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An excellent resource on evolution
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.