Evolutionary biologists recognized for lifetime of research on Darwin’s finches

Peter and Rosemary Grant
Thursday, May 11, 2017 - 4:42pm
Nicolle Wahl

Comparisons to Charles Darwin are not lightly given in the sciences, but Professors Rosemary and Peter Grant have earned that rare distinction. Globally recognized as the most influential evolutionary biologists since the “father of evolution,” they will be recognized with honorary degrees at the June 7 U of T Mississauga convocation ceremony.

“The Grants are among the most accomplished and storied biologists of our generation,” says Professor Marc Johnson, who nominated the Grants for the honorary degree. “It is not exaggerating to say that every life science student at UTM has learned about the Grants’ work in their classes.” 

The Grants—partners in life and science—spent 40 years studying Darwin’s finches on a remote, uninhabited island in the Galapagos. They would live for three to six months of the year on the island—without electricity, roads or plumbing—observing and collecting data on thousands of birds from multiple species.

Their meticulous work has revealed that evolution—once thought to be a slow and gradual process that occurs over millennia—can take place rapidly, from year to year, often in response to environmental change. In fact, they have literally seen new species develop over just a few generations.

As professors emeriti at Princeton University, the Grants have also spent decades inspiring generations of students at all levels of study, and their work has been taught in universities around the world, including UTM. They have received numerous accolades, most notably the 2009 Kyoto Prize—the equivalent of the Nobel Prize. In a letter supporting the nomination for their honorary degrees, noted evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins wrote: “Peter and Rosemary Grant are true heroes of science.”

For further information on the Grants’ research, read this article from Wired magazine.

There will be three additional convocation ceremonies for U of T Mississauga graduands on June 7 and 8. The speakers at these ceremonies will be: alumnus Richie Mehta, Genie Award-winning film director; Her Worship Bonnie Crombie, the mayor of Mississauga; and alumna Kirstine Stewart, chief strategy officer at Diply GoViral.