"Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species" deserves to be widely read, especially by those unfamiliar with how we gained our current knowledge about the world and our place in it. Unfortunately, those who stand to gain the most from reading it will probably avoid it like the plague because--GASP!--it's about EVOLUTION!
At a time when the battle between science and superstition continues to rage in America's courts and classrooms, "Remarkable Creatures" offers an excellent survey, in a most entertaining and enlightening way, of some of the key scientific discoveries in the last 200 years that shaped our understanding of the history of life on earth. It is an interesting blend of adventure stories and detective mysteries that examines the lives of some of the past and present-day scientists and explorers who came up with "paradigm shifts" that shook conventional wisdom to its very foundations.
The first three chapters of "Remarkable Creatures" tell the stories of Charles Darwin, Alfred Wallace and Henry Walter Bates. On epic sea voyages and dangerous wilderness expeditions in the 1800s, these men collectively gathered overwhelming evidence to support the then-heretical ideas of evolution, natural selection and "survival of the fittest." The scope, elegance and impact of their work, which shocked their contemporaries and profoundly changed the face of scientific inquiry forever, are still amazing to consider even today.
Next are six chapters telling the stories of paleontologists who, through tireless efforts under the most primitive field conditions in remote regions of the earth, deciphered the long natural history of life before man. For example, in the early 1900s, Charles Doolittle Walcott found fossils in the Burgess Shale beds in the Canadian Rockies that recorded the "Cambrian Explosion"--an unprecedented increase in the number and complexity of marine animals over a very short period of geologic time. Roy Chapman Andrews ventured into Mongolia's forbidding Gobi Desert in the 1920s, searching for evidence of ancient humans. Instead, in the shadows of the Flaming Cliffs, he discovered a treasure trove of dinosaur and mammal fossils, including the first dinosaur eggs ever found. The chapter "The Day the Mesozoic Died" is a true detective story in the best tradition of the genre. While studying fossilized single-celled sea creatures in the early 1970s, Walter Alvarez became curious about a half-inch-thick layer of clay that he found in a limestone outcropping in Italy. Little did he know that his investigation of this mysterious layer would, years later, lead to the irrefutable conclusion that a giant asteroid had smashed into the earth 65 million years ago. This cataclysmic event darkened the skies for thousands of years and doomed more than 80 per cent of the species existing at the time to extinction. Mr. Carroll's summary of the unraveling of that complex global mystery is one of the best I've read.
The final chapters of "Remarkable Creatures" look at the evolution of humans from the earliest hominid ancestors to present-day homo sapiens. The obligatory story of the work of Louis and Mary Leakey in Tanzania's Olduvai Gorge, where they uncovered remains of tool-making early humans, is followed by a report on today's cutting-edge DNA techniques that add new capabilities and precision to the study of ancient life. A particularly interesting chapter in this section deals with the disappearance of the Neanderthals--a primitive hominid once thought to be an ancestor of modern-day humans but now seen more as a cousin.
"Remarkable Creatures" is an outstanding high-level summary of key discoveries in paleontology and geology over the last two centuries. If it whets your appetite, as it did mine, you can find entire books, or indeed shelves of books, that expound in far more detail on each topic Mr. Carroll covers. But few books do a better job of putting the study of life on earth into an overall scientific and historical perspective. I recommend it highly.
Sean Carroll has written another winner, sure to sharpen the scientific literacy of its readers. This one is not as technical as Carroll's other books. It is a series of mini-biographies of scientists who contributed evidence to and refined the theory of evolution - starting with Humboldt, who inspired Darwin. Much of the time, enough background information is given to link their childhood obsessions to their life's work. One of them has had hundreds of books written about him - Charles Darwin. Although none of the others were as famous as Darwin, they appear to have worked with the same vision and determination and most were famous during their time. In every case possible, Carroll uses original field notes and original scientific articles written by his subjects - if not personal interviews.
