- Hardcover: 408 pages
- Publisher: Columbia University Press (November 6, 2007)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0231139624
- ISBN-13: 978-0231139625
- Product Dimensions: 7.3 x 1.1 x 10.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 2.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars See all reviews (134 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #593,200 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters 0th Edition
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From Publishers Weekly
Prothero, a geologist at Occidental College (After the Dinosaurs), explains how rich the fossil record has become. His goal is two-fold. First, he wants to demonstrate the wide variety of transitional forms that have been found, many within the past 20 years. Second, he aims to discredit the creationist movement. I have tried to document how they routinely distort or deny the evidence, quote out of context, and do many other dishonest and unethical things—all in the name of pushing their crusade. He accomplishes both of his goals (though he can be repetitious regarding the creationists), and his descriptions of recent research, much of it his own, are compelling. Prothero explains that the Cambrian explosion of life forms was anything but an explosion, and presents the impressive transitional fossils between reptiles and birds, along with striking evidence for mammalian evolution, including the relationship among hominid groups. With good science and some specific rebuttals to creationist arguments, this book demonstrates the importance of paleontology to the study of evolution. 208 illus. (Nov.)
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This is a wonderful book that beautifully explains in layperson's terms the vast evidence for evolution in the paleontological record. Its publication comes at a critical time. By concentrating the diverse scientific literature into numerous lucid examples, Donald R. Prothero does the fields of geology, biology, and science education a major service. He provides a unique source that will be invaluable to college professors and high school teachers alike, and because his book provides abundant, clearly described examples of evolution in the fossil record, and also synthesizes important information about the Bible, it will make a valuable addition to any scientist's library. (Bruce Lieberman, University of Kansas)
Donald R. Prothero is not only one of the leading evolutionary scientists of our time, he writes with clarity and his prose sparkles. Prothero's book is more thorough and comprehensive than any other book for the general public on the evolution versus creationism controversy. (Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, monthly columnist for Scientific American, and author of Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design)
This book demonstrates the importance of paleontology to the study of evolution. (Publishers Weekly)
A must read...Brilliant and masterfully researched. (Greg Sweatt Fossil News)
Engagingly written and scientifically accurate... Highly recommended. (CHOICE)
This is one of the best books of its kind. (Christopher diCarlo Guelph Mercury)
The book is very valuable as a demonstration of the quality of the fossil record, which has improved dramatically in the past decade. (Peter Dodson Reports of the National Center for Science Education)
(T)o anyone who wishes to be informed on our current knowledge about fossils and their interpretation, and for anyone who is still not so sure whom to believe, this book will straighten things out and will be an unforgettable reading experience. (Zentralblatt fur Geologie und Palaontologie)
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He explained in an introductory section of this 2007 book, “Many people find the topic of evolution and religion troubling and confusing… If you find yourself puzzled by all this confusion and wondering whom to believe, I welcome you to read these pages with an open mind. The fundamentalists have long been spreading myths and misconceptions and denying the self-evident facts about the fossil record. But they have no published research on fossils in peer-reviewed scientific journals, so they are no more qualified to write about fossils than they are qualified to write about auto mechanics or music theory… Unlike the creationists, I have seen and studied many of the fossils discussed in this book, and in many cases, I have done the basic scientific data collection and published the research myself. I hope that… you will let the fossils speak for themselves and not be tricked by the creationists’ distortions or the false premise that to accept evolution is tantamount to atheism. Indeed, a scientific view of the earth and life is inspirational by itself.” (Pg. xvii-xviii)
He suggests in the Foreword, “So why do so many people not accept evolution? I suggest there are at least seven reasons. 1. Misunderstanding of evolutionary theory… 2. A general fear that science is a threat to religion… 4. The fear that evolution degrades our humanity… 5. The equation of evolution with ethical nihilism and moral degeneration… 6. The fear that evolutionary theory implies we have a fixed or rigid human nature… 7. The equation of evolution with mutual struggle instead of mutual aid.” (Pg. xi-xii)
