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Written in Stone

Pascal the cat is only interested in the evolution of birds.

I wrote reviews of Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars and Herman Wouk’s The Language God Talks, but I haven’t made book reviews a regular part of this blog. (This doesn’t really count.) However, I read a fair number of popular science books, so I think reviews will be an irregular feature, especially since I’ve got three more books in my queue (The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Keane, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, and The Carbon Age by Eric Roston) that might interest readers of the blog, if you haven’t read them already.

I was already primed to like Written in Stone by Brian Switek for two reasons: I’m a fan of paleontology, and I met Brian at a conference last month and he’s a helluva nice guy. However, I think Written in Stone is worth reading entirely on its own merits, so don’t let my personal biases stop you. (If you don’t believe me, look at the blurbs from the likes of Neil Shubin, Carl Zimmer, Niles Eldrege, and Ed Yong, important writers and researchers all. What can a lowly physicist add to that, anyway?)

Simply put, Written in Stone is a historical and authoritative guide through evolution from the point of view of paleontology: the study of (mostly) extinct organisms on the basis of their remains. As such, the cast of characters is slightly different than other books; Charles Darwin is there, of course, but he’s almost a minor player. In fact, this book does a very good job of breaking the “great man” view of science: nobody is promoted as being the major, pivotal figure, which is a refreshing take on the subject. Instead, a lot of scientists, both historical and modern, are featured with their contributions in perspective. Stephen Jay Gould’s writings on evolution were a major influence on me to try my hand at science writing, and it’s obvious he’s influential in Switek’s work as well, without being an obvious imitation or derivative work.

Obviously paleontology and evolution are huge fields, so rather than trying to discuss everything, after setting the stage by describing the origins of the science, Switek focuses on a few case studies. Each of these is given its own chapter: the evolution of land-dwelling vertebrates from fish, the evolution of birds from dinosaurs (and how intricate that relationship is!), the origins of mammals, and ultimately chapters on mammalian groups: whales, proboscids (that is, elephants, mammoths, and mastodons), equines, and finally, hominids. Throughout, the false “chain of being”/progressive view of evolution is refuted by the fossil record, replaced by the more realistic picture of a vast and branching bush where the exact progenitor of a particular species may not be known — yet its connection to cousin species may be very well understood.

To use a specific example, the news media (and unfortunately some anthropologists too) are obsessed with “the missing link”, the exact ancestor of humans that shows the transition between ape-like and specifically human forms. The real picture is more complicated, and (to my mind at least) more interesting: evolution isn’t a chain, so there aren’t “links” to be found. What is seen in the fossil record is a collection of species showing a host of transitional features; a new species may rise without the ancestor species dying out, so they may live side-by-side for a significant amount of time. I think it’s a common misconception (please comment on this!) that a new species can only evolve if the progenitor species is gone, or that a species can only give rise to a single new species, as though there has to be a one-to-one replacement going on. The truth is again more complicated, but worthwhile to disentangle.

As a scientist whose area is not biology or paleontology, I appreciate books like this that neither assume a vast prior knowledge on the part of the reader, but which also explain the technical terminology in a clear way. As a result, I feel I have a stronger understanding of the subject matter; much of what Brian writes about wasn’t new to me (I have read extensively about evolution and paleontology, as I’ve said before), but I feel more confident in trying to explain it to others or simply to talk about it. I can think of no higher compliment for a book.

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