27 April 2011

Review: Written in Stone

ResearchBlogging.orgI expected this book to be about the fossil record, but it’s more accurate to say it’s the record of the fossil record.

By which I mean this:

Each chapter covers one animal group, usually (but not always) that has undergone a major transition in form. Land mammals to whales, fish to tetrapods, and dinosaurs to birds are all featured. The narrative of each chapter, however, follows the history of the science rather than the science of the history.

There are wonderful stories here that I had not heard before, and the characterizations of the scientists themselves are rich. These were the book’s greatest strengths for me. I particularly enjoyed the description of the showmanship of Albert Koch, who tidied up with his spectacular (though rather dubious) whale skeletons in the mid 1800s.

The book is illustrated, but the illustrations are rather small. They are often old woodcuts with a lot of fine detail, but because of the creamy colour of the mid-grade paper, it’s often a bit difficult to make out some of the detail. The typesetting itself is also a touch on the small and dense side, again making the book feel like a more difficult read than it actually is.

As I read Written in Stone, though, I kept wondering, “Who is this book for?”

It’s likely tough going for a reader without a university degree. The discussions often run into some rather technical discussions of anatomy. Maybe an undergraduate with a comparative vertebrate anatomy class under her belt might be less flummoxed than me, but I often found such sections tough going.

It’s not exactly for people who are looking for how the fossil record provide evidence for evolution. Other books, like Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True, lay out that evidence in a more straightforward way.

It’s not for invertebrate fans. Despite the ammonites on the cover, most of the chapters are about vertebrates. Now, I love me some charismatic megafauna, but the invertebrates aren’t given their due. On many key issues of interpreting the geologic record, understanding the pace of evolution, and documenting extinctions, the backbone of evidence is provided by invertebrates (pun intended).

It seems like Written in Stone is for people with undergrad degrees in biology who never got much instruction about fossils in their career. Alas, that audience is larger than I would like it to be.

During graduate students’ oral examinations, I often ask them, “How old are the oldest fossils on Earth?” Few master’s candidates give me a decent answer. And I picked that question because I once read that it is one that a high school graduate should be able to answer.

I wouldn’t recommend this book to just anyone. It’s a book that I would recommend enthusiastically to some people (if I knew them reasonably well). It will reward many readers handsomely.


Switek B. 2010. Written In Stone. Bellevue Literary Press, pp. 1-320. ISBN: 978-1934137291


Dr. Omed said...

I read this book, and very much enjoyed it. I found it interesting and well worth reading, tho' not all that "challenging." And I am a high school dropout.

Zen said...

This is a point where I hope I am wrong, and am glad to be proven so. Thanks!