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At the Water's Edge : Fish with Fingers, Whales with Legs, and How Life Came Ashore but Then Went Back to Sea [Paperback]

Carl Zimmer
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)

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Book Description

September 8, 1999 0684856239 978-0684856230
Everybody Out of the Pond
At the Water's Edge will change the way you think about your place in the world. The awesome journey of life's transformation from the first microbes 4 billion years ago to Homo sapiens today is an epic that we are only now beginning to grasp. Magnificent and bizarre, it is the story of how we got here, what we left behind, and what we brought with us.
We all know about evolution, but it still seems absurd that our ancestors were fish. Darwin's idea of natural selection was the key to solving generation-to-generation evolution -- microevolution -- but it could only point us toward a complete explanation, still to come, of the engines of macroevolution, the transformation of body shapes across millions of years. Now, drawing on the latest fossil discoveries and breakthrough scientific analysis, Carl Zimmer reveals how macroevolution works. Escorting us along the trail of discovery up to the current dramatic research in paleontology, ecology, genetics, and embryology, Zimmer shows how scientists today are unveiling the secrets of life that biologists struggled with two centuries ago.
In this book, you will find a dazzling, brash literary talent and a rigorous scientific sensibility gracefully brought together. Carl Zimmer provides a comprehensive, lucid, and authoritative answer to the mystery of how nature actually made itself.

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At the Water's Edge : Fish with Fingers, Whales with Legs, and How Life Came Ashore but Then Went Back to Sea + Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body
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Editorial Reviews


Michael S. Y. Lee Nature One of the most fascinating topics in biology....[Zimmer] clearly understands the diverse scientific issues involved, and cuts through the scientific jargon so anyone can comprehend them.

Philip Gingerich The New York Times Book Review Zimmer does a good job of explaining how profoundly different are the physiological and structural requirements of life in water compared to life on land.

Booklist A fascinating story, which Zimmer unfolds as a tale of high-stakes scientific sleuthing...thanks to marvelously lucid writing.

Publishers Weekly More than just an informative book about macroevolution itself, this is an entertaining history of ideas written with literary flair and technical rigor.

Ernst Mayr Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University Zimmer is a born storyteller and succeeds in giving us pure pleasure while at the same time teaching us up-to-date science.

The Atlantic Monthly Zimmer, an honored science journalist...leaves life among the fossils agreeably bright.

Kevin Padian Professor and Curator, Department of Integrative Biology and Museum of Paleontology, University of California, Berkeley Anyone with an interest in evolution should pick up this book to get on the cutting edge of discovery.

James Shreeve author of The Neandertal Enigma From the first page Carl sets his book apart by diving straight into the most neglected, least understood mystery of all: how wholly new body plans and parts could have been created by natural forces that at first glance would seem to work to destroy innovation. Macroevolution is adaptation without a net. Carl's lucid, often lovely prose is making me finally understand how a species could pull it off without plunging into extinction. He is also very deft at crafting quick-bear narrative out of the lives, inspirations, foibles and occasional dastardliness of the scientists who have pursued this question, both historically and in modern times. I fully expect that At the Water's Edge will do for macroevolution what Jon Weiner's The Beak of the Finch did for microevolution or David Quammen's The Song of the Dodo did for extinction. I'm sure the book is going to really soar.

Robert L. Carroll McGill University, author of Vertebrate Paleontology and Evolution Zimmer is an accomplished popularizer of scientific subjects. This book provides a strong basis for the public understanding of evolutionary patterns and processes

Peter Ward University of Washington, author of The End of Evolution This most compelling of evolutionary episodes is told with grace and style, Zimmer's book is a rock hammer blow to those who doubt that evolution is an understandable law of nature.

About the Author

Carl Zimmer writes for National Geographic, Natural History, Science, Nature, Audubon, and National Wildlife. A former senior editor at Discover, he has won the American Institute of Biological Sciences Media Award and the Evert Clark Media Award. At the Water's Edge is his first book. He lives in New York City.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Atria Books (September 8, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684856239
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684856230
  • Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 5.5 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #352,107 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I write books about science. Nature fascinates me, as does its history.

