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Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution Paperback – November 13, 2001

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Editorial Reviews Review

With his new book Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution, Richard Fortey confirms his status as one of the best communicators of science around today. His hugely enjoyable previous book, Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth, was shortlisted for the 1998 Rhone-Poulenc science book prize, but Trilobite! is sure to receive even greater acclaim. Whereas Life took the reader on a whistle-stop tour of evolution from start to present--a huge undertaking that necessarily granted little space to each time period or taxonomic group--Trilobite! sees Fortey indulging in a whole book about his overriding paleontological passion, the long extinct and enigmatic creatures of the title. The result is a joy.

Trilobites--woodlicelike creatures that dominated the world's oceans long before the time of the dinosaurs--are, arguably, the most beautiful animals that have ever been chipped out of the fossil record. Fortey certainly seems to think so. His enthusiastic, almost loving explanations of the anatomy, ecology, and long evolutionary history of these fascinating vanished creatures carry the reader on an inspirational journey into the Earth's distant past. But the book is much more than a technical treatise on trilobites. We learn about Fortey himself, his formative years as an amateur then professional paleontologist, about his much-loved teachers and colleagues, and above all, about that strange but addictive pastime known as science. You may not find arthropods as charming as Fortey does, but you will not fail to be charmed by the author. A delightful read. --Chris Lavers, --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Since the age of 14, Fortey, now a paleontologist and author (Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth), has been obsessed with trilobites, which survived for a total of three hundred million years, almost the whole duration of the Palaeozoic era. "Who are we johnny-come-latelies," he asks, "to label them as either 'primitive' or 'unsuccessful? I want to invest the trilobite with all the glamour of the dinosaur and twice its endurance." That's a tall order, since the curiously shelled arthropod, whose closest living relative is the horseshoe crab, is quite disadvantaged in popular appeal when compared to that of your typical 80-ton brontosaurus and company. Although trilobites hold some fascinationDthey lived symbiotically, came in various morphologies and bore crystal eyes and segmented shells that let them roll up like armadillosDthey are very hard to warm up to (one look at the cover of this book will prove the point). More problematic, however, is that Fortey seems unsure how to structure the book. He rhapsodizes at length about the biology of trilobites, but as if to soften the presentation for the general reader, he frequently digresses to more narrative elements. He tells personal stories, relates anecdotes about important trilobite researchers and offers his opinion on numerous related topics, such as why the Cambrian explosion wasn't an explosion at all. Ultimately, these elements cohere more into a patchwork of facts and concerns rather than a crisp narrative of scientific wonder and discovery. Readers may be drawn by the popularity of Fortey's Life but they will be disappointed by this latest effort. 40 illus. (Nov. 6)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 324 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; 1St Edition edition (November 13, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375706216
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375706219
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (70 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #144,264 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

93 of 95 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on November 1, 2000
Format: Hardcover
The very best science book for laymen is the book that is written by an expert in a field about his favorite area of expertise. So it is a delight to read _Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution_ (Knopf) by Richard Fortey. Fortey is surely an expert; he is a senior paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London, and has done extensive research in fossil fields all over the globe. His favorite specimens (he refers to them as "my animals") are trilobites, and reading his lucid, humorous, enthusiastic pages, one can certainly understand why.
Fortey writes with humor about his adventures in the field. He has hunted trilobites everywhere on the globe, in desert as well as arctic wastes. But of course, most of Fortey's book is about the trilobite itself. The name comes from it's three lobes, not head, thorax, and tail, but the central body axis flanked by the left and right pleural regions. It was originally thought to be some sort of flatfish, but as more specimens were found, it became clear that it was an arthropod, with the nearest living relative the horseshoe crab (although they look more like the woodlice or roly-poly bugs, and some balled up like them). What is generally fossilized in trilobites is the outer upper shell. The underside, with the legs, is thin cuticle that decomposed before fossilization could take place. It was only when specimens were found from a certain field in New York state that details of limbs became plain. Because of a peculiarity in the minerals of the area, the thin cuticle had become gilded with pyrites, fool's gold. Every segment was shown to have a pair of branched legs, and the creature even showed antennae. Fortey's chapter on trilobite eyes, the only ones ever to use calcite prisms for lenses, is amazing.
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65 of 70 people found the following review helpful By Newt Gingrich THE on May 17, 2001
Format: Hardcover
This is a remarkable book that will introduce you to the process of science and a fascinating aspect of the emergence of life. Trilobites are among the best fossils for children to get to know because they are very distinct (the tri lobed shells) and very different from anything currently living (the horseshoe crab on American Atlantic beaches is comparable in unique appearance and attracts children with similar fascination).
For those who want a better system of American science education, Fortey gives some powerful hints. Consider his language: "The fever of discovery was upon me.... I found a trilobite...the textbook came alive...this was my first discovery of the animals that would change my life (p.18)." He continues, "I knew, by some principle which I could not articulate, that the wider end was the head of the animal. And of course upon the head there were the eyes. Despite the unfamiliar conformation of the fossil I knew that eyes must always belong on heads. So despite the exoticism of the fossil there was already a common bond between me and the trilobite - we both had our heads screwed on the right way."(p.19)
Again and again Fortey reminds us that scientists grow from discovery, mystery, romance, intrigue, while the memorization comes later. He reminds us that there is an enormous amount we still do not know and in the process introduces us to a world we have never considered: "I want to invest the trilobite with all the glamour of the dinosaur and twice its endurance. I want you to see the world through the eyes of trilobites, to help you make a journey back through hundreds of millions of years...this will be an unabashedly trilobite-centric view of the world,"(p.19).
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42 of 44 people found the following review helpful By Stephen Marley on November 12, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a wonderful book! Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution is a skillfully crafted narrative that displays Fortey's impeccable scientific credentials and his engaging and highly entertaining style of writing. Readers unfamiliar with these remarkable creatures and their 300 million year history will benefit from well organized chapters that explain the physiology, life habits, evolutionary patterns and geological time line with insight and clarity. Those readers with a better understanding of the class Trilobita, will enjoy the personal observations and anecdotes of a superb writer, who just happens to be a leading authority on the subject. Fortey even tackles the role of ombudsman in his attempt to soften the contentious battles between Simon Conway-Morris and Stephen J. Gould over those controversial early arthropods and other creatures of arguable affinity. I applaud his restraint and gentle hand in dealing with the emotional fervor of his contemporaries. If I have any criticism of this book, it would be to step on to the soapbox and point out that Fortey details the moment when he chipped out his first trilobite at age fourteen as an epiphany that determined his lifes work. He discusses Walcott and other self taught geologists and paleontologists who started as eager young fossil hunters. Sadly, in several places throughout the text, Fortey explains that these sites are now closed to collecting. Typically, these closures are to protect the area from the hammers of interested collectors (with special emphasis on those who might profit from the sale of their collections) in the misguided notion that invertebrate fossils are national treasures that must be protected for all through restrictions and the intervention of government agencies.Read more ›
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