To anyone who takes even the most cursory look at the natural world around them, it is obvious that life on earth is an amazing, interconnected system that is constantly changing and adapting. The theoretical cornerstone to understanding this system is the theory of evolution, initiated by Charles Darwin in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species and developed beyond his wildest imaginings in the 150 years since.
So much has been done, in fact, that it is very difficult to see the forest for the trees when it comes to evolution! A fundamental piece of the puzzle has been the discovery of numerous fossils of prehistoric animals, and the study of such fossils, paleontology, has led to a deeper understanding of the origins of all life on Earth today, including humanity. Still, the path to today’s scientific understanding has been subject to twists and turns, dead ends, and drastic changes of course. Even for one who has a reasonable understanding of evolution, it can be difficult to see how we came from Biblical literalism (Adam & Eve, Noah & the Ark) to arrive at our enlightened understanding of nature today.
The new book by Brian Switek, Written in Stone, to be available mid-November, aims to remove this confusion (I received a review copy in advance from the publisher):
In this engaging and enlightening book, Brian simultaneously explores two important “hows” of biological science:
- How did life on Earth develop from the earliest simple forms to the creatures we see today?
- How did we come to study and understand this process?
To answer these questions, Brian takes us back and forth through history, from the first misunderstood discoveries of fossils to cutting edge discoveries made within the last couple of years (though often still misunderstood). Along the way, we learn about the people, places, events and, perhaps most important, things (fossils) that contributed to our understanding.
The book is divided into chapters that individually look at different difficult and often contentious aspects of paleontology. It is a great approach to the material, as the history of the subject is very tangled and a chronological discussion of the field as a whole would be rather inscrutable to the reader.
In the text, we are treated to chapters such as:
- From Fins to Fingers, tracing the means by which prehensile fingers evolved from relatively simple fins
- Footprints and Feathers, discussing how the non-bone traces of prehistoric life provided new insight into their evolutionary history and their behavior
- Behemoth, a description of megafauna both past and present and our understanding of their survival and extinction.
As I noted, the history of the different topics is an essential part of the story. We are introduced to the characters who made the discoveries in question, and the often unusual and amusing ways in which scientific breakthroughs are made. As history of science is one of my favorite indulgences, I particularly delighted in these stories of the early investigations. The current state of the art is not neglected, though; it is quite remarkable how seamless each chapter is in taking us from the beginnings of understanding to our modern views.
The writing is simply wonderful: clear and to the point, and indicative of the author’s great passion for the subject matter. Though there is some technical jargon introduced (primarily the Latin names of the prehistoric creatures), for the most part the book can be understood by anyone who has an interest in paleontology.
There is one caveat to this statement, however. Though the book is readily understood by a layperson, it is dense — there is a huge amount of information contained in each page, and this will simply fly over the head of a distracted or attention-deficit reader. It is not an “Evolution for Dummies” or “Idiot’s Guide to Paleontology”! I liken Written in Stone to a full seven-course meal: it is meant to be enjoyed at one’s own pace, with each new course being savored and contemplated. This is not meant to be a criticism at all; those who take the time to read the book carefully will be greatly rewarded.
Overall, I found Written in Stone to be a beautifully written tale. Those who are interested in the “hows” and “whys” of evolutionary history and paleontology could hardly find a better book to delve into these secrets.