92 of 94 people found the following review helpful
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.
In Fortey's account, trilobites become interesting in themselves, but he clearly shows that they have larger importance. Trilobites were always marine, never freshwater, and they generally inhabited the coastal areas. Because of this, the outline of trilobites in what is now land shows where the coasts used to be. Trilobites help to track the movements of the continents as they split off and sailed to their current positions on the globe over millions of years. Fortey shows how tracking trilobites can sometimes top paleomagnetism as a way of documenting continental drift. In addition, trilobites serve as timekeepers. They are found all over the world and range through such times as Cambrian, Devonian, and Permian, and if you can confidently identify a trilobite, you can spot what range of times your rocks come from.
Trilobites lived for over three hundred million years (humans have been around about a thousandth of that time), so they had, as the British say, a very good innings. They have been gone for over two hundred and fifty million years, and yet in this fascinating book, they live still and, with help from a superb reporter, they have news to tell us.
65 of 70 people found the following review helpful
on May 17, 2001
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).
For anyone who wants to take a few hours to think different thoughts, to consider how brief our history has been and how successful other organisms have been, to contemplate the various catastrophic extinctions and their dramatic impact on life, to ask about life beyond the rush hour traffic and the monthly report, Fortey's work is a little gem of an introduction to a fascinating part of the world. I highly recommend it.
42 of 44 people found the following review helpful
on November 12, 2000
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. I subscribe to the belief that a fossil left uncollected is a fossil that is lost. If common sense prevails, the search for specimens- even for profit- can benefit us all. Instead, we get over zealous regulation and permanent site closures. In the final pages of his book, Fortey marvels at the recently discovered trident Comura trilobite. (now Walliserops trifurcautus) I only wish he'd made it clear that this unique fossil discovery resulted from the activities of Moroccans digging the Devonian strata for a modest profit and that future fossil wonders, as well as future paleontologists, are much more likely to occur when people are allowed to freely explore the rocks, as Fortey was allowed to do in his youth.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Natural history, deep-time may conjure up images of Stephen J. Gould's wondrous creatures of the early Cambrian (530 million years ago), dug out of the Burgess Shale in British Columbia. I realize that other paleontologists have had problems with some of his anatomical descriptions and theories of punctuated equilibrium ("Trilobite" spends a chapter defending Gould from some of his more vigorous critics), but the world that he created was strange, beautiful, and compelling.
Fortey creates a similar vision of Earth as it existed for 300 million years, starting like Gould, in the Cambrian. No animal better exemplifies the drama of evolution and extinction than trilobites, except perhaps for the Johnny-come-lately dinosaurs. If you are interested in really deep time, you must travel back before the dinosaurs and peer with the author through the eyes of the trilobites. "'Look into my eyes,' the trilobite seems to say, 'and you will see the vestiges of your own history.'"
And very strange eyes they are. In the chapter, "Crystal Eyes" the author plays an exuberant, complex riff on vision as it first evolved, and most specifically on the uniquely developed eyes of trilobites. I used to think of these creatures as mud-colored tripartite beetles that crawled around in warm, shallow Paleozoic seas--interesting basically because they lasted so long. But according to Fortey, their eyes were made of calcite crystals, which "makes them unique in the animal kingdom...Look into a crystal of Iceland spar and you can see the secret of the trilobyte's vision." The author then goes into quite a bit of detail as to why double vision was not a problem for these amazing arthropods, even though their eyes were made up of six-sided crystals.
Since the trilobite's eyes were part of its exoskeleton and just as hard, it had to shed them with each molt.
Trilobites ranged from dinner-platter-size down to bitty little bugs that were barely a millimeter long. Fortey describes them in loving detail and also defends the need to collect and study them. Lord Rutherford's remark that 'all science is either physics or stamp collecting' is vigorously repudiated (I think Rutherford's aphorism must have really stung, because it gets a good bashing in nearly every natural history book in my library). Just one of the reasons why trilobites are not like stamps is that their distribution helps us determine the outlines of continents and islands that predated not just the modern world, but the ancient supercontinent of Pangaea.