In a chapter on “Science and Creationism,” he observes about the biblical story of Noah’s Flood: “Genesis 6-7 gives us the story of Noah twice, once from the J source and once from the P source, with verses from the two intermingled so that they sometimes contradict each other… such as Genesis 7:2 … saying that Noah took seven pairs of each clean beast in the ark, but Genesis 7:8-15… saying he took only one pair of each beast in the ark. In Genesis 7:7, Noah and his family finally enter the ark, and then in Genesis 7:13 they enter it all over again… According to Genesis 6:4, there were Nephilim (giants) on the earth before the Flood, then Genesis 7:21 says that all creatures other than Noah’s family and those on the ark were annihilated---but Numbers 13:33 says there were Nephilim after the Flood.” (Pg. 29)
He points out, “Even if we concede the world looks designed, it does not follow that the designer is the Judeo-Christian God. It could have been the god of another religion or culture, or the work of a committee of gods, or a juvenile god who makes mistakes. Jews and Christians simply assumed that if there was a Designer, it must be their God, but there is no compelling evidence to show that it wasn’t some other god.” (Pg. 36)
He then turns to “evidence… that did not reflect well on the Divine Designer… one could point to many examples where nature is poorly-designed or jury-rigged so that it just barely works, or where nature shows astonishing cruelty that does not reflect a caring, compassionate God… pandas have modified a wrist bone… into a crude thumb-like device, which is not jointed and not very flexible or strong, but just strong enough to allow pandas to strip off the leaves from the bamboo as they eat… evidence of a very clumsy Designer at best. Examples of poor or at least very puzzling design can be accumulated endlessly. Many cave-dwelling fish… have the rudiments of eyes, but they are completely blind. If God specially created these creatures to live in totally dark caves, why bother to give them nonfunctional eyes in the first place? Even more peculiar is the course of the recurrent laryngeal nerve, which … allows us to speak. In mammals, this nerve… [is] seven times longer than it needs to be!... Not only is this design wasteful, but it also makes an animal more susceptible to injury… In fact, the more one looks at nature, the more one finds examples of clumsy or jury-rigged design because, unlike a Divine Designer, evolution does not require perfection.” (Pg. 37-39)
Turning to fossils, he acknowledges, “the fossil record was embarrassingly incomplete when Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, but it soon became one of his strongest lines of evidence. During the twentieth century, our fossil collections have vastly improved, so that hundreds of evolutionary sequences and transitional forms were documented. This transformation… to an embarrassment of riches by 1960 represented the hard work of thousands of dedicated paleontologists and geologists. Yet they battle against enormous odds… even with nearly 200 years of collecting behind us, the fossil record is relatively complete only in certain areas… Fossilization is still a highly improbable event, and most creatures that have ever lived do not become fossils.” (Pg. 51)
He says of the notion of a worldwide flood when applied to the Grand Canyon, “If the Noah’s flood story were actually true, we would expect to find that the geology around the world… would begin with coarse-grained poorly sorted deposits of sand and gravel and boulders from the fast-water stage of a flood. Once a flood recedes, it can leave only one kind of deposit: a single layer of mud… Even a worldwide flood would produce only one relatively thin layer of mudstone… How does this compare to the real Grand Canyon? It’s not even remotely close! Even a cursory glance at the sequence of layers in the Grand Canyon… shows that it … cannot be explained by a single superflood… A clear falsification of the flood geology model is the abundant mudcracks … found in many of the shale units of the Grand Canyon Series… There’s not just one layer of mudcracks, but hundreds of them, sometimes stacked in a long sequence. Clearly, these rocks represent dozens of small episodes of mud deposition and then complete drying, not a single catastrophic flood.” (Pg. 65-66)
He explains, “We have seen that punctuated equilibrium is simply an application of modern biological speciation theory to the fossil record, which happened to explain and highlight the long-known fact of stasis in fossil species. This stasis, in turn, is now causing discomfort among many evolutionary biologists, because there is not yet any good mechanism in Neo-Darwinian theory for it, suggesting we still have a lot to learn about evolution and speciation. But this is a good thing! If we had all the answers, and paleontology provided no new or interesting facts and ideas, science would be very boring.” (Pg. 81)
He comments on Origin of Life experiments: “Naturally, some people (especially creationists) label this as ‘guesswork’ and refuse to accept any of the experimental evidence… They prefer to just say ‘God did it’ and stop there. They are welcome to their opinion, of course, but… no true scientist falls back on this ‘god of the gaps’ approach. The supernatural hypothesis is simply untestable and leads nowhere. Scientists may not have all the answers yet to this very complex and difficult problem, but they are not … surrendering to the unscientific supernatural approach. They… have made a huge amount of progress---much more than creationists realize.” (Pg. 147)
