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on November 19, 2007
There are plenty of glossy, coffee table books out there, but while many are filled with beautiful photography very few offer anything of value in the text. Evolution by Jean-Baptiste de Panafieu (text) and Patrick Gries (photography) is a striking exception, however, the informative prose wonderfully framing some of the best black and white photography that I've seen.

There is something strangely alluring about skeletons; they are not only the functional architecture of the bodies of vertebrates, but also have a strange aesthetic charm, hundreds of millions of years of evolution creating forms that even the most imaginative among us could not dream up. For some creatures, all that we have are bones, the great fossil halls of the world's museums featuring creatures that we are only familiar with due to occasions when taphonomy smiled upon the fortunes of paleontologists that would not be born for millions of years later, themselves creatures that did not have to come into existence had evolution taken a different turn. Indeed, when we want to understand evolution through the mysteries of osteology it is often to fossils that we turn, but evolution is not a directional process with a beginning and an end, the impressiveness of fossils sometimes overshadowing what the bones of living creatures can tell us about evolution. This is the domain of the new book be de Panafieu and Gries, peeling back the layers of flesh that cover bones that will one day be relics of an inaccessible past themselves, and the result is nothing short of impressive.

As de Panafieu explains in the introduction to the book, the study of evolution involves various intertwining lines of evidence and disciplines, with genetics on the rise and comparative anatomy/paleontology somewhat relegated to the background. "Sure, bones are neat, but what do they tell us about evolution?" This is the sort of argument that bound dinosaurs and many other fossils to the status of mere curiosities for some time. G.G. Simpson, by contrast, contributed Tempo and Mode in Evolution to the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis, showing that morphology and the fossil record are indispensable to evolutionary studies. It is interesting then, that over 60 years later de Panafieu echoes Simpson's concerns and call for synthesis between those who study anatomy and those who study the biochemical workings of organisms, the importance of anatomy to evolutionary study extending beyond the famous textbook example of the homology of vertebrate limbs. The author is not calling for comparative anatomy to outshine or suppress other disciplines, but rather for it's full importance be recognized and work with studies of genetics, development, etc. to provide a richer picture of the ancestry of life extant on this planet.

The true strength of the book lies in the fact that it takes examples from all over the vertebrate evolutionary bush, comparing sharks, primates, owls, monitor lizards, and even corals (which belong to a different phylum but have a unique skeleton of their own) to explain evolutionary concepts. With a little history thrown in, the prose effectively follows a style similar to the various essays of Stephen Jay Gould in concept if not in style; specific examples are used to illuminate larger evolutionary concepts (Gould fans will also appreciate the nods to contingency made throughout the text). Unsurprisingly, Buffon, Cuvier, Lamarck, and St. Hilaire figure heavily in the text (as well as Darwin), and while many of the points de Panafieu makes will be familiar to seasoned readers, they will offer those new to evolution a closer look at the evolution of evolution as an idea, Buffon's comments that a donkey is "only a degenerated horse", for example, leading into a short discussion on hybridization. In fact I think even the long-deceased celebrities of French biological science would have found much to appreciate in this book; while the attitude of each towards evolution was variable, de Panafieu makes great use of convergence and similar structures to tell of a larger story of the transformation of organisms, interpreting traits seen by some of the famed scientists in a new way.

