85 of 91 people found the following review helpful
"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.
31 of 34 people found the following review helpful
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.
22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
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.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
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.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
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.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
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.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
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.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on February 10, 2009
The most remarkable thing about Remarkable Creatures is that Carroll's book is so easy and enjoyable to read. To a scientist there are no new facts or theories to learn here, just stuff we've already learned--now learned better as really good yarns well selected, well told, and woven together around the compelling theme and endless plot known as life. Sean Carroll's perspective and his smooth prose style make this popularization an easy yet rewarding book. Additionally, the aphorisms and epigrams are sharply chosen, and the illustrations are tightly illustrative of the text. The "Sources and Further Reading" are a bonus, particularly the Websites and Sources of Quotes, softening the regret at having reached "the last of these stories" after so few enjoyable days. I found no Typos and no reason to challenge the fact-checkers at the new HMH. This book hits its target, and in Dr. Carroll's case it seems Mr. Hughes' tax shelter dollars also found a worthy target. If the next few Darwin bicentennial offerings are even close to this standard, there'll be good reading ahead. Make reading Remarkable Creatures part of your search for the origins of species. You will enjoy it.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
This is one of those "stories behind the science" books that gives you a sense of the sort of explorations that lay behind the famous discoveries that shaped modern biology. The primary focus is on the paleontologists who made various critical fossil finds and whose scientific obsessions led the efforts to uncover the history of life. Other books have covered the stories behind the genetics and the development of evolutionary theory itself better, but this one is particularly strong on the stories of key fossil hunters and their unique fascination with deep history and what it tells us.
The thing that makes this book worthwhile is that it is not just a travelogue of fossil discoveries, it makes a good and often successful effort to tie the work of each of the paleontologists into its implications for the history of life as well as making each find an interesting discovery for the reader.
It's a very different experience learning the principles of biology in a classroom and reading the story of biology from the eyes of the naturalists discovering it firsthand.
On the other hand, the author doesn't always tie specific finds back to their specific implications for biology. There is story and there is explanation, and the two are hard to balance. Story sometimes gets the better of explanation in this book. Although he is often careful to give simple explanations of concepts when introducing them, in a book of this type the author can't help implicitly assuming a fair amount of knowledge that some lay readers might not have. I'm not sure I'd recommend this book as a primer on evolutionary biology, but then it wasn't intended to be anything of the sort and that's part of its charm.
What better way to celebrate Darwin's bicentennial this year than to learn about how his ideas helped inspire generations of scientist-detectives to learn about the fascinating history of living things on our planet. The story is intriguing throughout, but by the time Carroll gets to the story of discoveries close to our own species, it has become a story you just can't put down and which is really just beginning to be told.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
With "Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species", noted evolutionary developmental biologist Sean B. Carroll has opted for a collection of memorable history of science vignettes which illustrate all too well both the love of scientific discovery and the often enthusiastic dedication of those who made such discoveries, greatly advancing our understanding of biology; without question, Carroll's latest book represents a radical departure from his earlier books in emphasizing more the history of science with regards to evolutionary biology rather than the science itself. Some of the these accounts - such as Darwin and Wallace's independent discoveries of Natural Selection, documented extensively in two chapters (Chapters Two and Three) may be familiar to readers, however, many may not be aware of Wallace's importance as the founder of the science of biogeography (Chapter Three) or of his friend Bates' discovery of the scientific principle which bears his name (Batesian mimicry) unearthed through years of extensive collecting of butterflies in the Amazon River basin while Wallace was busy collecting in the East Indies, acquiring specimens and important scientific insights that would establish him as the co-discoverer of Natural Selection and as the father of biogeography. Others will be introduce to the legendary careers of paleoanthropologist Eugene Dubois, the discoverer of Java Man (Chapter Four), invertebrate paleontologist Charles Doolittle Wolcott, the discoverer of the Middle Cambrian Burgess Shale Fauna (Chapter Five), and vertebrate paleobiologist John Ostrom (Chapter Nine), whose accidental discovery of the agile, relatively small, theropod dinosaur Deinonychus would usher a scientific revolution into our understanding of dinosaur physiology and of the origin and early evolution of birds, now recognized as the last, sole surviving lineage of theropod dinosaurs. There are excellent chapters devoted to the discovery of the "smoking gun" behind the terminal Cretaceous mass extinction which wiped out the nonavian dinosaurs and many other species of terrestrial and marine life (Chapter Eight), the discovery of the "fishapod" Tiktaalik (Chapter Ten) and the discoveries of the molecular evolutionary clock (Chapter Twelve), which led to the experimental confirmation of the "Out-of-Africa" hypothesis (Chapter Thirteen) accounting for the emergence of Homo Sapiens from Africa and our successful colonization of virtually the entire globe. "Remarkable Creatures" is yet another book from Sean B. Carroll which will delight and inspire his readers, reaffirming his status as among our most popular, and most noteworthy, science popularizers.