Book Review: Evolution

I pushed through this book to try and get a review up before it went off sale this month, and this was more than I bargained for – it is a work of great detail and no small amount of illustrated points. One would think that images in books would make the reading go faster, but this does not hold true if you’re examining them for the details illustrated within.

Evolution: What The Fossils Say and Why It Matters, by Donald R. Prothero, is rather distinctively a response to the common creationist tactic of trying to use the fossil record as evidence of creation. Prothero makes no bones about this*, and devotes the first few chapters to trashing such arguments resoundingly, with more examples scattered throughout. While it might seem excessive to anyone expecting to see most of the book spent on paleontology, what becomes apparent is that no small effort is spent on grossly misrepresenting science and fossils by creationists, in myriad and often obtuse ways, and Prothero intends to hammer the nails into this coffin as fiercely as anyone can. Yet, there is no animosity present, nothing that can realistically be called an attack; he simply demonstrates how badly (and repeatedly) the arguments fail. To his credit, he remains very circumspect in assigning why such tactics have been used, and whether these were honest mistakes, poor research, or intentional lies – he remains, of course, liable for any direct accusation of motive. Yet it’s admittedly hard for any reader to see the long history and lack of corrections in creationist claims and come to any conclusion but willful deceit, especially when some of the proposed mechanisms for geologic strata, for instance, are pathetically juvenile.

In the midst of all this, Prothero digs into the paleontological aspect in earnest. The older Linnaean, and newer cladistic and systematic classifications, are laid out both historically and functionally, demonstrating how we’ve found better ways of drawing divisions among the lineages. He also clarifies why ‘lineage’ is a misleading term, indicating that any one classification of species might produce numerous offshoots in a given geologic period, ‘cousins’ if you will, which can give us confidence in the development of body structure without necessarily being direct descendents of any other species. The illustrations of linear developments, formerly used by textbooks to indicate the evolution of horses or mankind, gave entirely the wrong impressions; Australopithecus afarensis should not be considered a direct relative (even if it remains possible,) but instead evidence of a distinct body structure. While this might hamper anyone whose goal is to determine direct ancestry, there is little reason in paleontology to pursue this, and the numerous examples of form development from the fossil record, especially progressing towards the anatomy of existing species, is exactly what we’d expect to see from evolution by natural selection.

And Prothero does not skimp on the species, paraded past the reader by the dozens, each one representing a change in structure. The (solely) religious trope about “no transitional forms” becomes obvious horseshit in the face of countless examples giving even minute variations – all in perfect order of ages, right where we’d expect to find them in strata. But underneath the message that many creationists are abject liars sits the really cool parts, the development of body structures that tell details about each species’ habits and habitats – the change in location of mouth and anus that led to the modern sand dollar; the alteration in shoulder and limbs that gave birth to the tetrapods (the initial subject of Your Inner Fish); the remarkable combination of features that autheticate the land-dwelling precursor of manatees and dugongs.

The book fairly well splits the difference between scientific paper and general education; each chapter has a bibliography of sources, usually significant, but skips the special terminology and minutia of journal publications in favor of giving a coherent overview. In some places it gets a little dry, as Prothero does little more than list differences and development, but this never becomes tedious. There are also a significant number of references to Prothero’s own work, which might strike the reader as somewhat self-promoting, but he lists these as one would any scientific reference (Prothero 2004) and he has, indeed, published a significant amount in the field. These references have plenty of company as well, so ego seems to have little if anything to do with this. As he stresses more than once, if you want information on fossils, going to those who actually perform research in the field is only rational.

Another subtle realization that may occur is how much we live in a golden age for paleontology; much the same can be said for cosmology, as indicated in Big Bang. New discoveries spring up constantly, and in a decade we can easily see major additions to our body of scientific knowledge; this is illustrated very well by any science magazine, markedly different from anything dealing with celebrities or even world events – there’s even a small correction to Prothero’s statements about Homo Neanderthalensis that has arisen since the book’s publication just five years ago. And for those that like mysteries, paleontology is a very accommodating field – the lack of soft-tissue records, along with incomplete skeletal finds, routinely presents puzzles that must be systematically investigated. Yet this dearth of information is not as great as the layperson might assume, since details as minimal as teeth and ankle bones are capable of telling us much, with some experience in what to look for. While most people know that certain teeth are specialized to particular tasks, such as molars, they may not be aware that the shape of the cusp, occluding surfaces, roots, density, and further details can express size and shape of face, feeding habits, and yes, even relatives.

One thing that I missed was more emphasis on the many ways in which we’re comfortable with ages. Prothero touches lightly and briefly on converging lines of evidence such as geologic strata, atomic decay, and molecular descent, but doesn’t provide too many examples of this. Paleontology is far from relying on any one indication of age or relation, and the convergence and agreement among different methods is what has largely dismissed any doubts over time periods or relations. Just a couple of examples tied to specific finds would have provided further support for the time frames, in my opinion.

Given that a significant portion of the book deals with trashing creationist claims and agendas, there was another aspect that I felt could use more emphasis. Science relies almost entirely on finding ways to explain processes, and most especially to make predictions, even of what occurred in the past; our confidence level with it is seated firmly in how accurately this takes place. In contrast, most aspects of religious and especially creationist efforts in regards to science revolve solely around attempting to poke holes in these predictions, while doing nothing to make any predictions of their own, nor even attempting to explain why we see what we do. It is easy to blurt out that Paranthropus boisei is ‘merely an ape’ and not related to humans, but without finding humans within the same time frame, and without explaining why we have so many variations of animals that vanished, no alternative theory is being presented in the least. If, as we are expected to believe from creationist media, gaps in understanding are enough to completely dismiss everything about a field, every vestige of religion and creationism are hundreds of times more guilty of this and should have been eradicated long ago; hypocrisy is not a commendable trait, much less a divine one.

The final chapter explains why so much of the book spanks creationism, and why this should be in the forefront of everyone’s mind – quite convincingly, I might add. In the face of concerted efforts by creationists, mostly in the US, to drive an anti-scientific agenda throughout our culture, we must be both able and willing to fight back, or watch our culture fall from the mountain of advancements that we began building with the scientific revolution. There remains plenty of nationalistic pride about the US as ‘leader of the free world’ and all that, but we did not get there by quoting scripture and denying facts, and the evidence already illustrates our accelerating slide downwards. Creationism offers nothing to supplant this either, save for egotistic vanity in lieu of solid achievement. Since few people can actually buy this idea, the tactics have been instead to deny the solid achievements and misrepresent the facts. Prothero’s efforts here are simultaneously meticulous and voluminous in rebuttal.

And again, the paleontology is not lacking – there is much to be learned from this book, most especially in the vast amount of information we have garnered from the fossil record. It is readily comprehensible by anyone with at least a middle-school reading level, and quite well illustrated with both diagrams and photos. Yet it should not be considered a textbook devoted to the field, and serves a better purpose in informing the reader just how much disinformation is out there – there are far fewer tomes devoted to this than to details about paleontology, and many scientists and professors in such fields choose to ignore the problems that religious agendas inflict upon the sciences. Prothero doesn’t shy away from the conflict, and as far as I’m concerned, we need to be seeing much more of this.

Until the end of this month, the electronic version of this book is on sale through Amazon for just $3.99, which is a bargain that can’t be beat – the book is well worth the original hardcover price. Go here, or alternately here for a copy that benefits Doctors Without Borders, to add it to your library. And don’t let the message go to waste.

* That was shameless, I know