So far, I've written twelve books, including Parasite Rex and The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution. In addition to my books, I also write regularly about science for The New York Times, as well as for magazines including National Geographic and Wired. I've won awards for my work from the National Academies of Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. My blog, The Loom, is published by National Geographic Magazine (

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderous presentation of natures adaptations. December 11, 2000
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Carl Zimmer brings the organizational skills of an experienced journalist and surprising literary talents to present an exquisite, up to date, narrative on the evolution of tetrapods, emerging from the water as amphibians and returning as cetaceans. In this book, he reports on the latest fossil discoveries, the prominent scientific researchers and the direction of their scientific analysis with style, and more importantly, great clarity. Some portions of At the Water's Edge are not easy for armchair paleo-buffs to comprehend, but Zimmer does an admirable job explaining the function of mesenchyme cells and hox genes. What I enjoyed most about this book, was the way Zimmer follows the trail of scientific discovery, documenting every bit of evidence, like a well-tuned detective novel. It's a compelling tale of interaction between paleontologist, geneticists, geologists and embryologists over many years. New fossil specimens demand a reworking of the evolutionary chronology. Our knowledge about the origins of tetrapods, our ancestral forbearers, is enhanced through the process of discovery. What I enjoyed most about Zimmer's work is the sense of objectivity and balance that comes from the third party perspective of a journalist. While Gould, Eldredge, Conway-Morris, Fortey and Bakker provide paleophiles books of great personal insight and passion, At the Water's Edge is completely satisfying in it's precise reportage. This is Zimmer's first book... I hope he's started another!
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Everybody out of the Pond" February 5, 2005
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book deals with two of the greatest transformations in natural history. The first part deals with how fish developed their body to live on land and the second explains how some mammals changed to go back and live in the water. The author explains how evolution, both micro and macro, works and gives us a tiny history of how Darwin's idea of natural selection changed how we thought about life on Earth.
The book not only tosses in a few new ideas, like early fish might of had both gills AND lungs, but but also shows how paletontolgy, ecology, genetics and embryology are being used to solve the secrets of macroevilution that biologists have been trying to uncover for centuries.
Carl Zimmer knows his stuff and knows how to explain it without confusing the readers.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very readable May 19, 2000
It is unusual to describe a biology text as a real "page-turner", but Zimmer's book comes very close. It is an engrossing account of two of evolution's greatest transitions - from the water to the sea, and then, for some species, back to the sea once again.
The key to the success of this book is Zimmer's habit of taking the reader along on the dig. We follow Owen Gingerich to Pakistan and Egypt, where he finds hundreds of gargantuan whale-like Basilosaurus fossils in Zeuglodon Valley, and further discovers that they posess a very surprising feature - tiny little legs.
Follow Deaschler andd Rowe as they dig for tetrapod fossils, and discover a surprising number of fingers. Even when discussing such heady concepts as Hox genes and Sonic enzymes, Zimmer remains highly readable and entertaining.
The true test of a book lies in how it affects your outlook on life. In this case, I found myself keenly interested in the critters that inhabit our planet alongside us. With the hindsight afforded by a book such as this, we can see that the pattern of evolution is broadly stamped upon all of Nature's children.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great if a bit outdated March 19, 2008
I love Carl Zimmer's writing style, and thought Parasite Rex was excellent, and had this book recommended to me. Zimmer does a very good job at breaking down scientific processes and theories into layman's terms. I found the tetrapod evolution portion of the book most fascinating, and learned the most from this first half of the book. While the second half of the book is good, and cetacean evolution is interesting, my only problem with it was that some of it is a bit outdated. While I cannot blame Zimmer for this, as genetic and paleo breakthroughs are going on all the time, I would like to see an update of this section of the book, as many of the theories behind cetacean evolution have changed since this book was published. If you like Zimmer's stuff, or just are interested in science, Parasite Rex is a must read!
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Enlightening. April 24, 2006
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I'm not one to pen lengthy reviews as the idea is, after all, what is the book about, did I or did I not like it and why - plain and simple. Well, I did like it, hence the 4 stars. However, I'm not quite sure why. Mr. Zimmer explains about evolution, some exploring, discovering, insight and mystery solving in a style that contributes to it all being easily understood (almost as if you were involved with it in some small way). It's inspiring, informative and educational. It isn't a cliff hanger, but it kept my attention and after having put it down I wanted to pick it up again. Not riveting but, I think, addictive. If you're interested in discovering the linear progression of how our understanding has arrived at where we now find ourselves (regarding evolution) then give it a try.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Walk in, then take the plunge! September 20, 2005
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
At The Water's Edge is about about the evolution of large and important changes in species; Zimmer focuses on change in habitat, the move from sea to land, and then back to sea.