Carroll follows Humboldt, Darwin, Wallace, and Bates on their individual voyages of discovery. They were all subjected to the dangers of ocean travel, wild animals, tropical disease, tribal people, and a primitive lifestyle. He takes us along with Dubois, who found the first primitive human remains in Java - Java Man. We meet the diplomatic Charles Wolcott who excavated the Grande Canyon for the United States. He was responsible for one of the most important mother lodes of fossils ever found - the Burgess Shale - and its treasures involving the Cambrian explosion.
We go with the pistol-toting Roy Chapman Andrew to Mongolia and find the first dinosaur eggs. Scared to death of snakes, Chapman is said to have inspired the George Lucas's character, Indiana Jones. Father and son Alvarez follow their curiosity about a strange archeological layer found around the world at the 68 million years ago mark. The layer never has fossils in it, but lots of iridium. This clue led them to the now generally accepted theory that a meteor hit the Yucatan Peninsula, led to the extinction of dinosaurs, thereby opening a niche for mammals. John Ostrum discovered the most important dinosaur fossil in the twentieth century in Wyoming in 1964, linking dinosaurs to birds. The last time that happened was with Archeopteryx in 1861 but the link was questioned until Ostrum discovered Deinonychus. Michael Crichton modeled his Raptors after Deinonychus in Jurassic Park.
The story of Tiktaalik is about using educated guesses to decide where to look for fossils. Neil Shubin expected a transitional species linking fish to amphibians to live some 375 million years ago and the fossils would be found on the banks of stream deltas. A geology text sent him and his crew to the Canadian Arctic Islands, where he found his prize in 2004. "Arriving in the midst of yet another wave of the long-running creationist battle against evolution, the creature that was so obviously transitional between fish and land animals was a most welcome and potent blow to the skeptic's rhetoric about the purposed lack of transitional forms in the fossil record."
Louis and Mary Leakey and their children get a whole chapter covering their amazing digs in Africa. Linus Pauling and Allan Wilson used a whole new field of science to investigate fossils - molecular biology. Conventional paleontologists were reticent to give credence to the new science but after a decade or two, it became obvious that species genealogies could be more accurately drawn by these methods, complete with timing of separation from common ancestors. The torch of DNA studies was passed to the Swedish Svante Paabo, who proved we all came from Africa and that Neanderthals were a distant relative, split off from us several hundred thousand years ago.
For those of us who are familiar with most of these scientists and their stories, Carroll's book is a treat to read. He has put together a unique combination of memoirs. For those to whom this subject is new, it should be just as fascinating. A scientific background is not necessary - just an open mind.
on February 7, 2009
I'll try leave the trite evolution vs. creation vs. alien debate elsewhere, and focus on what this book is all about: The STORY of how our science(s) have come to be; our understanding of ourselves, and of our past, which still is not complete, and may very well never be complete.
And what a fantastic adventure it is. The author has a special ability to mix science with a compelling narrative to keep that keeps the level of interest high. Each character (past scientists) are given their own stories, accompanied by their own struggles, beliefs (right or wrong), methodologies, and findings. Building upon one another, as the adventures of these "remarkable creatures" (human beings and the scientists themselves), the story flows well through the times and advanced in sciences to almost be something out of a movie, with each successive scientist receiving the baton of knowledge to further the knowledge... except, these stories are not only entertaining, but true.
Regardless whether your beliefs are that your god (whichever one you picked) created everything, or that we evolved from some kind of soupy glop (against highly improbably odds), or that we're the offspring of extraterrestrial bacteria that was seeded (intentionally or not), this book is an incredible read, and whose facts are nary debatable.
Certainly the best book I've read in a long while, and one that is really worth of 5 stars - EXCELLENT.
Would highly recommend. Storytelling at it's finest: Stories of the scientists whom are sorting out the stories of our ancient past.
Sean B. Carroll's book, "Remarkable Creatures," is a collection of essays meant to tell the story of "evolution's explorers." From Darwin and Wallace to the Leaky's and Toobin, Carroll presents the stories of those who have contributed to our understanding of evolution by undergoing the long, laborious, and exciting fieldwork that has resulted in the fossil evidence for evolution.
