Customer Reviews: Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind
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on May 12, 2012
I bought this based on a recent NY Times review. Sad to say, I wasn't familiar with his other books. I often buy books based on good reviews that end up becoming treasured additions to my library, and very rarely find an author with whom I was previously unfamiliar whose entire oeuvre I then purchase--this is one of those very few. This book will become one of my gift-giving ideas, and I can't wait to read the rest of his works. I only hope, now that he's officially retired from his day job, that he's writing another book. Maybe it'll be published before next weekend so I can avoid yard work then as well.

The book is an engaging description of extinct organisms and so-called "living fossils" compared to their closest living (or recently living) counterparts, and how they fit into the evolution of life, as far back as the fossil record allows (which is a labored and poor synopsis on my part). Fortey traces back the "tree of life" to the earliest branch points, or as early as possible, and discusses those branch points using examples such as the titular crab and worm. Indeed, the horseshoe crab and velvet worm in this case are distinct examples and more or less metaphors; this book is NOT about those two organisms alone. So, if you're looking for a how-to guide for raising, viewing, or eating either, this isn't it.

It's much too short at approximately 300 pages, and many details are glossed over or assumed as understood. It's also one of the most well-written and engaging books on natural science I've ever read; I started it in the morning, and didn't stop until I finished it that night. Then I pulled out some Dawkins, Gould and Darwin, and began to read sections of both along with different sections of Fortey's book. Fortey's love of this subject (or subjects, since there are several touched upon) is infectious, and I've pretty much spent a Saturday from 5:00 AM until Sunday morning engrossed in his excitement. I'm taking a break here to write this, in fact.

To me, the book almost seems like a wide-ranging discussion with an avuncular professor about evolution and life that goes beyond the title, and unlike some "popular science" books, the love of science and nature AND the humor of the author is obvious and unforced. He is a repository of information; he's gracious when describing his sources and contacts; he's honest about topics that he didn't witness himself but chose to write about anyway; and in several sections, he's extremely funny (though it's that dry British humor that appears as an aside of parenthetical comment). He has the ability, like the best works of Sagan or Gould, to explain complicated concepts in a conversational style that doesn't make you feel ignorant when you probably are, but to get excited enough to delve more deeply in whatever paragraph you just read.

I love this book and the author's style, and I love the fact that it's made me pull out a stack of books from my collection to delve further into an interest in nature that Fortey reawakened in me. It's too short, obviously, since the period covered is something like 1 billion years (give or take a month). It's not a complex scholarly work, so readers who are experts in paleontology may find things to complain about (I'm not one of those, so I have no major complaints). It is, however, a book that made me feel I didn't pay enough for what I got out of it.

Minor complaints: the book includes a glossary at the end defining and discussing some terms used in the text, but some readers may find several terms missing in the glossary. That's not a big deal, since the readers who want more information know how to find it, but I can imagine reviews from some readers complaining about the dearth of details. Also, the table of geological periods at the start of the book does not show details about the most recent definitions of the periods, though this is discussed in the text. I would have liked to have a more detailed table, and perhaps a more detailed discussion of the dating, simply to have more pages from the author to enjoy.

