Thursday 9 December 2010

Book Review: Written in Stone

Written in Stone is the first book by the incredibly talented science blogger Brian Switek (above), most famous for his blog Laelaps formerly of Science Blogs, now of Wired Science, and the exclusively dinosaurian blog Dinosaur Tracking of the Smithsonian. It’s no surprise then, that his book is a masterpiece. I shall refrain from using any more clich├ęs in the following review, I hope.

The book is broken up into nine main chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion, each with alliterative or otherwise memorable titles. Each also begins with a classic quote, many of which are Biblical. You might think this strange from a book about evolution, a process which is wholeheartedly denied by the Bible and its followers, but these quotes work both as a prelude to the chapter you are soon to read, and an example of the frameset of the pre-twentieth century scholar who would have taken the word of God as written in the Bible as undeniable truth (I avoided saying ‘gospel’ there, phew!)

The book’s introductory chapter, titled Missing Links, begins with the very familiar story of ‘Ida’ the famous specimen of Darwinius masillae which had a book and two television documentaries made in its honour. The story is familiar to me because I too watched the story unfold from hyped headlines into a media explosion back in May last year, and did my part for ‘Ida-fest’ by reviewing the BBC documentary about the discovery. Switek aired his views about the discovery on his blog, and was picked up by the media, even here in the UK. The story may not be so familiar to those who haven’t kept track of the media as closely, and it is these readers that will benefit most from the opening chapter.

The next chapter, The Living Rock, tracks the beginnings of palaeontology, from the comparison of living shark teeth with the glossopetrae, or petrified snake tongues, which were found centuries ago, through to the work of Baron Georges Cuvier, who pictured an antediluvian world before the Great Flood of the Bible based on archaeological and palaeontological evidence. The roles of Lyell, Buckland, and Lamarck, huge names in nineteenth century natural history, are summarised, before the primary subject of the next chapter is alluded to. Moving Mountains is the alliterative title given to the chapter about Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Many books have been written about Darwin, but this chapter condenses the main points pertinent to the history of geology as well as the best of them.

The next seven chapters each follow the historical and evolutionary stories of a different group of organisms. To take the first tetrapods, the subject of the chapter entitled From Fins to Fingers, as an example, the story of the first fossils to belong to such transitional organisms is told in parallel with that of the actual evolutionary chronology of the group as we currently know it. The discovery of the lungfish by both Natterer and Owen, and the consequent discovery of such early amphibians as Archegosaurus are interwoven with the relationship between Acanthostega, Ichthyostega, and Tiktaalik, amongst others.

This is taken even further in the following chapter, Footprints and Feathers on the Sands of Time, which tells the story of bird evolution from theropod dinosaur ancestors. The first fossil evidence to be found, albeit not consistently interpreted as such, was footprints, followed by the famous Archaeopteryx specimen. Because these are anachronistic with respect to the chronological order in which birds first came about, the two stories interfold beautifully so the reader can fully understand the basic facts about bird evolution.

Highlights of the subsequent chapters include the inner ear anatomy of therapsids and mammals in The Meek Inherit the Earth, the discovery of ancestral whales in As Monstrous as a Whale, the variety of extinct elephants, mastodons, mammoths, and their kin in Behemoth, and the convergent evolution of a single toe in both horses and litopterns in On a Last Leg. The chapter in which I learnt the most has to be that of the evolution of hominins – that is humans and our close extinct relatives – Through the Looking Glass, in which the well-known “ape-men” such as Lucy the Australopithecus and the Hobbit man of Flores are put in context with other members of the tribe which has culminated with Homo sapiens. I learnt, for example, that we are inseparable from apes because our chromosomes differ only in lacking a pair which has in fact become fused with another pair. The importance of the bipedal stance and unimportance of truncated faces is made clear once and for all.

Switek ends the book on a philosophical note with Time and Chance, the final chapter, which brings ideas from the previous chapters together and recapitulates them to some extent. He also contemplates what would have happened if, because evolution is entirely down to chance, the occurrences that caused therapsids to develop into mammals, and for dinosaurs to develop into birds, didn’t happen. Using the example of bacterial cultures to put evolutionary theory into practice, the reader is left in awe of the mechanics of evolution, and is dumbstruck by how on Earth we managed to not yet become victims of time and chance.

The book is illustrated throughout with portraits of the scientists who feature in it, engravings and illustrations of specimens old and new, and simplified cladograms which demonstrate evolutionary relationships in many groups.

Verdict: 10/10

Available to buy on in U.S.A. only, but is due to be released in the UK next summer.

Stay tuned for an exclusive interview with the author, coming soon.


The Palaeobabbler said...

"Each also begins with a classic quote, many of which are Biblical. You might think this strange from a book about evolution, a process which is wholeheartedly denied by the Bible and its followers"

If I hadn't seen that you spend a lot of time in the NHM, I would have sworn that you were American (and thereby disillusioned by creationists) with a comment like that. Also, he is not the first palaeontologist to do this, as Gould did it in "Wonderful Life" at least once.

m said...

Of course I realise that not all Christians deny evolution... however I probably have become so tired of and disillusioned by the constant ramblings of Creationists (and other "radical" groups from other religions) that I managed to overgeneralise. It is, as you know, possible to harmonise beliefs with science.