Carroll's book - like De Kruif's "Microbe Hunters," and Gibbons' "First Humans" - gives us the "story" side of science by chronicling the expeditions of such luminaries as Darwin, von Humbolt, Dubois, and Pauling. If some of these names don't sound familiar, reading this book will introduce you to some suprisingly important strangers. If you are familiar with these names, "Remarkable Creatures," will remind you of what we often forget: that the theory of evolution boils down to the people that made the theory possible and plausible.
Where I thought Carroll could have done a better job was in tying each character and story back to its relative importance for the theory of evolution. Carroll focuses very much on the individual stories, but seems to assume that his readers are familiar enough with evolutionary theory and its details to know why each character's findings were so monumentous to the theory. (Why was Shubin's fiding of the transitional form of "fishibians" such an important victory for evolution? The existence of creationists shows that the answer is not obvious, and Carroll would have done well to spend more time explicating this.)
Also, I fear that many lay-readers will be turned off by Carroll's at-times dry style. Carroll certainly attempts to make these stories read like stories, but as another reader notes, is somewhat inconsistent. Despite Carroll's attempts, "Remarkable Creatures" often felt more like a textbook for the Historry of Evolutionary Exploration.
Anyone interested in the history of how evolution developed over time (pardon the pun) should check this book out. I would state, though, that the reader may want to familiarize herself with a more thorough history of how evolution developed, as Carroll writes as if he assumes the reader's familiarity with evolutionary theory. Before reading this, I would reccomend Edward J. Larson's book "Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory."
Then, read this.
on March 19, 2009
As a non-scientist, I was fascinated by this book. Sean Carroll has written a good book about various discoveries in evolutionary science for the non-scientist. The book is also laced with many helpful black and white illustrations. A word of caution, I would not recommend this book to someone who does not accept scientific evolutionary theory.
Dr. Carroll's fascinating book is divided into an introduction and three main divisions. The introduction deals with Alfred von Humboldt and his exploration of nature in South America. Humboldt's scientific adventures and his seven volume Personal Narratives inspired other naturalists to explore their world. Charles Darwin even took Humboldt's Personal Narratives with him on the Beagle.
A quick recap of the rest of the book:
Part One of the Remarkable Adventures tells the scientific adventures of the founders of evolutionary science - Charles Darwin, Alfred Wallace and Henry Bates.
Part Two revolves around fossils and paleontology. We learn about Java Man, birds as dinosaurs, and fish with fins used as feet. We learn about the men who discovered these fossils and how they found them. Eugene Dubois, Charles Wolcott and Neil Shubin are some of the scientists who are prominently mentioned in Part Two.
Part Three follows evolutionary science as it relates to humans. The Leakeys, Olduvai Gorge, Neanderthals, Linus Pauling are some of the subjects discussed. After reading this part of the book I can see why my biology textbook said that one cannot understand biology without accepting evolutionary theory. I also learned how biology helped scientists understand how Neaderthals were/were not related to modern human beings.
Remarkable Creatures is a very highly readable and interesting book. I would recommend this book to readers who are interested in science, evolution or scientific discoveries. I have already recommended this book to a few of my friends.
on June 8, 2013
The Greatest Story Ever Told
The title of the book is "Remarkable Creatures" and the author is Sean B. Carroll. I have read other books by this author and my appetite for a worthwhile reading experience perks up whenever I learn that he is the author of a book, which I have not yet read. I gave this book five stars because I believe the author beautifully achieved his objective of telling the story of the evolution of living things in an engaging way. Essentially, he has selected key pioneers in advancing mankind's knowledge of our origins and told their stories in a compelling manner.
Within each biographical sketch is an important breakthrough event in the overall story of evolutionary understanding. I believe that Carroll thought very carefully about which stories, from the thousands before him, to include to give the reader a condensed, yet broad overview of man's unearthing of the greater picture. He selected the stories well and arranged their sequence of presentation to progressively educate the reader, so that he/she could appreciate the science underlying the more recent and more technical stories. For example, the discovery of DNA's structure allowed major breakthroughs. Yet, you will need to know some basics to follow the stories. Carroll guides you along skillfully.
