Review of Written In Stone
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/20/10
I recently received the galleys for an upcoming book (its evolving edits are the reason I will not quote from the work, as well as some needed correction of errors proofreading should catch) from Bellevue Literary Press called Written In Stone: Evolution And The Fossil Record, And Our Place In Nature. It was written by science blogger Brian Switek, who once wrote the popular blog Laelaps, but now blogs on his own, at http://brianswitek.com/. I had long read his blog, on and off, especially whenever new controversies were in the air, and am always on the lookout for a younger version of Stephen Jay Gould or Loren Eiseley; and while he’s not there yet, Switek’s writing and scientific mind do show promise that the next few decades need not be lost to the ignorance of religion.
Let me briefly get the negative out of the way first. 1) Switek lacks the mature writing style of folks like Gould, Eiseley, Carl Sagan, or Steven Pinker- all good scientists who were good or great with words. Perhaps this is the residue from his incessant blogging, and some deleterious effect that has on the prose most bloggers render? But, I doubt it, for the book is quite readable 2) The book clocks in at just under 300 pages, yet it covers more ground than most science books 3-4 times its length. In a sense, this is good, for it makes the book a tight little primer for those just coming to paleontology. However, for the well read science enthusiast, like me, with thousands of books in my data bank, Written In Stone probably spends a bit too much time rehashing the tried and true subject matters of yore; albeit with updates from the last decade.
Let me give you an example of this. The book covers the evolution of bacteria, fish, amphibians, reptiles, therapsids, dinosaurs, mammals, elephants, whales, horses, and humans, among others, even though comparable books, of the same length, will likely only cover 3-4 of those topics. You know what I mean- one will get the standard course on the rise of the modern horse, Equus, from its earliest forebear, Hyracotherium (aka Eohippus), including why the ugly name Hyracotherium is favored over the eloquent and appropriate Eohippus; due to scientific priority in naming, even if the name is wholly inapt. Similarly, there will be the familiar ‘March of Progress’ chart from monkeys to apes to assorted cavemen to modern man, Homo sapiens. Switek covers these areas, but also delves into the transitions from fins to feet in amphibians to the origins of avian flight- ground up or branch down? My own personal feeling is that I would like to have read a more personal Switek Stamp in the book, be it stylistically, as mentioned, or even in a willingness to take on some of the more persistent shibboleths in the science world today. I am not looking for mere bluster, but heft. And, to his credit, Switek does, in the Introduction, tackle the deleterious effect the 24/7 media cycle has had on scientific discoveries and claims, such as the overhyped Darwinius massillae case. In later books, I hope Switek, a writer in his late 20s, emerges full bore into the frays that need defense from intellectuals of scruples and conscience.
On the positive side is the book’s scope. For a first book it almost seems as if Switek wants to tackle everything, leaving him only the details to work on in later works. As with the scientific examples, Switek does a good job of limning the lives, interactions, and motives of many of the key players in archaeological history- the usual suspects like James Hutton, Charles Lyell, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Georges Cuvier, Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, O.C. Marsh, E.D. Cope, and Richard Owen. In this regard his breeze through paleontology’s past reminds me of a modern version of Daniel J. Boorstin’s books on American history. And that, by the way, is a good thing. Switek also does much to demolish the claims of non-believers in evolution regarding the idea that ‘missing links’ disprove evolution.
The book reads quickly and builds upon its earlier chapters, much in the way some of the best allusive poems do. There are similarities in the lives of the scientists, or in the ways they sought their goals, or in the misinterpretations of certain fossils by one or another man, that Switek uses to sketch an outline of science as a wholly human endeavor- fallible yet correctible. And it is the very fact that science is fallible but correctible that makes it infinitely preferable to the granitic density of religions. Switek also brings out little known tidbits about the careers of the scientists he writes of, such as Richard Owens- the staunch anti-natural selectionist, being prescient in his belief that most dinosaurs must have been warm blooded.
Another strength of the book is that Switek demurs the easy fallacy of believing evolution is somehow directed toward complexity, intelligence, or any other such goal. He shows the power of contingency, and claims that, if the evolution of life on earth could be replayed, it would not likely result in humans again. I agree with this, although I think Switek does err, as do many other scientists, in believing that the seeming randomness of evolution, in the particular, applies in the general. As example, if your parents had copulated five minutes sooner or later than when they did, you- the individual reading these words, would likely not exist, because the very sperm cell that contributed half of its DNA to you, would not have fertilized your mother’s ovum at that exact moment. But, there would still likely be someone, with your same mix of DNA, existing, although perhaps not reading this review right now. In a similar way, many scientists try to dismiss human intelligence as a fluke, not realizing that, indeed, just as there is a chance zero intelligent beings would have evolved on earth, and A, B, or C not occurred, it is equally likely that multiple intelligent beings may have evolved, and involved millions or hundreds of millions of years sooner.
In a sense, Written In Stone reminds me of many of the 1970s era debut rock albums of my youth, from unknown bands. They had a few hits, a dog or two, and mostly good songs, but you always got the sense it might take the band three or four albums before they hit their stride. Similarly, Written In Stone is a good book, but I hope Switek follows the paths of such bands, and does not become a one hit wonder.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]
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