Outside of a few taxonomic issues (i.e. assigning the skeleton of a Mandrill to the genus Papio [baboons] rather than to Mandrillus, which is distinct from baboons), I can scarcely think of anything about this book that I can justifiably gripe about. The prose, while containing familiar content, is straightforward and enjoyable, and the photographs are absolutely stunning. Working together, de Panafieu and Gries have been able to bring the old bones of the book to life; what might seem like a motley assemblage of osteological artifacts to some speak to the reader through the author's translation, telling of behavior, physiology, and evolution. The skeletons are not simply things to be collected or studied with no thought as to the habits of the creatures they once gave form to, the somewhat ghostly introductions to larger ideas about the unity and diversity of life. I do not mean to fawn over this work, but as can plainly be seen I am very much impressed by it, and it truly belongs on the bookshelf of anyone who has ever marveled at the intricate complexity of a skeleton or has wondered about the biological diversity now present on our planet. Indeed, I have long been hoping that a book about evolution would be published that I could loan from my library to curious friends without reservation or qualification of some of the content, and I am happy to say that this is the very book I've been hoping for. Simply put, it brilliantly ties together various concepts and facets of evolution through the beauty of the vertebrate skeleton, and it will surely be a favorite of anyone fortunate enough to receive it.
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on December 19, 2011
Terrific text and wonderful pictures, but I have to say that if you've seen the older, larger version of this book, you may be disappointed. I bought this for my 8 year old who loves animal skeletons. It's sized right for him, but we'd previously had the coffee table book from the library and I wish I'd bought that instead (As I write this, it's still available, used, at less than fifty dollars from third party sellers here on Amazon). It's huge and a little unwieldy, but with that larger version, the pictures take your breath away. Here, well...not so much. In fact, when they're spread over two pages in this smaller version it's actually hard to see what's missing deep in the binding. I recommend that you look for a good used copy of the larger, older edition. This smaller format just doesn't do the photos justice.
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on September 13, 2013
I just got this today. I bought it as an illustrator and concept artist to be used primarily for reference. The photos are nothing short of brilliant. However the relatively small physical size of the book is a little disappointing and makes the photos difficult to really appreciate - its smaller than a standard A4 page. In addition there are some photos that are double page - however the seam of the book cuts these photos in two - straight through the middle - and with the additional bulk of the book seeing these photos completely is next to impossible. Making it even more painful to use this book for reference. Had the publisher merely printed this book in a larger format - it would be an indispensable source of reference and its photos might have been fully appreciated. Ive yet to read the book - but this wasnt the reason i bought it - i havent seen too many books that show full skeletons of animals and this was why i bought this book - hence the three stars. If anyone knows of any books that have great and extensive pictures of animal bones plz do msg me. Cheers.
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on February 22, 2008
My 5 year old daughter, who has declared she wants to be a paleontologist when she grows up, loves this book! We paged through and looked at many skeletons and compared differences. Then the next night we watched a Planet Earth segment and related the living animal to the skeleton. Very cool book.
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on November 18, 2011
This book is divided into 44 mini-articles about various topics in skeletal anatomy, then photographs of skeletons illustrating that topic. For example, Chapter 16 is "The Sparrow's Beak", and a brief amount of information relating to the diversity that sparrows beaks come in is given, followed by photos of various species of sparrow skulls.

The articles are a page or two long, informative without being too technical, and translated fluently (this was a concern of mine before buying it).

I ostensibly bought this book to share with my 6 yr old son, and he enjoys looking at the pictures with me, but the text is unmistakably geared to adults.

It is also not a treatise on proving that evolution occurred, it has a general assumption that the reader understands the concept of natural selection and the basic processes of evolution.

The only thing that I could see making this book bigger would be if it were larger - it is sized to fit on a standard bookshelf. If I found this book in a coffee-table sized edition, I'd buy it in a heartbeat.

Note: There is a larger previous edition from 2007 of this book, one that has a rattlesnake skeleton on the front. This version is apparently smaller, alas.
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on February 16, 2014
The starkness of these photographs caught my eye in a book review in the Wall Street Journal, so I bought the book. I'm intrigued by the subject and this approach, comparing similar skeletons by eliminating all other variables and just showing the bare bones (as it were) in black and white. The photos are stunning and detailed and intriguing to compare and would themselves qualify as science if they were accompanied by more thorough explanations and captions and if they were arranged in a less obscure system. However, the text offers only the most abstract and convoluted quasi-philosophical mumbledy-jumble which I'm sure sounded a lot more impressive in the original French. In other words, it's really just a semi-educational coffee table book. This is a shame, because the concept is great and the photographer brilliant.
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on December 23, 2007
This book is simply gorgeous, skeletons as art objects, interesting to everyone including young boys. The best coffee table book of the year, except maybe for the U of Chicago's book on deep sea creatures that is just as beautiful. A tie for best of the year.
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on December 1, 2010
It is easy to spend hours with this book. The amazing b&w photographs are spare and beautiful, and invite the reader/viewer to look for similarities and differences in all sorts of vertebrates (and a few invertebrates too!)

I think what I did not expect (and which is explained in the text), is that I got a real sense of all of these skeletons as once belonging to individuals; my cousins in the animal kingdom and not just the apes, either. Although, there's one frontal picture of the skull of a small ape/monkey/tree-dweller that looks just like a modern human skull. I mean *just like!*

The text includes rational discussion about evolution and the teaching thereof, plus introduced this American reader to some French scientists and naturalists from the 18th century who were arriving at various non-theological answers to questions about life on earth.

Really, really good. I have seldom encountered a "coffee table" book that offered so much intellectual and visual stimulation.
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on March 7, 2012
I don't think I need to repeat what many reviewers have already written, but I simply want to add that I absolutely LOVE this book. I thought that my 12 year old grandson who is a font of wisdom about evolution would enjoy it, and since I share his enthusiasms I was also looking forward to leisurely studying the photographs. But I was surprised at how this book touched me. As I started to read it I found myself enthralled both with the pictures and with the text. I love the way the text and the accompanying photos come together and create a story. Each short chapter is a piece of the story of evolution, and of course, what a magnificent story that is!
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on October 4, 2014
This book is absolutely stunning. There are so many crisp, clear photos in this book. I honestly don't understand why they stopped printing the larger version and started printing the smaller version because some of the photos have really small skeletons. I have the bigger version and it is simply stunning.
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