Zimmer begins by describing different fish lineages and concentrates on the branch that leads to our own chordate subphylum, the tetrapods. How and why did legs evolve? How did our left and right walking motion appear? Zimmer reveals a surprising answer. Tetrapods, legs, and walking did not evolve to help fish survive on land; they evolved to help fish swim in shallow swampy river deltas at the ocean's edge. These features allow fish to move more efficiently among the river plants and to sneak up on prey more easily. Once the left right motion was established, it was easy for fins to strengthen. At some point there came a need to move from puddle to puddle, or perhaps to escape predators, or to lie in wait out of the water. Strong alternating fins, which had evolved in a purely aquatic environment, were ideally suited to these new tasks.

To emphasize this original unplanned use of an existing feature, Zimmer uses Stephen Jay Gould's strange neologism "exaptation" rather than a more familiar term like pre-adaption. Zimmer prefers exaptation because pre-adaptation somehow implies that the final use of a thing was planned from the beginning. Zimmer emphasizes that it was not.

Once he's done with how tetrapods appeared and then came to land, Zimmer makes an about face and returns to the seafollowing whales and dolphins. Here too we find surprises. Early whale ancestors probably behaved like crocodiles and alligators. They would stay in the water with only their eyes and nose protruding, waiting for a land based prey to come close.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Warning Paperback has miniscule font size
Mainly i wanted to warn others of the exceedingly small text in the paperback version; also very cheap paper.

As usual Zimmer is a pleasure to read. Read more
Published 9 months ago by D K
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly interesting, get's technical.
If you are of a scientific bent, and enjoy detective stories, this is the book for you. It's not written in a "whodunnit" style, but it follows the path of scientists... Read more
Published 12 months ago by L. Jensen
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting look at recent advances in evolution science
I've read many books by Gould and by Dawkins, so I'm familiar with the examples that illustrate the workings of evolution and natural selection. Read more
Published 18 months ago by Jon Peltier
5.0 out of 5 stars Important Evolutionary Events
This is the first book I have read by Carl Zimmer, so I didn't know what to expect. When I first read the title and thought about the subject matter, I assumed this book would be... Read more
Published 20 months ago by Randolph Eck
5.0 out of 5 stars Great review for studying for candicy exams
I picked up this book after a recommendation from one of my Fisheries professors. My background is in fisheries population assessment and management but for my PhD candidacy exams... Read more
Published 21 months ago by jakfish
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic read
Carl Zimmer has done it again. A really informative and yet still entertaining book about mammalian evolution. Read more
Published on January 24, 2012 by BigBenya
5.0 out of 5 stars One Small Step...
In "At the Water's Edge," science writer Carl Zimmer describes what we know about the first vertebrates to come ashore, and then discusses the mammals who, millions of years later,... Read more
Published on September 11, 2011 by LeeHoFooks
3.0 out of 5 stars Not what I expected.
I didn't expect this to contain so much history. Of course, the history of how these discoveries were made give a lot of insight but I was expecting more story-telling. Read more
Published on August 20, 2011 by papayaspears
5.0 out of 5 stars A very engaging book
The book is a good overview of macro-evolution and Neo-Darwinism. Good to see that the book is very open-minded and lets you make your own conclusions. Read more
Published on January 3, 2011 by Alan Tatourian
4.0 out of 5 stars At the Water's Edge: Fish w/fingers, whales w/legs
The book started a bit slow, going back to the history of classification. However, since I haven't yet finished the book, it may not be a negative approach. Read more
Published on March 14, 2009 by S. coffman
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