The Tribes of Britain by David Miles

This is the blurb:

“Who are the English, the Irish, the Scots and the Welsh? – a ragbag of migrants, reflecting thousands of years of continuity and change. Now scientific techniques can explore this complex genetic jigsaw: ancient Britons and Saxons, Celts and Romans, Vikings and Normans, and the more recent migrations which have created these multicultural islands.

Drawing on the most recent discoveries, this book both challenges traditional views of history and provides new insight into who we are today.”

The book lacks pretty much everything that blurb might lead me to hope for: extensive analysis of the genetic make-up of the British, a surprising new perspective on British history, new insight into how it makes modern Britain what it is.

It’s a readable and up-to-date history of Britain focussing on population movements and demographics, with lots of quotable and surprising snippets. Who knew, for example, that the ‘fitz’ in names like ‘Fitzroy’ was from the French ‘fils de’? Or that among the black population of the UK, Africans now outnumber people from the West Indies? But if you have a broad understanding of the history of these islands, it’s not going to force you to re-evaluate it. And while I enjoyed many bits of it, this kind of large-scale history doesn’t lend itself to a clear narrative thread, and it was definitely putdownable.

Culture Nature

The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner

This book was recommended to me when I was in the Galapagos; I finally got round to reading it and I’m really glad I did. It’s an account of Peter and Rosemary Grant’s long-term study to measure the effects of natural selection on finches in the Galapagos. When this book was published in 1994, the study had been going for twenty years, but it’s still ongoing.

The choice of Galapagos finches isn’t just because of their iconic status in history of evolution; they’re an isolated population, they’re particularly variable, and a few very similar competing species live together in a very simple environment — only a few species of food plant, and almost no other small birds.

Over that period, they and their students have collected a staggering amount of data; detailed measurements of every finch on the island of Daphne Major, and records of who breeds with who, where their territories are, what songs they sing, what they eat, which territories are most productive, how the food supply varies from year to year and so on. That data has enabled them to show not just that tiny variations (in this case, particularly beak size) can have a measurable effect on the survival and breeding prospects of a bird, but that a change to the environment — a very wet year or a drought — can select for different physical characteristics to the extent of having a measurable impact on the average measurements of the population.

In effect, they have showed that you can observe evolution in action and that in the right circumstances it can happen extremely fast.

I really thought this was an excellent book. The detailed account of a single large research study sets it apart from all the other popular accounts of evolution I’ve read. There’s easily enough material to sustain a whole book and Weiner does an excellent job of communicating all the details with enough human interest to keep the book getting bogged down.