21 November, 2010

Tomes 2010: Written in Stone Edition

When this book:

came in the mail after I'd waited literal years for it, I was like, ZOMG,

And now that I've finished it, I'm totally feeling like

Brian, this had better be the start of a long and prolific career, because one's not enough, buddy.

This book constantly surprised me - not because it was good (it's Brian Switek, so obviously it's good!), but because of the number of times it made me say, "I didn't know that!"  It's populated with bajillions of scientists I've read a lot about, people like Charles Darwin and Nicolaus Steno and Richard Owen, some of whom have been so extensively babbled about in the pop sci books that it seemed nothing new and interesting remained to reveal - but Brian almost always managed to find a little something awesome that hasn't made it into the 42,000 other books about them.  And lest you think this is merely a history of paleontology, keep in mind that Brian fleshes out that history with the newest of the new discoveries.  I'm amazed by how much territory he managed to cover without seeming to skimp.  It's not that big a book!

It wasn't just things about people I didn't know, but how and why certain traits evolved.  Brian's filled gaps in my knowledge I didn't even realize I had.  That chapter on horse evolution: definitely worth the wait.  Got me thinking in whole new directions, that did, and that kind of thinking is like solid gold to an SF writer.

He set out to prove that the fossil record, despite some arguments to the contrary, is essential to understanding evolution, and I do believe he succeeded.  It certainly seems like we wouldn't have discovered as much as we did without the evidence those big, extinct critters showed us.  I love the way he lays things out, like a poker player spreading out a particularly fine royal flush.  Booyah, cretinists!

Like Ron Said
Brian's not a particularly combative person - he doesn't jump hip-deep into frays with the zest and verve of people like, oh, say, PZ - but don't let his polite, sensible prose fool you.  He gives no ground.  I love this book not just because it's Brian's and it's wonderful, but because it's unflinching.  Evolution is fact, paleontology's got the evidence, no quarter given.  And when the time comes in the human evolution chapter to talk about Piltdown Man, he dispatches that with such alacrity you don't quite realize he just shot it through the heart.  It's this simple: there was a hoax, some people fell for it, scientists figured it out and exposed the hoax, done.  I love that.  And the whole book is like that: one long demonstration that while science is sometimes messy, it gets the job done in the end.  Scientists aren't perfect, but they don't need to be in order to advance our knowledge.  And again and again, Brian takes down the evolution-as-linear-progress myth.  If you're not left with the idea that evolution's a big brushy, branchy tree rather than one great chain of being leading to inevitable us, then you weren't reading this book.  Either that, or you're ineducable.

There's also quite a few shout-outs to geologists in here, which is much appreciated!

A lot of people need this book: people interested in science; the history of science; paleontology; evolution; people thinking about becoming scientists; anyone who's ever loved dinosaurs, birds, fish, mammoths, mammals, whales, horses or humans; people ignorant of science; those creationist relatives who love to yammer about "gaps in the fossil record"; people who don't know what a fossil record is....  Look, basically, everyone needs this book.

And if you're not convinced by me, the link I pilfered the book cover from has links to plenty of other reviews that just might do it.  There's Chris Rowan and Anne Jefferson's review plus interviewWritten in Stone is inexpensive and the perfect size for most standard Christmas stockings, not to mention an easily-wrapped shape.  And, finally, it's Brian Switek - what more do you need to convince you?

Once you're done enjoying this one, join me in pestering Brian for another installment.  I want his second book in time for Tomes 2012!


John Pieret said...

Go ye and put this review on Amazon.

Dana Hunter said...

Yes, my lord!

Brian Switek said...

Wow. Thank you for the exceptionally warm review, Dana! I am thrilled that you enjoyed the book, and I hope other readers share your reaction to it. :)

And about that second book; it is already coming together. I can't say much more right now, but I am very excited about this new project. Stay tuned.

Thanks again for the excellent review. It makes me happy to know that a reader has enjoyed the book so deeply.

Lyle said...

Saw a talk by the guy (on UCTV)who found the fish pictured, it turns out this fish has lungs and actually in its front fins has bones like our arms as well as rays. The fish is called Tiktaalik since it was found on Ellsemere island. It qualifies as a missing link between fish and 4 legged higher animals. One of the founders Shubin has written a book called Your Inner Fish on some of this, (of course there I go again making more Dana read more books..)

But of course those who believe in supernatural intervention in the world, can say that god choose to create the fossils just to confuse us, just like he built the whole linked genome to confuse us. Once you allow supernatural intervention in the world, anything goes.