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

by Brian Switek

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213792,302 (3.88)3
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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Showing 1-5 of 7 (next | show all)
Once upon a time, if you were rich enough then you could be a polymath. The word polymath comes from the Greek “mathe” for learning and “poly” for parrot, and as the etymology suggests it refers to people who know everything there is to know and can repeat it back to you when offered a cracker. True polymaths, those who know the sum total of extant human knowledge, probably haven't existed since the first group of homo sapiens in Ethiopia split into two. But there's a second etymology: “polus” from the Latin for much, and “mathe” from the Latin for heavy. As in: he's learnt so much that his brain is quite heavy. And so polymath came to mean simply someone who knows a lot, in particular they should be able to hold a decent conversation on any scientific topic (knowledge of arts not required).

The last polymath was apparently a guy called Thomas Young who died in 1829. Look: there's even a book about him. It's no secret why polymathism died off. It takes ten years to go from secondary school to finishing a PhD, and all that means is that you're very knowledgeable about one question in one small area of one small sub-field of your area of science as a whole. So you might know all there is to know about, say, I don't know, counting algebraic points in sets that are definable in certain o-minimal structures, but know nothing about other areas of maths, never mind chemistry, biology, or physics.

So until someone figures out how to download Wikipedia into people's brains, there's little hope of anyone ever knowing everything about everything, or even something about everything. But science is a big and awesome world, and I'd rather explore it all my life than sit down where I am and complain that I'll never see it all.

Written in Stone is a nice little book for this venture. It captures some of the science behind palaeontology as well as its history. The fossil record is infamously incomplete – a boon for young Earth creationists who smugly point out there's no evidence for evolution because no one has ever found a fossil of a fish with legs, or an amphibian with half a spine, or a young Earth creationist with an open mind. But fossils of all these things are out there (save the last one I guess), they're just rare and hard to find. Every fossil found is a single frame from a movie that's been running for billions of years. How people read the script of this aeon-long film based on a few thousand stills makes for an interesting story in itself, and Brian Switek tells it well. ( )
  imlee | Jul 7, 2020 |
Once upon a time, if you were rich enough then you could be a polymath. The word polymath comes from the Greek “mathe” for learning and “poly” for parrot, and as the etymology suggests it refers to people who know everything there is to know and can repeat it back to you when offered a cracker. True polymaths, those who know the sum total of extant human knowledge, probably haven't existed since the first group of homo sapiens in Ethiopia split into two. But there's a second etymology: “polus” from the Latin for much, and “mathe” from the Latin for heavy. As in: he's learnt so much that his brain is quite heavy. And so polymath came to mean simply someone who knows a lot, in particular they should be able to hold a decent conversation on any scientific topic (knowledge of arts not required).

The last polymath was apparently a guy called Thomas Young who died in 1829. Look: there's even a book about him. It's no secret why polymathism died off. It takes ten years to go from secondary school to finishing a PhD, and all that means is that you're very knowledgeable about one question in one small area of one small sub-field of your area of science as a whole. So you might know all there is to know about, say, I don't know, counting algebraic points in sets that are definable in certain o-minimal structures, but know nothing about other areas of maths, never mind chemistry, biology, or physics.

So until someone figures out how to download Wikipedia into people's brains, there's little hope of anyone ever knowing everything about everything, or even something about everything. But science is a big and awesome world, and I'd rather explore it all my life than sit down where I am and complain that I'll never see it all.

Written in Stone is a nice little book for this venture. It captures some of the science behind palaeontology as well as its history. The fossil record is infamously incomplete – a boon for young Earth creationists who smugly point out there's no evidence for evolution because no one has ever found a fossil of a fish with legs, or an amphibian with half a spine, or a young Earth creationist with an open mind. But fossils of all these things are out there (save the last one I guess), they're just rare and hard to find. Every fossil found is a single frame from a movie that's been running for billions of years. How people read the script of this aeon-long film based on a few thousand stills makes for an interesting story in itself, and Brian Switek tells it well. ( )
  leezeebee | Jul 6, 2020 |
One of the better popular histories of evolution and the fossil record I've read. Very up-to-date (at least as of the time it was written) and a good thorough dig (pun intended) into the field. ( )
  JBD1 | Aug 23, 2018 |
One of the best non-fiction books I have read in the last couple years. Switek does a phenomenal job through his story telling to illuminate the beauty and brilliance of evolution. ( )
  jamesgwld | Jul 22, 2018 |
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 |
Showing 1-5 of 7 (next | show all)
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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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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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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