Trilobites managed to squeeze through a couple of evolutionary bottlenecks, surviving and multiplying for over 300 million years. In his heart of hearts, the author admits to hoping that, like the ancient coelacanth, a remnant of this once-vast family of arthropods will be rediscovered, curled up on some unexplored sea bottom, or gazing through crystalline eyes at some newer denizen of the deep.
After reading Fortey's fascinating account, I can only hope the same.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on January 6, 2005
_Trilobite_ by Richard Fortey is a wonderful, witty, charming, very well-written, and very richly illustrated homage to the trilobite, an arthropod that teemed in the millions in the seas of the ancient earth for 300 million years before becoming extinct. Fortey is an enthusiastic expert on all things trilobite - having studied them for over 30 years - and did an excellent job in conveying his passion for these long extinct creatures in a very readable format with many dozens of excellent photographs and sketches.
Early on Fortey introduced basic concepts of trilobite anatomy (he said eight technical names is all anyone needs to describe any species). With the help of a diagram of a representative species, we learn for instance that the head is properly termed the cephalon while the other end -the tail - is called the pygidium. Between the cephalon and the pygidium is the thorax, which is subdivided into segments (thoracic segments). A central convex portion or lobe running down the thorax and pygidium is called the axis, while to either side are the lateral or pleural parts.
Reading about trilobite eyes was particular fascinating; they were made of calcite (the same substance that makes up the white cliffs of Dover and was popular in classical architecture), something unique in the entire animal kingdom. Fortey discussed the physics and chemistry of the crystal eyes of trilobites, how they enabled the animal to see, how the lenses on trilobite eyes were arranged and how they functioned, the unique optical properties of calcite, even experiments replicating the vision of individual trilobite species (in particular the experiments relating to the vision of _Phacops_ were extremely interesting; I never knew that physics had such a place in paleontology).
We learn also that while whole trilobites are certainly found in the fossil record (or more accurately the carapace of the animal, as the soft and delicate parts such as the legs only rarely fossilize) much of what is found are only bits and pieces, often shed when molting. Thoracic segments, pygidium, and other parts litter the fossil record like puzzle pieces and it is often the job of the trilobite expert to reassemble them, much like a jigsaw puzzle. Some fossils sites - such as Beecher's Trilobite Bed, an Ordovician fossil site in New York - have preserved through unusual circumstances such delicate trilobite parts as their legs (long a mystery to researchers) and even antennae. The details about the life of the trilobite found there - genus _Triarthus_- was fascinating; apparently they lived in a very low oxygen, high sulfur seafloor environment and may have perished during a fatal drop of dissolved oxygen (and were thus preserved) but otherwise lived symbiotically with bacteria that derived energy from sulfur.
Fortey introduced the reader to a wonderful parade of trilobite species, relating the history of the group from the Cambrian to its final days in the Permian (the true Age of Trilobites he wrote ranged from the middle of the Cambrian to the Ordovician). We find that trilobites lived in diverse habitats, from the shallowest "sands to the deepest-water shales; in sunlit reefs and in gloomy abysses." _Olenellus_ for instance is the commonest of the earliest Cambrian trilobites, a creature the size of a large lobster that was a voracious predator 535 million years ago. _Agnostus_ was a tiny, millimeters long trilobite that swarmed in the millions, odd creatures that only had two thoracic segments and was so abundant that some late Cambrian limestones are made of nothing but this tiny trilobite. _Elrathia kingi_ is the commonest of the "rock shop" Cambrian trilobites, a "middle-of-the road" typical trilobite, one of many dozens of very broadly similar trilobites that make specialists gnash their teeth. This species has been known to leave tracks that have been fossilized, one of the true "mud-grubbers" that plowed furrows in seafloor sediment in its quest for food. _Parabarrandia_ was a streamlined, torpedo shaped Ordovician trilobite, a species that Fortey had performed experiments on in a water tank with dye to prove that it was well suited to a free-swimming role (I never thought one could do experiments on a trilobites; that was fascinating to read). Another free-swimmer was the giant-eyed _Opipeuter_ (Greek for "one who gazes") from the Ordovician, with eyes oriented to see forwards and backwards and a body plan designed to house powerful swimming muscles. Also from the Ordovician was _Isotelus_, an unusual animal which completely lacked eyes and had a head surrounded by a border full of perforations, not unlike a colander. This pitted fringe lay about the front of the head sort of like a halo, a rather complicated bit of Paleozoic engineering, the function of which has remained an enigma. The Devonian abounded in trilobites covered in prickles and spines (possibly related to the dominance of fish); one, _Dicranurus_, among its spines appeared to have had great curling ram horns originating at the neck.
