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:  
Trade paperback: 
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Logic - Eugenia Cheng ***

This is an important book, though I'm not sure Eugenia Cheng would agree with my logic in saying so. 

Going on the marketing, what we have here is a counter to fake news and dodgy argumentation in the form of mathematical logic. The back cover tells us 'Newspaper headlines and social media use emotions to warp the facts. Politicians and companies master rhetoric to mislead us. What one book could help us make sense of it all?' Admittedly they don't answer their rhetorical question, but I assume the answer is intended to be The Art of Logic. (Did the company behind this book realise it was using rhetoric, though presumably not to mislead us?) 

What we actually have is a combination of a lucid and interesting explanation of the basics of logic with the mathematical equivalent of those books such as Algorithms to Live By that were so popular a couple of years ago. They used the logic of algorithms (differently worded, and, to me, easier to understand), the heart of computer…

Quantum Economics - David Orrell ****

David Orrell's earlier title Economyths is one of my favourite popular science books of all time. Or, perhaps, I should say popular non-science, as Orrell shows just how devastatingly traditional economics uses the tools of science without having a scientific basis. I was, therefore, really looking forward to reading Orrell's new book - until I saw the title. As anyone involved with physics can tell you, there's nothing more irritating than the business of sticking the word 'quantum' onto something to give a pseudo-scientific boost to waffle and woo. Was Orrell doing the same thing? Thankfully, his introduction put my fears aside.

Orrell, a mathematician with a physics background quickly makes it clear that the way he is using quantum theory is not just employing magic words, but involves making use of strong parallels between the nature of quantum objects and concepts like money (more on money in a moment). Yes, this is to some extent a metaphorical use of quantum …

The Ashtray - Errol Morris *****

Wow. When someone suggested I read a book called The Ashtray, written by a documentary film-maker, it didn't strike me that it would be a book that gave deep insights into the history and philosophy of science - while also being a remarkable reading experience. In fact, I almost didn't bother with it, but I'm glad that I did.

The titular ashtray was thrown at the author when he was a grad student - thrown by one of the two best known names in the philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn, he of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the concept of paradigm shifts. Kuhn didn't like the young Errol Morris daring to challenge his ideas and reacted with what some would regard as a less than philosophical reply by hurling a heavy glass ashtray at him.

Part of the reason that reading The Ashtray is a remarkable experience is because it's a book that feels in some ways like watching a documentary. I have to confess I've never seen any of Morris's work, but he uses vis…