Other than that, going back to the NY Times review: if they don't put this in the top 10 non-fiction book listing this year, I'll cancel my subscription.
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on May 25, 2012
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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on May 20, 2012
This fascinating account of the history of species that are living today, but have ancient origins, is so well told that it is hard to put down. Not only does it discuss horseshoe crabs, which I knew about, but representatives of every class of life including worms, fungi, plants, bacteria, archaea, and on and on. I like to draw and paint pictures of organisms and their environments from the past, but I worry that I have the plants and backgrounds right for the time. Now I know better that I am often safer than I knew. If I paint a Triceratops, I can safely add water lilies to the magnolias in the background. It's the kind of book that answers lots of questions you didn't even know you had. I only wish there were more pictures or drawings as the text goes along so I don't have to keep hopping in and out of Google search to find images as I read.
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Creationists who think themselves clever sometimes spout this argument: "If evolution is true, and humans came from monkeys, then why are there still monkeys?" There is just too much wrong in this question for an easy science-oriented response. The creationist who wanted to come closer to asking an intelligent question might think of asking, "If evolution is true, then why are there still horseshoe crabs?" After all, horseshoe crabs have hung around and look about the same as their fossils from 450 million years ago (of course, a strict reading of the Bible precludes any such age); if evolution has been at work, where are their changes? Richard Fortey has the answer in _Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind_ (Knopf). He seems to have a special affection for horseshoe crabs because they have some similarities to the trilobites that were the focus of his paleontological research (and about which he wrote in _Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution_). However, less well-known animals like velvet worms are here, and mounds of stromatolites (formed by blue-green bacteria), sponges, ginkgoes, lungfish, lampreys, platypuses, cockroaches, and many more. Fortey has tried to get to see most of these animals in their natural habitat, so the book is a bit of a travelogue, too, brightly written with genuine affection for his fellow researchers and for the animals he gets to see.

This time the paleontologist is writing about living creatures rather than fossilized ones. These animals are often called "living fossils," with an appreciation of just how contradictory such a paired-word term is. There have been changes; no creatures survive for millions of years unchanged. The ancient DNA would be considerably different (if we could find it) from the current DNA, even though the differences do not show up in the appearance of the organism. Fortey starts with an orgy on the Delaware beach (that ought to pull in the readers). He went to see the nocturnal spring mating rituals of thousands of gathered horseshoe crabs "with my notebook and a fluttering heart." It is hard not to share his enthusiasm in this and his other expeditions. The horseshoe crabs are not really crabs, but like his beloved trilobites, are a different sort of arthropod. As Fortey describes each of these survivors, he gives a short course in their particular biology. For horseshoe crabs, the most interesting part of their physiology is that they are literal bluebloods. Their blood is not based, as that of us mammals, on iron, but on copper. Somehow Fortey's dear trilobites all died out, perhaps because of lack of oxygen 250 million years ago, and maybe, by chance, the horseshoe crabs had an affinity for shallower waters with more oxygen when the change took place. If horseshoe crabs had any sense, they would bless their good fortune that they made it through. We, whose forebears were of course struggling along in their own way at the time, changed instead of keeping our old forms, and if horseshoe crabs can't be grateful for the particular way they bumbled though, we ought to be grateful for our own.

Fortey is a wise and amiable companion on this tour. He comes home and finds that there has been an invasion of cockroaches, and while he might be disgusted, he can't refrain again from admiration ("they must earn a grudging respect for their durability and lack of fussiness"). Cockroaches are survivors, with some of the characteristics of other species included here; they are relatively long lived and they can go for long periods without nutrition. They scurry away fast when light hits them, but they are otherwise sedentary; as he writes when describing the lungfish, "As an American might say, they take life real slow." Even when writing about cockroaches, Fortey writes in summary, "It has been a privilege to get to know every animal and plant in this book." It's the sort of scientific affection that comes through on every page. It will be hard for any reader not to feel it, nor to feel affection for this friendly and broadly informed tour guide.
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on July 23, 2012
With this book, Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms, I did something I almost never do. I got the book from Amazon a few weeks ago. I read it cover to cover. Today I went back to re-read the book.

The book is not without flaws, and I will address them before long. However, I do enjoy Fortey's chatty, personable style. He actually visited most of the sites where he found living remnants of his ancient life forms. He describes the locations -- many, some of the most remote in the world - as well as the guides and transport he used to access them. It is like an odd sort of safari. I began re-reading with his chapter on the stromatolites. In this chapter especially, Fortey conveys an excellent sense of "deep time." The stromatolites are about the only fossils from the deep pre-Cambrian -- and go back a billion years before other organisms evolved and thrived. These strange colony organisms were comprised of a symbiosis of several bacteria, creating mushroom shaped rock-like living structures.

