From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Beginning with a recently discovered 47-million-year-old primate fossil, Switek effectively and eloquently demonstrates the exponential increase in fossils that have been found since Darwin first published On the Origin of Species. In delightful prose, he blends information about fossil evidence with the scientific debates about how that evidence might be best interpreted. Switek, who writes the Smithsonian's Dinosaur Tracking blog, focuses on evidence for the evolution of major lineages, from reptiles to birds and from fish to tetrapods. He also explains at length how whales, horses, and humans evolved, marshaling compelling fossil evidence and combining it with information from molecular biology; at every step, he makes clear what is still unknown. He underscores that life forms have not "progressed" through evolution to end with Homo sapiens as the highest life form; rather, evolution has produced "a wildly branching tree of life with no predetermined path or endpoint." He superbly shows that "f we can let go of our conceit," we will see the preciousness of life in all its forms. 90 b&w illus. (Nov.) (c)
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In this thoroughly entertaining science history, Switek combines a deep knowledge of the fossil record with a Holmesian compulsion to investigate the myriad ways evolutionary discoveries have been made. Just one chapter encompasses an 1817 Amazon expedition, Richard Owen and London’s Natural History Museum, the musings of Darwin, an array of late nineteenth- and twentieth-century naturalists, some digs in Greenland, and paleontologist Jenny Clack’s 1980 research in old field notebooks and a trip to the Sedgewick Museum basement. All of this leads in a roundabout way to the 2006 discovery of Tiktaalik: a fish with a critical position in the record between fins and fingers. From there Switek moves on to “footprints and feathers” and a dozen other topics that all further his mission of exploring natural history and portraying the scientists who spent their lives asking questions and finding answers. It’s poetry, serendipity, and smart entertainment because Switek has found the sweet spot between academic treatise and pop culture, a literary locale that is a godsend to armchair explorers everywhere. --Colleen Mondor