Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Story Behind the Landmarks in the History of Life

The Story Behind the Landmarks in the History of Life

A review of Sean Carroll's book "Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origin of Species" 2009, Houghton Mifflin.

This is one of those “stories behind the science” books that gives you a sense of the sort of explorations that lay behind the famous discoveries that shaped modern biology. The primary focus is on the paleontologists who made various critical fossil finds and whose scientific obsessions led the efforts to uncover the history of life. Other books have covered the stories behind the genetics and the development of evolutionary theory itself better, but this one is particularly strong on the stories of key fossil hunters and their unique fascination with deep history and what it tells us.

The thing that makes this book worthwhile is that it is not just a travelogue of fossil discoveries, it makes a good and often successful effort to tie the work of each of the paleontologists into its implications for the history of life as well as making each find an interesting discovery for the reader.

It’s a very different experience learning the principles of biology in a classroom and reading the story of biology from the eyes of the naturalists discovering it firsthand.

On the other hand, the author doesn’t always tie specific finds back to their specific implications for biology. There is story and there is explanation, and the two are hard to balance. Story sometimes gets the better of explanation in this book. Although he is often careful to give simple explanations of concepts when introducing them, in a book of this type the author can’t help implicitly assuming a fair amount of knowledge that some lay readers might not have. I’m not sure I’d recommend this book as a primer on evolutionary biology, but then it wasn’t intended to be anything of the sort and that’s part of its charm.

What better way to celebrate Darwin’s bicentennial this year than to learn about how his ideas helped inspire generations of scientist-detectives to learn about the fascinating history of living things on our planet. The story is intriguing throughout, but by the time Carroll gets to the story of discoveries close to our own species, it has become a story you just can’t put down and which is really just beginning to be told.

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