As fascinating as trilobites are, Fortey had encountered those that question why he has devoted his life to their study. The author made an excellent case that knowledge of trilobites has played vital roles in the debates over the origins of new species and the nature of evolution itself (researches have been able to track changes in trilobite species over time thanks to their great abundance in the fossil record) and in the study of the positioning of ancient continents (as it has been discovered that trilobites make excellent index fossils, not only for marking intervals of geologic time but also to mark the shores of ancient continents, enabling or aiding in the mapping of the ancient world; indeed Fortey himself named an Ordovician ocean, Tornquist's Sea, which separated the continents of Avalonia and Baltica, thanks to trilobites). Fortey weighed in also in such divisive concepts in evolution as gradualism versus punctuated equilibria, the nature of the Cambrian explosion (and what trilobites tell us about that), the origin of eyes in animals, and the importance (and proper interpretation) of the weird Burgess Shale fauna.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on September 17, 2005
This was an excellent book and I greatly appreciate the enthusiasm of the author. I would have like to learn more specifics about trilobites, I would have liked more pictures, and mostly I would have liked to understand better how the author (or the scientific community) come to some of the amazing conclusions they have. For example, I didn't think it was explained well enough how they know that a small fossil is a less mature (rather than a completely different) trilobite. Also, I would have appreciated more information on how they came to their conclusions about the eye-structure (some of the pictures look pretty inconclusive to me). On the other hand, the author goes into good detail about how the community has learned about the legs and other fine details of these creatures (features that are not easily preserved nor safely hammered out of the rocks either).
I particularly enjoyed the conversational writing of the author. For me one of the best parts of this book was how he weaved scientific endeavors with history, literature, and other human activities. He talked a lot about the scientific philosophy and people in this small community, the camaraderie and competition, past and present. For sure this is a book written from a perspective, but Richard Fortey never represents it as anything else. To my mind it is a fair and refreshing perspective, so I appreciate this book. The silly reviewer from Helsinki didn't like his perspective because it did not have enough creationism in it, but at least Dr. Fortey has the integrity and intelligence to clearly state his position and process.
So why did it give trilobite three stars? It was a difficult decision, perhaps the book deserves four stars but though I learned a lot, I simply would have liked to learn more about the science. For me the one huge shortcoming of this book was the pictures and illustrations. There are two sections of "plates" printed on higher-quality paper; there are two indexes at the beginning of the book, one for "illustrations" in the text and another for the "plates" in separate sections. Additionally, there is an index in the back of the book that is completely separate from the two previous indexes, and did not seem very complete to me because every time I tried to use it to find something mentioned earlier I was not able to find it. I don't know if this is the common method in scientific publications, but I did not find it helpful. The selection of pictures seemed arbitrary to me and I don't like pictures in separate sections. All the pictures were black and white so I really don't see why they cannot be printed on the same paper. If the paper quality is too poor to keep a picture, then why are there also pictures in the text? If pictures in the text are too disruptive, then again, why are not all the pictures in separate sections? It doesn't make sense to me. There were many references to trilobites and their features (or similar ones) that had pictures but the text did not reference where. Even worse, there are many references to trilobites and their features that the author was obviously very familiar with but I could not make a clear picture in my mind because I could find no illustrations of them at all.
