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Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil…

Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature

by Brian Switek

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Written in Stone is a pretty interesting guide to the fossil record and especially theories of evolution related to it, and also our own ancestry. I found it a little bit dry by the end, but I did read it in the space of two days, and even a little bit during halftime at the Wales v. Italy game today (to the astonishment of the gentleman next to me). So it can't really have been that dry.

It doesn't touch much on other aspects of paleontology, like genetic samples from fossils or even much about properly dating fossils, which felt like a bit of an oversight when it does manage to explain in endless detail the descent of modern horses. Obviously, any book has to draw a line somewhere, but this felt like a mass of fine details without much of the framework that would support them (for me; if your interest is primarily in fossils, then I'm sure it'd be of more relevance, I just want a more holistic view -- though there's plenty of that out there). ( )
  shanaqui | Feb 1, 2014 |
There are two types of writers of science books - the scientists and the journalists(or bloggers). The books from the first type are usually a lot more technical but at the same time they are also a lot more one-sided in cases when the science had not found all the answers yet. The second type can be either great or mediocre - depending on how much the authors understand of their subject and how good writers they are. Switek is not exactly a scientist (he is a research associate in a museum but he is also a blogger and journalist). And he had written a very accessible, readable and enjoyable book about evolution.

He chooses a somewhat nontraditional format - instead of starting from the beginning and moving through the younger and younger fossils, he takes the reader on a trip through history... a few times in a row. Each chapter is the narrative of a specific group of animals or a specific change of a behavior. And inside of each chapter, the information is presented in the order the scientists actually learned it. This makes a lot of the theories through the last 2 centuries a lot more understandable - at each theory explanation you know exactly as much as the scientists at the time did and this helps seeing how this could have been the understanding at the time.

He starts with an introduction of fossils and an explanation of why they are important, spends a chapter on Darwin (if you are talking about evolution, you need to at least explain his ideas) and then starts his journey through time. Fish, birds and dinosaurs start the big parade of animal families, followed closely by whales, elephants, horses and humans. The same scientists show up in almost each chapter and with each new family, their theories flesh out and their growth through their careers is plainly shown. The book is as much about the fossils as it is about the scientists that found and identified them; it is as much about the evolution as it is about how we had learned about it and how it had been proved that it is not just an imaginary theory.

In places the fossils are coming fast on top of each other, with their Latin names and miniscule differences. But Switek manages to write even these sections in a way that allows you to read them easily enough - and when you are through one of the denser passages to realize that it did not even slow you down - the terms and names fit very well and the explanations are more than enough. And the big number of figures and pictures and drawings helps in some cases.

And then there are the notes. Unlike most books where references and notes are mixed and you never know if you need to check them (I really do not care for references when reading through a book like that - not while reading a chapter anyway), Switek had split them. The notes are real notes - adding more details about the topic that is discussed or clarifying a point. The references are in their own section and the text is not marked with them (but each reference quote the start of the passage that it is about).

Overall a very good book about the evolution and about how the scientific knowledge has reached the stage at which it is now. ( )
6 vote AnnieMod | Apr 20, 2013 |
Early proponents of evolution by natural selection were hampered by their inability to provide “transitional” fossils demonstrating the stages of change from one species to another. Darwin theorized that human ancestors would be found in Africa—rightly, as it turned out—but none had yet been discovered. In many other species lineages, similar gaps in the fossil record led to misunderstandings of those species’ histories and the connections between species. Switek ably and clearly traces what I might call “the evolution of evolution” in this popular-science work. Each chapter focuses on a particular type of animal…horses, whales, reptiles, etc…tracing a path from scientists’ early understanding of that species and its place in nature through to our current views, explaining the importance of the transitional fossils that have been discovered while never losing sight of areas in which science’s understanding is still limited.

Written for the layperson, the book nevertheless does not “dumb down” the science, instead laying out the facts clearly and allowing the careful reader to see the connections for him or herself. Fascinating portraits of some of the early naturalists and evolutionary theorists, including Darwin; Cuvier; Lamarck; and Lyell fill out this able survey of the history of evolution and natural science. ( )
  kmaziarz | Oct 6, 2011 |
Showing 4 of 4
From the very beginning of the book, Switek presents the fossil record, evolution, and paleontology very much in the context of history as part of the human drive to ask questions like "Where did we come from? And—where are we going?" The book does implicitly plead for us to know and accept evolution as a solid and historically valid way to answer these big questions, but makes no business of formally confronting those who don't see it that way.

His worldview is mature and confident. I look forward to reading more in the future.
added by lorax | editGuardian, Casey Rentz (Nov 2, 2010)
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When Charles Darwin unveiled his revolutionary idea that life had evolved by means of natural selection it made sense of the whole of biology, yet it was dogged by a major problem: the transitional fossils that would confirm Darwin’s predictions were seemingly nowhere to be found. The absence of these “missing links” became one of the most hotly debated issues in evolutionary science.
Only now—through advances in paleontology, molecular biology, and genetics—can the comprehensive story be told. Written in Stone is the first popular account of the remarkable discovery of these fossils (from walking whales to feathered dinosaurs and hominins of all types), the debates they engender, and how today’s discoveries have changed our perspective of the tree of life. By combining the most up-to-date scientific research with the history of science, Written in Stone explores our changing ideas about our place in nature and celebrates the remarkable variety of life on Earth.
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Proposes that the strides made in paleontology have helped with understanding evolution, and discusses how fossils, prominent scientists, technology, and other factors have each influenced the theory's development.

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