remain one species, regardless of the fact that our generalist physique & physiology, not to mention our inventiveness & cognitive skills, allow us to make use of so many different opportunities. Whereas the finches have truly undergone adaptive radiation, via speciation events - quite a different thing indeed.

I agree, it's confusing, which is a pity because much of the book is very good (& a rattling good story, besides).

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