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22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Compromise That Could Have Been Better, May 25, 2012
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This review is from: Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind (Hardcover)
Fortey is a wonderful science writer. Having read his "Trilobite," "Life," and "Earth: An Intimate History," and loved the first two (the last, not so much), this newest book sounded fabulous. I'm something of a fanatic about evolutionary history, and there hasn't been (to my knowledge) another book devoted to primitive living organisms. This is an extremely interesting subject; anybody who knows what a velvet worm is will likely be hooked. The problem? The subject is simply too technical to be covered in a general-interest book like this, which lacks detailed black and white illustrations, and which does not include chapters devoted to communicating some of the basic scientific principles that will support the rest of the book. Fortey knows that, so he ended up writing a book that uses lots of anecdotes and a dizzying array of writing devices to make it charming and accessible to a general audience. But in the end, the personal anecdotes and breezy writing can't really compensate for the lack of scientific content, which should be the star.

At no point does Fortey seriously discuss what it means for these organisms to be 'primitive' or 'living fossils.' He superficially mentions some of the issues, and talks about the irony of the name 'living fossils,' but the kind of rigorous discussion of cladistics and genetic drift that you would need to have a serious understanding, well, they are absent, as if Fortey purposefully decided it would be too much for a general readership. The science is just not there. Instead there are lively anecdotes. The best way I can summarize this book is that it's like an Attenborough production about primitive organisms was set to print. "Look at this brachiopod. It's an odd one, eh?" But without glossy high def video to accompany it, that kind of commentary is just not terribly interesting.

Why does the lack of scientific detail matter? Because you can't really get the point of why these animals are amazing without understanding where they sit in the clade, why they sit there, and how that relates to more derived forms within the clade. Fortey's book doesn't give you that. If you want to know what's so amazing about a brachiopod, you need a decent explanation of phylogeny, and hopefully some detailed illustrations of the organism's anatomy. Rather than providing either, the book gives a rather grim colored plate that gives you next to zero understanding of what a brachiopod really is. It's possible to convey enormously complicated issues with good illustrations (compare Gould's "Wonderful Life," a book that has various problems of its own, but which conveys complex science in a wonderfully intuitive and interesting way). This book does not attempt to do so.

I'd have given it three stars if it were not for the final chapters, where Fortey starts commenting on why these issues are important to him. He pulls no punches, making things much more interesting; he criticizes the forces which have obliterated the biological survivors that he loves. He makes no blind-eyed exception for native peoples, pointing out how they have annihilated endless species across the globe. Capitalist expansion gets hit too; Fortey doesn't let political piety hold him back. This clear-eyed critique is a refreshing difference from the usual eco-screeds, which exalt the supposed harmony of native peoples, a harmony that finds no support in the evolutionary records.

Overall, I'm glad that others seem to be enjoying the book so much, and Fortey certainly deserves all the readers he can get. I write this review just to let interested readers know that this book errs on the side of general interest, and compared to (for example) "Trilobite" it doesn't closely engage the underlying science. Which, from my viewpoint, is a shame.
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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Dec 4, 2012 9:52:58 AM PST
This is among the best reviews of a book I've read in a long time. Thank you for sharing.
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