So in conclusion, I would recommend reading this very good book, but I would recommend buying a good picture book of trilobites to refer to alongside. Contrary to what some other reviews thought, I believe that to write this book is a very difficult and ambitious proposition. As the author reflects on, the first task of a student is to learn the language; it would be easy to bury me in Latin and technical terms that I could not (and would not want to) remember. The author gives a nice selection of advanced reading so perhaps it is my responsibility to learn the language if I want to learn more.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on January 14, 2001
This is an excellent book from the point of view of the elucidation of the life of 300 million years of trilobites as well as the view of the discovery process in science. Fortey gives a lucid account, that is funny also, of his involvement in his life work on trilobites. He describes the details of the structure of these invertebrates and how they evolved over time. Their remarkable diversity of structure allows them to be used for the elucidation of the evolutionary process as well as the construction of maps of the early world, which Fortey explains in charming detail. In the focus on the trilobite there is less said about the simultaneous evolution of the predators of the trilobites, such as the toothed fishes, and the eventual extinction of the trilobites. This is a great gift book for the young biological scientist and for the old ones also who love the process of discovery.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on March 15, 2005
I became fascinated with the demise of dinosaurs after seeing a program on TV, and reading the book it was based on - 'Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs' by Adrian J Desmond. And there was no shortage of fascinating books about dinosaurs to develop my interest. But for me the most ingruiging aspect of dinosaurs is not their end - what caused their extinction - but why, whatever it was, didn't cause other species to disappear. Crocodiles and turtles, some small furry mammals, these survived. But not one dinosaur (excluding the possibility of radical evolution to birds, as some have suggested) - not the big fierce predators, not the small fast scavengers, not the slow-moving armoured hulks, not the vegetarian giants, not the flying dinosaurs, not the sea-going dinosaurs (Nessie excluded!) managed to survive. There must be something to learn about the extinction event from the SURVIVORS - they must have had some feature that distinguished them from the dinosaurs and allowed their survival.
So, when I saw 'Trilobites!' I was immediately interested. Here was another far-reaching, long-lived, diversified species that is as extinct as the dinosaurs. Perhaps here there would be some clues by looking at what made the trilobites - all of them - extinct.
When I started reading I was surprised to be clambering along a Welsh cliff top with Thomas Hardy quoted at me. Later on in the book I am in a much more familiar territory - an Australian outback pub, experiencing the discomfort of being assailed by those who have had just one or two drinks too many. This all seems far from trilobites. And yet, for me there was something of a relief in it too, because I was spooked by these strange ocean-going creatures. They looked too much like spiders or other unloved creepy-crawlies!! Just looking at the fossil illustrations gave me the heebie-jeebies.
But there was so much more in this book than the description of the types of trilobite, the geography of them (cephalon, thorax, pygidium), the exploration of how we (the Human Race) have got to know them. In this book you will learn about the role of Museums in scientific discovery, the naming of species, the shaping of the planet over geologic (almost astronomical) time. But the book is a vehicle for a much stronger message.
On page 207 E O Wilson's idea of consilience is introduced - consilience is the unification of knowledge. Mr Fortey has demonstrated consilience wonderfully in this book. Here we have colourful stories about the geography of the places of discovery, there are literary connections, stories of the people who made and are making the discoveries (including Mr Fortey), reviews of other scientific writers and - as indicated already - a bringing together of geology, biology, chemistry, history and so on. There are clearly great advantages to seeing how all aspects of knowledge interlock and benefit from each other - it is better that not all of us are specialists. This message is one that interests me because it seems to me that A E van Vogt promoted the idea in a science fiction novel 'The Voyage of the Space Beagle' (probably a precursor to 'Star Trek') in 1951 where the science of 'Nexialism' was proposed to guide specialists (such as biologists) and the military controllers of the space ship as they explored the Galaxy.