These evolutionary pioneers were highly dedicated and heroic in my estimation. Many of them had to endure discouragement from the contemporary scientific world, endure personal hardship, poverty, and self-doubt while attempting to prove their beliefs. Even after compiling the evidence and presenting it, they were too often ridiculed by the old school experts, whom they had hoped to impress. It seems that part of the process of the advancement of knowledge includes the dying off of the old regime and the rise to power of the more youthful. Many of the stories involve the fierce battle of ideas. Yet, conflict is the keystone to compelling literature. If these heroes were not appreciated in their time, at least we can appreciate them now by hearing their stories.
I believe that "Remarkable Creatures" is written in a style such that almost any reader will benefit from it. If anything, it would probably be of greatest benefit to those who know very little about evolution. It is like an intriguing sampler, which should motivate the reader to want to know more about the subject. If you are already an advanced student of evolution, you may already know many of these stories, yet may still appreciate the delightful way Carroll presents the material. Some potential readers may be hesitant for religious reasons. They would benefit the most because this is a story of the scientific process in action. It is a story of the intellectual conflict, which is the crucible of the scientific process. It is a story of the never-ending search for the truth. It is a true story about us and that makes it the greatest story ever told.
Ralph D. Hermansen, June 8, 2013
on January 23, 2013
A good book that provide me with more details of the great scientists that made scientific history. Most the characters in this book, most people that follow science have heard of and read about there accomplishments. This book bring out there personal lives, struggles and hardships along with excellent details of there discoveries and ideas from great scientists. To mentioned of a few that fascinated me was of :
Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace, where two men came to the same conclusion, separately.
Eugene Dubois probably the luckiest, found the Java Man.
Father and son of the Alvarez’s shows science can work in mysterious ways, where it so happens that these two working in different fields of science that so happens to find of a clay layer that had no signs of fossils sandwich between Cretaceous and Tertiary periods layers that they so happen to ask a question, “What is it and where did it come from?” Doing some testing that so happen to contain a high concentration of a mineral that is rare on the Earth and with there analysis along with several scenarios, so happen to come up with a scenario that is still standing within the scientific community. This is the luckiest of the “So Happens” discovery for the Scientific Community.
The Louis and Mary Leakey persistence and dedication along with there hardships, gave us the greatest discoveries of the ancestors of Mankind. They showed us who we are and were we came from and it didn’t require any Devine help.
The Fishapod shows how Evolution, geology and the history of earth can be used to make predictions, search the right age along with the right environments in the rock formations to look for and find a fossil that is transiting from a fish to an amphibian can be the most verification of the Evolutionary process. Science can’t get better than this.
Now the part of your book of the Neanderthals (Nea) and Homo Sapiens (we) has been a constant confusion to me. I had a scenario by which the Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens were separate species each evolving from an earlier Hominid separately and independently from each other. Now I never got clear if the Sapiens and Neanderthals had evolved from the same earlier Hominid or different ones, whatever, in either case, this would makes them separate species. Now I watched a program called “Decoding the Neanderthals” that claimed that we share some genes like 1 to 4 %. If we got these genes directly from Nea through sexual activity that made fertile offspring, then we would not be separate species, but only different races. If this is the case, then who came from who? Since Nea is older (300,000 years old ) than we are (180,000 years old), then we would had to evolve from them or some race between us and them. How does this work with Out of Africa scenario? This 1 to 4% statistical analysis, what is the degree of error. It would have to be extremely small for +/-2% would make it invalid. Now these genes that we are sharing has something to do with resistance to diseases that both we and Nea were exposed to. Then could it be that we solved an old problem, the same old way. In other words, with repeatable mutations, we came up with the same solution of resisting these diseases. If this is the case, then of course we would be carrying the same genes as Nea, but not directly.