Of the so-called “Cambrian explosion,” he points out, “the Cambrian explosion is a myth. It is better described as the Cambrian slow fuse… the fossil record shows a gradual buildup from single-celled prokaryotes and then eukaryotes to multicellular soft-bodied animals with tiny shells, and finally… the full range of large shelled invertebrates. This gradual transformation … bears no resemblance to an instantaneous Cambrian explosion that might be consistent with the Bible but instead clearly shows a series of evolutionary transformations. All of this information has been known for at least the past few decades… But the creationists either don’t want to know or cannot understand the implications of these discoveries.” (Pg. 168-170)
Of recent fossils showing the possibility of fishes evolving into land-crawling animals, he states, “Creationists, of course, cannot admit that this animal [Ichthyostega] is a true transitional form, so they stoop to all sorts of dishonest arguments to deny its fishbian features… The amazing array of new transitional fossils… documents the transition in such detail that the creationists can’t dodge behind just trying to discredit Ichthyostega any more… The discovery of Acanthostega and Tiktaalik … show that the earliest tetrapods used their legs, not for walking about on land, for primarily for walking under water!.... How do the ID creationists deal with this extraordinary evidence? They cloud the issue by denying these fossils exist, or by distortion and misstatements… I have no expectation that creationist books will ever acknowledge the existence of these fossils. I’m sure they will replay their discredited and outdated arguments.” (Pg. 229-230)
He reports that creationist debater Duane Gish did this during a 1983 debate with Prothero. (Pg. 250) Of dinosaur transitional forms, he says, “You could not ask for a nicer series of transitional forms. Apparently, Gish has never heard of any of these.” (Pg. 253) He adds, “The creationists are so wedded to the idea of distinct ‘kinds’ that they cannot even conceive of intermediate forms. Gish has been embarrassed during several debates in just this way. When his opponent puts up an image of the forelimb of a modern bird and of a theropod dinosaur and challenges Gish to sketch the likely intermediate anatomy, Gish declines (because he knows it is a trap). Sure enough, his opponent then reveals the forelimb of Archaeopteryx as a perfect intermediate between birds and dinosaurs. Gish then mumbles something irrelevant and then tries to change the subject.” (Pg. 262)
He continues, “all these arguments of the creationists, as well as the ‘birds are not dinosaurs’ minority… are now rendered entirely obsolete by an amazing array of new discoveries that have occurred in the past 20 years… new transitional bird fossils and feathered nonbird dinosaurs … that fill in most of the gaps between theropods and advanced birds, so we now have a wealth of transitional forms, of which Archaeopteryx is just one link… Most of these fossils do not have flight feathers or other indications that their feathers were used for flight. Instead, they show that feathers were apparently a widespread feature among theropod dinosaurs… Feathers, then, did not evolve for flight but were already present in theropod dinosaurs, presumably for insulation, and were later modified to become flying structures.” (Pg. 263) He concludes, “The creationist books that focus only on Archaeopteryx and distort the fossil record are so laughably outdated by the new discoveries that their writings are only fit to line the bottom of a birdcage.” (Pg. 268)
On Therapsid transitions, he says, “creationists… betray their complete lack of understanding of evolution and try to discount the entire example by arguing that it is not a single ancestral lineage but many different lineages. That is EXACTLY how most evolutionary transitions work in a bushy, branching system---not as ‘missing links’ on a nonexistent ‘chain of being’ … but as multiple closely related lineages that each show progressively more mammalian characteristics.” (Pg. 280)
On bats, he observes, “the creationists are wrong when they claim that these Eocene bats are just like modern bats. That may be true for an untrained, unobservant amateur, but anyone who knows bat anatomy can tell how primitive these fossils are. For one thing, the earliest bats did not yet have the ear structure necessary for the modern system of echolocation that bats use to catch insects on the wing… to someone who actually knows their fossils and mammals, a bat is NOT just a bat!” (Pg. 288)
Of whale transitions, he says, “Every time Duane Gish gets into another debate, his opponent brings up … the amazing sequence of transitional whale fossils and shows any open-minded individual how whales evolved. Gish… never addresses the main evidence but snipes at minor quibbles between specialists… His verbal gyrations basically boil down to this… he dodges the problem by defining whales in his mind so they cannot have the possibility of intermediate forms… the final clinching evidence is the fact that living whales DO have hind legs---they are merely vestiges of hip bone and thigh bone, usually buried deep in their muscles and not visible on the surface.” (Pg. 322)
He gives the example of a human’s vestigial organ: “Every once in a while, a human is born with an atavistic tail, a throwback to our evolutionary past, when the regulation that normally shuts down our genes for tails fails to operate. The human tail comes complete with fully developed vertebrae, muscles, and other features of animal tails.” (Pg. 345)
This marvelous book is the best presentation of the fossil evidence for evolution I have ever read. One might supplement it with Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True and Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, to get “up-to-date” on modern evolutionary theory.
