Back in about 2000, I read The Beak of the Finch, by Jonathan Weiner. The book, awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1995, is about the research of Peter and Rosemary Grant, biologists who have been studying the evolution of Darwin’s finches in the Galápagos Islands for 30 years. The Beak of the Finch is a great read. Its main message is that evolution by natural selection can be both rapid and observable, which refutes the long-held assumptions of many biologists who preceded the Grants. The Grants have amassed a huge dataset over many generations of Darwin’s finches. This dataset includes information on numeruos morphological characteristics, genetic characteristics, and pedigrees of the birds. The Grants and their students have gathered this data by spending thousands of hard days in the field. Peter and Rosemary Grant are considered by many to be among the most distinguished evolutionary biologists alive today.
So it was really, REALLY cool to have both of them sitting in my office here at OSU. The venerable couple was in town to give a talk on their research. They were kind enough to visit our department and meet individually with faculty and students. Jacob—my lab mate and co-conspirator on Salamander Candy—was smart enough to make an appointment to meet with the Grants. I got lucky and was available to chat with them at the same time.
I had never seen a picture of Peter or Rosemary. I had fuzzy outlines of what I expected them to look like based on images I conjured while reading The Beak of the Finch. I guess they looked a little bit how I imagined, though older. Both seemed to be well into their seventies. To my happy surprise and amusement, Peter looked a lot like the elderly Charles Darwin. Despite their ages, the Grants were spry and seemed very fit. They recently returned from yet another sojourn in the Galápagos, so I guess they must still be fit enough to sleep in a tent for several months on a desert island and chase birds around all day.
Here’s the main thing I want to say about the Grants: they are both amazingly down-to-earth and friendly. They engaged Jacob and I about our research and were genuinely interested in learning about us. We spent little of our time together talking about Darwin’s finches and most of it talking about the research that we two lowly grad students have conducted or plan to conduct. It was a strange experience, to be speaking with two superheroes of biology and have the focus of the conversation be on us and not them. I feel almost guilty about it. In any case, the Grants were charming and just plain old awesome. I wish I could adopt them as my grandparents.