Sunday, 31 July 2011

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.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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