Saturday, September 8, 2012

Written in Stone: some thoughts

I want to be Brian Switek when I grow up. The guy gets to write about dinosaurs all day long, and not only that, but he's paid for it and people read what he has to say. I'm in awe..the jammy git. This is a somewhat belated review of his last book (there's another one out in the not too distant future!), and I must say up front that it is really rather enjoyable. Given that it's old news, I'll try and keep this brief.

Second edition UK paperback (mine!)
A lot of what Switek offers up here will be familiar to the average reader of this blog, but contrariwise a lot of it probably won't be; certainly, I learned a fair amount about the complex evolutionary history of whales and, in particular, horses from reading this book. While the feathered dinosaur stuff won't be anything new, you're almost certainly going to learn something.

Moreover, even if you happen to be, say, a bona fide scientist (don't laugh - we do have some of them turn up here) with a specialism in a relevant field, it's possible to really appreciate Switek's passion for the subject matter. Most readers will probably be familiar with his blog writing, and while that's certainly very good it is nevertheless difficult to deny that Written in Stone is a cut above. This is particularly true of the final chapter about human evolution - Switek builds to a Big Finish that puts us firmly in our evolutionary place and, happily, smacks down the silly idea that the evolution of a humanoid creature is somehow inevitable (as exemplified by the 'Dinosauroid', which I must apologise to certain people for mentioning again). After all, "we are creatures of time and chance".

By the same token, Switek's chronicling of the earliest days of palaeontology is not only fascinating in itself (even if a lot of it will be familiar to those who have read, for example, Deborah Cadbury's The Dinosaur Hunters), but one can't help but make the connection between the repressive influence of religion back then and the apparent resurgence of fundamentalist nonsense today. What's striking is just how much quicker scientific progress might have been if the thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries did not view the accommodation of religious views a necessity; either out of genuine piety, or because religion held such power in society. It's also amusing just how closely some of their views, long since revised and/or abandoned, resemble current creationist thinking.

Enough about all that, though - I mentioned horses a couple of paragraphs back, and indeed the chapter on horse evolution is one of the best; it not only chronicles the earliest discovery of potential ancestral horses, but brings things right up to date by blowing away any preconceived notions you might have had about a 'chain of progress' in horse evolution. The idea that evolution necessarily presents orderly 'progress' or 'improvement' is a false paradigm* anyway, but the neat progression from a small, multiple-toed animal up to a large, single-toed one remains a persistent meme. Hopefully, people picking up this book for the dinosaurs and whales (ahem) will learn a lot about just how crazily branching the 'tree of life' really is, especially in the light of the fossil evidence we now have. As Switek puts it, "living horses are just the last remaining twig of a previously much richer family" - and he says much the same about elephants in another excellent chapter.

Ultimately - without wishing to blather on too much - this book serves as a marvelous refresher in the bamboozling complexity of the evolutionary history of life on Earth, and even of what might be considered quite small clades, relatively speaking. It's also a riveting tour through the history of palaeontological discovery.

*Yes, I just did.

5 comments:

  1. I've had a copy of Brian's book for a long while (mine has a different cover, by the way!) but still haven't found time to read it (and about a hundred other things), to my shame. This spurs me on to really see to that at last.

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    1. Is yours a paperback too? I might have to update that caption.

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    2. It is indeed. Is your published by Icon Books?

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    3. Yes. But it's the 2nd edition. I will update the caption.

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  2. Thanks for the kind review, Marc. I'm glad you enjoyed the book.

    A word on the relatively small clades - I decided to include horses and elephants because they have traditionally been taken as not only excellent examples of evolution, but icons of evolutionary progress up the scale of Nature. I thought that discussing their history - our the history of our thoughts about them - I could create a good lead-up to the chapter on humans and the conclusion.

    And all the editions of Written in Stone are paperbacks. Bellevue Literary Press issued the original version as a paperback, and Icon books went straight to paperback, too (although there are two versions - one with Mononykus, and the other with Allosaurus). My Beloved Brontosaurus, on the other claw, will come out as a hardback with a fold-out, double-sided poster by Mark Stutzman. Even better, there's a specially-commissioned bit of art by Niroot in the book, too!

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