on January 15, 2017
I just finished reading EVOLUTION: WHAT THE FOSSILS SAY AND WHY IT MATTERS by Donald R. Prothero, professor of geology at Occidental College and of geobiology at California Institute of Technology. The book is 359 pages long and quite challenging, requiring careful reading. It showed me that my education in zoology, evolution and genetics at the University of Michigan 50 years ago is obsolete. The evidences for evolution come from anatomy, fossils, embryos and the molecular clock (DNA and mitochondrial-DNA). The book is heavily illustrated in black-and-white and in color. It contains a devastating critique of creationism and intelligent design, based upon thousands of new discoveries within recent years. The book as a whole is a tower of excellence.
I do have a few minor criticisms. There are a huge number of technical terms not in my dictionary, so the book would be improved by a glossary. Alternatively, one could use specialized dictionaries of zoology and paleontology, or look up definitions on the internet. The book covers zoological evolution only, not botanical evolution. The discussion of cladistics (not in my dictionary) is unclear, so I'll Google cladistics for a more thorough explanation.
I'll give some representative quotes from the book to give an idea of what it's like: "The oldest fossils that are clearly formed by living things are microscopic fossils of cyanobacteria...from 3.5 billion year old rocks. Tiny zircon grains from Australia were recently discovered that seem to have a distinctive chemistry indicating oceans as early as 4.3-4.4 billion years ago...If so, then the Earth's surface cooled down to below 100C (the boiling point of water) in only 250,000-350,000 years after its formation 4.65 billion years ago. There is nearly a billion years of time between when the first oceans form and the first clear fossils are known, plenty of time for life to form (more than once, if necessary)" (Pages 145-147). "There are hundreds of microfossil localities around the world...in rocks dated between 3.5 and 1.75 billion years ago, and they yield plenty of good examples of prokaryotes. The first fossil cells that are large enough to have been eukaryotes do not appear until 1.75 billion years ago, and multicellular life does not appear until 600 million years ago. For almost 2 billion years, or about 60%, of life's history, there was nothing on the planet more complicated than a bacterium...and for almost 3 billion years, or 85% of Earth's history, there was nothing more complicated than single-celled organisms." (Page 162) "A detailed examination of the stratigraphic record of fossils through the late Precambrian and Cambrian shows that life did not explode in the Cambrian, but appeared in a number of steps. Thus the Cambrian explosion took over 80 million years to develop, and was no sudden event, even by geological standards. Thus we have seen that the Cambrian explosion is a myth. It follows a series of logical stages from simple and small to larger and complex and mineralized. First, of course, we have microfossils of cyanobacteria and other eukaryotes going to as far as 3.5 billion years ago and spanning the entire fossil record since that ancient time. In short, the fossil record shows a gradual buildup from single-celled prokaryotes and then eukaryotes to multicellular soft-bodied animals to animals with tiny shells, and finally by the middle Cambrian the full range of large shelled invertebrates. This gradual transformation by logical advances in body size and skeletonization bears no resemblance to an instantaneous Cambrian explosion. All of this information has been known for at least the past few decades...They are published in all the standard geology and paleontology textbooks and have been for decades. But the creationists either don't want to know or cannot understand the implications of these discoveries. Their out-of-context quotations of real scientists...are all from old sources that do not reflect what we have learned from recent discoveries. Even their most recent, including the intelligent design texts, persist in perpetuating this out-of-date picture." (Pages 168-170) "An amazing array of new transitional bird fossils and feathered nonbird dinosaurs have been discovered...that fill in most of the gaps between theropods [carnivorous dinosaurs] and advanced birds, so now we have a wealth of transitional forms, of which Archaeopteryx is just one link. 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." (Page 263) "In addition to Archaeopteryx, there are now dozens of new transitional birds from the Mesozoic, each of which shows a mosaic of evolutionary changes from more dinosaur-like creatures like Archaeopteryx to forms that are similar to modern birds in many ways." (Page 266) "The transition from the most primitive synapsids all the way to mammals is so smooth that it is rather arbitrary where to break the continuous sequence and begin calling advanced synapsids mammals." (Page 276) "More and more transitional whales are being discovered, so that by now the amazing transformation from land mammals to whale is one of the best examples of evolutionary transitions in the fossils record. There is no excuse for creationist ignorance or denial of these fossils. And the final clinching evidence is the fact that living whales DO have hind legs--they are merely vestiges of the hip bone and thigh bone, usually buried deep in their muscles and not visible on the surface." (Pages 321-322) "A quick look at some of the creationist pamphlets and books shows just how misleading and dishonest their presentations are. There are now dozens of normal, undiseased specimens, and they clearly show that Neanderthals was a distinct species that is NOT modern Homo sapiens. [Creationists] managed to get every single example in their attack on hominid fossils COMPLETELY WRONG. 1920 description of... Australopithecus africanus was the first good fossil hominid [two-legged primate] that was not a member of the genus Homo. Decades of hard work in the field by hundreds of scientists has turned up thousands of hominid fossils...including a few good skeletons and many good skulls that show clearly how humans have evolved over 7 million years...mostly in Africa. We are members of the order Primates [five-digit flexible hands and feet], the group that includes not only ourselves and the great apes but also...monkeys...and lemurs...and many other archaic primates still alive today...We can trace the fossil record of most of these lineages back to the Cretaceous [136 million years] and Paleocene [65 million years] primate Purgatorius." (Pages 334-336) "The oldest specimen that can be truly described as a member of our own family was discovered and described only a few years ago. The best specimen is a nearly complete skull...from rocks about 6-7 million years in age...from Chad...Although the skull is very chimp-like with its small size, small brain, and large brow ridges, it had remarkably human-like features, with a flattened face, reduced canine teeth, enlarged cheek teeth...and an upright posture at the very beginning of human evolution. By 4.2 million years ago, however, the first members of the advanced genus Australopithecus, the most diverse member of our family in the Pliocene, are also found...in Kenya ranging from 3.9 to 4.2 million years in age. These creatures were fully bipedal, as shown not only by their bones but also by hominid trackways." (Page339) "IT TURNS OUT THAT HUMAN AND CHIMPANZEE DNA IS 97.6% IDENTICAL! This made sense, but the real shock was just how similar our genes are to that of most of the great apes. Molecular biologists pointed out that the genetic similarity between humans and chimps was closer than between any other two species they had studied, such as two closely related species of rats or two kinds of frogs. Since these experiments, the actual sequence of the mitochondrial DNA and the nuclear DNA has been determined for both chimps and humans, and the results are the same." (Page 344)
Zoologists have also discovered that Hox genes on DNA can cause sudden, large evolutionary leaps, so not all evolution is gradual.