The only science that I wished this book would have addressed was Plate Tectonics. This is a fantastic story that evolved a weather scientists, ocean explorations, the Cold war, magnetic polarity, rifting mountain ranges, trenches all working separately and independently from each other that took many decades that eventually came together with a scenario of a dynamic Earth. This dynamic Earth is the driving force of Evolution. Another process that illustrates how science can work in mysterious ways. I hope his next book will include this fantastic story.
In Remarkable Creatures, Sean Carroll takes the reader on a lively tour of the discoveries in evolution, biology, genetics, archeology, geology and scientific dating that have revolutionized the thinking about how man appeared on earth and changed over the years. Carroll is a professor of molecular biology and genetics and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the University of Wisconsin, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
The book is structured in three areas. The first talks of the beginnings of the theory of evolution with chapters on Darwin and on Alfred Wallace (Amazon explorations) and Henry Walter Bates. The second group of chapters discusses the role of fossils and the lengths and privations taken to obtain them, as well as the conclusions reached from them. The final group of chapters talks about the human evolution from the cradle of life in Africa to the Neanderthal chapter and the scientists such as Leakey who pioneered this work. It ends with the new role that molecular biology is playing with providing more exact dates when various life forms existed and the genetic relationships between various forms.
This book is recommended for curious readers who want to know more about how we know what we know. It is an overview of the area and highlights the various scientists who advanced knowledge, providing a look at the human side of their lives as well as the scientific discoveries they made. The privations and enthusiasm these individuals displayed as well as the total focus they had on their life work is an amazing characteristic that all shared. Carroll has done an excellent job in explaining the overall theories of life without drowning in the details, providing enough information for those who want to delve more deeply.
Remarkable Creatures is a slight misnomer since the "creatures" at the heart of the book aren't the wide variety of organisms that have been profiled in evolutionary research but the researchers themselves. This focus on scientific biography makes the topic approachable and interesting since the author does a very nice job of offering enough information about each person but not burying us with minute details of their life. Essentially, he tells a great story about how evolutionary theory has developed and who actually did the work of pushing it forward. Carrol succeeds in making the topic fun while offering solid recommendations for further reading.
My only real critique is for the final sentence at the end of the book. It is a bit nit-picky but I think it is very dangerous to ever discourage interested people from reading the originial source material, even when it is done to save them time and aggravation. I also think that a short mention of punctuated equilibrium might have fit nicely in the book, especially since Stephen J. Gould has passed away and deserves some recognition as a researcher and science writer. Small critiques against a very nice piece of popular science writing.
There is a well-established tradition of recounting a story that unfolds over many years in the form of biographical essays of the key characters involved. We think of the Lives of the Caesars, or Eminent Victorians; in mathematics there's Bell's Men of Mathematics; in science we find the Microbe Hunters and Gribbin's monumental The Scientists. In this double anniversary of Charles Darwin (200 years since his birth, 150 years since The Origin Of Species), the noted science writer and blogger Sean Carroll decided to tell the story of two hundred years of investigation into evolution by penning a series of biographical essays of the main investigators.
I'm enthusiastic about the approach of introducing science through the lives of its practitioners. It emphasizes the importance of Edison's dictum about "one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration", and allows us to experience the inevitable false starts, dead ends, and uncertainty that accompanies research (particularly field work). If well structured, a series of such essays can help us see how the questions arose which provoked the answers. Bell's classic account of the history of mathematics is exemplary in this respect.
Carroll's offering is... OK. The essays are uneven: those about Humboldt, Wallace, Louis Leakey, Bates and Walcott are particularly good, but the others are less so. Furthermore the last couple of chapters abandon the biographical essay form almost completely, in favor of a conventional narrative involving Linus Pauling, Allan Wilson, and Svante Paabo. For me, this just underscored the inconsistency of the work.
Having said all that, I'm going to cross my fingers and give this four stars. The draft that I was reviewing was a relatively early pre-publication copy, with numerous glitches in spelling, typography, and layout. I presume that it will be cleaned up before publication, and that many of the textual weaknesses will also be remedied. If not, I shall be disappointed, because it's really promising.