Skip to main content

Written in Stone – Brian Switek ****

It is interesting that Brian Switek starts his impressive look at our interpretation of fossils with a reference to the way the influence of a TV company called Atlantic Productions had made a scientific paper more like a TV documentary than science – as we had a similar complaint in our review of the book Dino Gangs, also steered by Atlantic Productions, being more like a shallow TV documentary and less like popular science writing. (Switek was also unimpressed by Dino Gangs.)
This is a powerful exploration of the way fossil discoveries have changed our understanding of the development of animals, taking us from the old idea of a chain of more and less advanced creatures (so we, for example, were further up the chain than the apes, and where parts of the chain are currently unknown there is a ‘missing link’) to a Darwin-inspired picture of a tree of life on which we are one of millions of twigs, with common ancestors, but rarely a direct connection to other existing animals.
The book is pitched at those who are already interested in the topic. I was amazed at the ignorance on a radio programme the other day when they were discussing American bison. They were told its Latin name was Bison bison (bison). The presenters were really surprised that a bison had a Latin name, and didn’t understand why it had more than one ‘bison’ in it. So a basic introduction has to be really basic. This is (perhaps thankfully) going in at a higher level.
After taking us through the discovery of the existence of fossils, and how they were interpreted through to and past Darwin, including a passable potted history of Darwin’s life and work, the book is divided into chapter on different types of fossil finds. There is inevitably one on mammals, but also, for example, on birds, whales and their predecessors and equally inevitably culminating in a chapter on human beings. Each of these is, in effect, a chapter of two halves. We start with the history of the discovery and gradual understanding of the fossil history, and segue into a description of a good number of fossil forms and how they can and can’t be structured into some kind of relationship.
For me the first part of the chapter was generally the most interesting bit. Switek really brings the historical context alive and immerses us in the sometimes petty squabbling, sometimes deep-felt beliefs that split the community investigating fossils (and still does to some extent today). This is inevitably a science that is feeling its way in the dark, dependent on random finds and requiring sometimes quite speculative interpretations of the evidence. It not only means that there will inevitably be points in history where the science has to back up and scrub away a chunk of its past, but also it’s easy to have two scientists both having good reasons to have opposing views about a fossil. The later parts of the chapters can occasionally descend into rather too many of those Latin names, discussing relatively minor differences between bones, something that is essential for the science, but doesn’t always make for entertaining reading.
By far the best chapter was the one on fossils from the same tree as humans. This was enthralling to read, in part inevitably because we have a special interest in these remains. It was brilliantly written and (in part because there aren’t too many appropriate finds) not overwhelmed in the later part.
All in all, a wonderful book for anyone who wants to get a real feel for how our understanding of fossils has developed over time and why science thinks the things it does about the development of animals on the Earth. Almost inevitably, because of the interpretative aspect of the science, there will be positions taken by Switek that won’t be agreed by every palaeontologist, but it’s hard to fault the insight that the reader is given into this remarkable science. Recommended.

Paperback:  

Kindle:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz - Four Way Interview

Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz is Professor of Mammalian Development and Stem Cell Biology at the University of Cambridge, and Bren Professor in Biology and Bioengineering at Caltech. She has published over 150 papers and book chapters in top scientific journals and her work on embryos won the people’s vote for scientific breakthrough of the year in Science magazine.Her new book, co-authored with Roger Highfield, is The Dance of Life: symmetry, cells and how we become human.

Why science?

I fell in love with biology when I was a child because I loved doing experiments and seeing what happened. It was fascinating and enormous fun. I also fell in love with art at the same time. Art and science are both based on experiments and uncovering new paths to understand the world and ourselves. Why do we think the way we think? Where do our feelings come from? Is the 'right' answer always right? Where do we come from? How do parts of our body communicate with each other?  What is the nature of ti…

The Dance of Life - Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz and Roger Highfield ****

There is without doubt a fascination for all of us - even those who can find biology a touch tedious - with the way that a tiny cellular blob develops into the hugely complex thing that is a living organism, especially a human. In this unusual book which I can only describe as a memoir of science, Magalena Zernicka-Goetz, assisted by the Science Museum's Roger Highfield, tells the story of her own career and discoveries.

At the heart of the book, and Zernicka-Goetz's work, is symmetry breaking, a topic very familiar to readers of popular physics titles, but perhaps less so in popular biology. The first real breakthrough from her lab was the discovery of the way that a mouse egg's first division was already asymmetrical - the two new cells were not identical, not equally likely to become embryo and support structure as had always been thought.  As the book progresses, throughout the process of development we see how different symmetries are broken, with a particular focus on…

Meera Senthilingam - Four Way Interview

Meera Senthilingam is currently Content Lead at health start-up Your,MD and was formerly International Health Editor at CNN. She is a journalist, author and public health researcher and has worked with multiple media outlets, such as the BBC, as well as academic institutions, including the LSHTM and Wellcome Trust. She has Masters Degrees in Science Communication and the Control of Infectious Diseases and her interests lie in communicating global health issues to the general public through journalism and working with global health programmes. Her academic research to date has focused on tuberculosis, particularly the burden of drug-resistant tuberculosis and insights into the attitudes and behaviours of the people most affected. Her new book is Outbreaks and Epidemics: battling infection from measles to coronavirus.

Why science?

I have always found science fascinating and have always had a strong passion for it. My friends in high school used to find it amusing to introduce me to people…