Having heard about this book almost from the very beginning, I was of course totes excited to finally get a copy of it in the mail!! I dug in, and just now finally closed it, with the sigh of satisfaction I usually give when I complete a good history or a good story.
And in a way, Brian Switek’s first book “Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and our Place in Nature” is both a good history, and a really great story (but unlike my usual fun stories, it contains no references to magic, pumpkin juice, or really awesome mystical swords). This book tells the story both of the evolution of life on earth, and the evolution of how we know what we know about life on earth today. Each chapter focuses on a specific type of animal living in our current environment (such as tetrapods, birds, mammals, whales, horses, elephants, and finally humans), and goes through, not only our current perception of how evolution eventually produced what we know of as the horse, the whale, or the mammoth, but ALSO how our understanding evolved. How scientists found the bones that led them to new ways of thinking about evolution. Where they worked, what they did, the arguments they had, the mistakes they made. This book is far more than a history of evolution. It’s the story of how that history came about.
(From Laelap’s blog at Wired)
I’ve of course been enjoying Brian’s writing (at the blog Laelaps) for years now. I mean, who DOESN’T love dinosaurs? And WHALES? And MAMMOTHS (I have a particular fondness for mammoths). This book feels partly like a culmination of the past few years, and partly like a beginning. A culmination, because it follows from many of his blog posts, and a beginning, because with a book this good, there must be others.
Yup, the book was great. There is nothing dry about these bone stories, and Brian leads the reader along beautifully. Every time as I got to a point in a chapter where I thought “but what about…?” or “but why do…?”, all I had to do was keep reading, the answer was right there. I ended each chapter amazed at how many new things I had learned, and ended the book with even more respect for evolution and all of its nuances than I had before. The many scientists featured for their discoveries come alive in their bickerings with each other. The confusion and concerns of where each research area was going appear just as immediate. Brian has not only portrayed evolutionary science, he has portrayed a lot of scientific life as well. With his final chapter on human evolution, Brian brought home not only how branching our family tree once was (it’s more than a little spooky to realize we’re the last branch of what used to be a very bushy tree of hominids), but how special we are, not in spite of our many branches and nuanced evolutionary history, but because of it.
So don’t forget to check it out. The release date was yesterday, but things have been delayed, and the book should hit between Nov 15th and 22nd. It will make great reading for the science lover and fossil-fiend!!
PS: Only one minor quibble: MOAR PICTURES!!! Brian gave wonderful descriptions of all these creatures, some of which seem so fantastic they came out of Avatar. While there are many pictures, I think even more wouldn’t hurt!