I never really got to feel any closeness to the trilobites, perhaps an uncomfortable intimacy in the end. But this is a great book and I'm sure any person interested in scientific endeavour will love it.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on June 14, 2001
When I read the introduction to one of Fortey's earlier books, Hidden Landscape, I immediately realised that here was someone who truly understands how it feels to hammer open a rock and discover some treasure within. However, the introductory chapter of Trilobite, which involves an over-extended parable about some Thomas Hardy character, exceeded some kind of threshold in my mind and became, simply, florid. Fortunately, the introduction is soon over and we jump into some very lightly technical details about the beasts themselves: a field in which Fortey is, justly, considered pre-eminent.
"So in just eight technical terms - cephalon, thorax, pygidium, segment, axis, pleura, glabella, eyes - it is possible to begin to embrace the form of these strange animals. To be able to name the parts introduces a certain familiarity. Further, to be competent to recognise the glabella for what it is means that it does not take long to see that one trilobite has a glabella which is quite different from that of another. With language comes discrimination." - p. 29
Three of the early chapters are organised along morphological lines - Shells, Legs, and Crystal Eyes - each describing important parts of the creatures' anatomy. It is in the legs chapter, perhaps appropriately, that Fortey really hits his straps with a `parade' of common trilobites, lasting a few pages, from the most ancient to the last of their kind. Each is summed up in a few (too few, for me) sentences, sketching the history of their discovery and a quirky description, of sorts. To give you a taste of what you're in for, here's Olenellus:
"The widest part of the animal is at the head end where there are prominent spines at either corner, behind which the body tapers gradually backwards along a thorax comprising many, rather flat segments with prominently spiny tips. ... Somehow this looks like a primitive trilobite. It has not yet developed the sutures crossing the headshield that helped its relatives during molting." - pp. 69-70
The eyes chapter begins with the brief exposition of a highly unlikely notion - some bizarre spin-off of Gould's "re-played tape" nonsense - to the effect that, but for historical accident, the sense of sight might not have evolved: "the inevitability of vision is ... uncertain" (p. 79). Well, I think that's just rubbish and Fortey should stick to what he knows. There is zero likelihood of a world ruled by, say, smell because - moths notwithstanding - it just isn't a very useful sense. I could go on about the relationship between wavelength and resolution, but the reader would be better served by Richard Feynman; try The Character of Physical Law for an excellent starter. (Hint: The wavelength of some aromatic molecule with an atomic weight in the bazillions, wafting around in the atmosphere, is not small.) Fortunately one has to endure only a page of this before the author is back among the fields he knows - HOX genes, in this particular instance.
Next appears a rather exotic chapter, Exploding Trilobites, dealing ostensibly with the Cambrian explosion but in actuality with several of the personalities involved in the debate - Gould, the McMenamins ... - and includes his now, surely, infamous denunciation of Simon Conway Morris.
The second half of the book, which I will skip over much more briefly, provides a quirky though fascinating insight into some of the actual daily work of a researcher like Fortey; an anthropic but useful discussion of stratigraphy and, unusually in a book like this, extinction. This is followed up by a rare and interesting look at the difficulties of paleogeography in a chapter called Possible Worlds. Finally, oddly cheek-by-jowl in the penultimate chapter, we are treated to a discussion of ontogeny - how little trilobites grew up into big trilobites - and a chronologically arranged review of trilobite evolution.
Ultimately, though, I can only give it three stars. I didn't learn **enough** - I didn't learn nearly as much as I expected. Having read a whole book on the one subject, written by one of the field's foremost authorities, I feel no better prepared to tackle the professional trilobite literature than when I began.
Disappointing, that is.
(Look and Feel: Hardback; good quality paper with high resolution b&w photographs on the pages and some b&w plates; indexed. Authoritative, and with the weight and feel of a good text book, but by no means written like one.)
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on January 22, 2001
The other reviewers are right, this is a well written book. However,I agonized over how many stars to give this book since if one is looking for a detailed account of what science can tell us about trilobites, this book will only be intermittently satifying. Fortey combines a detailed discussion about tribolite fossils and what may be deduced from those fossils with stories of his journey of discovery in learning about these fascinating creatures. He writes well in both areas, but in the end I found it frustrating to sort the information out of the travelogue.