This is such an extraordinary book and of such excellent presentation that, like some other reviewers, I wish Prothero would have included more stuff in it, going to 500 or 600 pages for instance. It is such a pleasure to read and revisit that, coming to the end at page 359, I felt disappointed that there was no more. The quality of this book is astounding and pure joy to read and consult.
And like some other reviewers, I have never taken creationism and ID as credible opponents of evolution. They're just a social phenomenon with roots in the religious history of the US, and their pretense of being a valid refutation of the science of evolution is simply ridiculous. To me, Bill Maher had the right approach in his Religulous DVD: at best denounce the absurdity of the ludicrous beliefs of advocates of creationism and ID.
And so, looking above all for the facts and Prothero's expertise of the fossil record, l feel there's a bit too much space wasted on demolishing creationism, as this debunking takes away pages that would have been better used in presenting more valuable info on the fossils record, with more trees, more pictures, and more photos.
The 12 color plates are sources of sheer pleasure, but I personally regret that there are not enough of them. The photos are superb, and the drawings of great artistic clarity. The trees describing the classifications of fossils and their groupings are masterly. Again, I wish there were more of them.
In most of them the geologic time scale is usually shown in some manner with dates in millions of years (MY) ago related to its significant time phases:
- the 3 key eras (Paleozoic 550-251, Mesozoic 251-66, Cenozoic 66-present);
- or the 13 periods (Vendian 600-550, Cambrian 550-488, Ordovician 488-444, Silurian 444-416, Devonian 416-360, Mississipian 360-318, Pennsylvanian 318-300, Permian 300-251, Triassic 251-200, Jurassic 200-145, Cretaceous 145-66, Tertiary 66-2, Quaternary 2-present);
- or the 7 epochs of the last, Cenozoic, era (Paleocene 66-56, Eocene 56-34, Oligocene 34-23, Miocene 23-5, Pliocene 5-2, Pleistocene 2-0.01, Holocene 0.01-present).
These persistent reminders of the time scale in MY with its 23 names do provide us with a constant framing of past events which contributes greatly to firming up in our minds a clear picture of geologic time and geologic history.
The short bibliographical references presented after each chapter as "Further Reading", and the 11-page general bibliography at the end of the book are invaluable, even though they miss many excellent books that have appeared since the book's publication in the 2007-2015 period. The index (9 huge pages on 3 columns) is also meticulous and extremely useful.
Overall this is a high-quality book I constantly go back to whenever I read anything elsewhere on the past of evolutionary history.
This book embodies the kind of overall quality that only top glossy paper makes possible. I feel immensely thankful to Columbia Un. Press for having taken the challenge of publishing this engrossing, beautiful scholarly book, that no mass-market trade publisher could have produced with cheapo paper and cheapo reproductions.
Yes, the criticism is justified: Creationism and ID could have been easily dismissed in a few pages in an introduction and/or an appendix instead of continually reappearing here and there unexpectedly throughout the book as flotsam brought back by the waves. This would have cleaned up the bulk of the text of what is after all just rubbish, all those long paragraphs devoted by Prothero to debunking step by step, line by line, the specious and tortured "arguments" of evolution deniers.
Prothero takes their pseudo-theory too seriously and gives it too much honor and too much space by pretending to debate it as if it were a valid opponent of evolution. Prothero, to his credit, does value highly his human role as a passionate activist for science and clarity of mind in an American social context where obfuscation and superstition still reign rampant. And this, as much as he values his professional vocation as a passionate researcher in paleontology. Prothero sees it as part of his life mission to neutralize the delibitating effect of moronic creationism and the clouds of dust thrown in the eyes of innocent American kids by the futile ID fantasies.
But for us, his readers, primarily interested in the solid facts of evolution, what we first and foremost expect from this book is Prothero's immense, unmatchable, knowledge of fossils. We silently applaud him in his ideological polemics against the vestigial ideas of Christianity conceived in remote Antiquity.
And we suffer as marginal, even if necessary, digressions to the core of Prothero's story his passionate demolishing of what is, after all, for most of us, pure mythology.
April 15, 2015