Book Review: Written in Stone

Brian Switek has been one of my favorite science writers for years.  His blog Laelaps is a consistently informative and enjoyable read.  It exists in a realm that is more in depth and interesting than a typical newspaper piece, but more readable than formal scientific literature.  His ability to read that literature (and he has seemingly read it all) and synthesize it for the rest of us, without dumbing it down, is rare (this he shares with blogger Ed Yong, although with a different style and voice).

A few months ago, I received the proofs of his new book Written in Stone.  I wasn’t sure what to expect.  It’s subtitle, Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature, sounded rather ambitious.  And the book is ambitious.  Switek once again takes an enormous amount of literature (essentially, most of what has been written on evolution and paleontology, with an emphasis on primary sources) and tells us a story.  His story begins in the 16th century with the first writings on fossils, through the discoveries of evolution and deep time, right through to discoveries so recent that I’d imagine his publisher might have lost a bit of sleep.

After an initial section that brilliantly describes the discovery of evolution, natural selection, and paleontology, he gives us chapters detailing the evolution of various familiar species, including our own.  While reading, I discovered a new reading technique: I found myself reading by the computer, pulling up images and looking up some of the many animals Switek discusses, either in passing or in great detail.  For all the readability of Written in Stone, it is at times a bit of work, but that work is well-rewarded (and made easier by access to the internet to help with the avalanche of fossil names).

Switek’s book doesn’t just answer the question of how evolution occurs, but more important explains how we know what we know.  His choice of megafauna such as whales, horses and elephants was sharp—I love Stephen Jay Gould, but snails?  No snails for Switek.  Sea monsters—factitious and otherwise—emerge from the soil, travel the globe, and set off religious, cultural, and scientific firestorms.  Tetrapods emerge from the seas, evolve into a diverse set of mammals familiar yet alien, and return to the sea to become whales.  And elephants—did you know that elephant molars slowly erupt throughout their lives so that these long-lived animals always have teeth capable of chewing the tough plants that they have to eat by the ton?  I didn’t either, but I do now.  The book is full of surprising facts about familiar animals, and how they became what they are.

Most important, though, is Brian’s ability to give us a sense of what life really is—a contingent, stochastic, well-pruned bush of relationships.  All of we living things are related, but our relationship is complex and beautiful.  So is Brian’s book, and it’s well-worth the read.

A pre-publication copy of Written in Stone was given to me at no charge by the publisher.  –PalMD

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