Dr. Fortey takes us to the actual location where the fossil animals survive -- with the stromatolites, it is Shark's Bay in Australia. For the velvet worm, it is the rotting tree boles of New Zealand. His narrative is enlivened by a lively description of the location. To get to Shark's Bay, Fortey had a 22-hour Greyhound Bus ride to the extreme, remote part of Australia. One may think of Crocodile Dundee and a portrayal of "Walkabout Flats" in the eponymous movie.

Fortey's writing style is permeated with latinate words. In a single sentence, one can often find several four or five syllable words. Hence the writing is rather dense at times. The reader must be somewhat forbearing. However, Fortey is as much a popular writer as a scientist, and this is certainly evident if we review his recent publishing history. Fortey can make remote creatures such as stromatolites, trilobites, velvet worms, and other exotica to be rather exciting.

The book spans 317 pages of rather dense material, and most of it nonetheless engages and draws the reader. I must confess, there were a few chapters that were deadly dull, where Fortey abandoned his usual engaging "just you and me" style and submerged himself in technical language. Well, "two out of three ain't bad," as the old saying goes. Sometimes, too, I would wish he could cool down on the chatty personal anecdotes --- which can be excessive -- and keep on his subject better than he does.

Even so, Fortey conveys that feeling of "deep time," the sense of eons of time. Let me quote once-- "fossils dated at 3.5 billion years have been found in the Apex Chert of Western Australia and in Swaziland. It is hardly possible to imagine such antiquity. I have the same trouble trying to grasp the number of stars in the Milky Way, for my mind loses its frame of reference when numbers get so large." Well, when you look at 3.5 billion years, you are looking at 3500 millions of years. That's quite a bite for most of us. And yet in that remote past time, stromatolites were flourishing.

One attractive quality of Fortey's book is to correct and update misleading or erroneous "notions" that have recently been overturned. One correction he makes several times is to disclaim the phrase, "blue-green algae." Fortey states -- based on more recent science -- that there's no such beast. The biota described are "the blue-greens," as he calls them. But they are NOT algae.

What is among the fascinating observations at the base of his book is that the "prehistory" he describes yet lives today. Stromatolites, complex colony creatures from the earliest eras of the earth history, can still be found and observed. Ditto for the velvet worms -- organisms that are still to be found thriving throughout New Zealand even though of immeasurable antiquity.

Although God created new "layers" of life, such as eucharotic cells and the multifarous animals of the Burgess Shale, nonetheless God oftentimes forgot to erase the blackboard. So some of the earliest denizens of the living earth have still persisted, only waiting for Fortey to find them, and to highlight them.

Heck of a book. Strongly recommended. I am planning to send a copy or two to friends as a Christmas gift this year.
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on December 25, 2013
This book by Richard Fortey is different from his previous publications. He is exploring animals and plants which are still living somewhere on this earth today but which seem to bear evidence of a connection with their fossil past. You feel you are actually there with him in the various international spots he verbally paints. Fortey's goal is to collect together--not exhaustively--but many examples of what many popularly know as "living fossils." He tells of prehistoric positions of plate tectonics such as Pangea and Gondwanaland--that is, earth as it was eons ago. He shows how animals could traverse from place to place until these plates moved apart and evolution took off in different directions from the older gene pools. All of these ancient plates are presented to us in very descriptive language--metaphor, simile, and alliteration. You might say that Fortey has a "way with worlds."
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on October 25, 2014
I am glad that my Kindle has a built in dictionary, It helped keep a lot of the biological and paleontology detail straight. I did appreciate the author's attempt to make the book intelligible to the general public. In general it was a good but difficult read.
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on February 19, 2015
What a wonderful book! It will keep you interested and has sections with neat pictures of horseshoe crabs, molluscs, sponges, fossils, lampreys and more! Additionally, it's rare to find a natural history book paired with such wonderful writing. This book will not disappoint!
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on November 30, 2014
Excellent book. I've read Fortey's book on trilobites which was equality excellent. If you're into evolution and are looking for species that have changed little since the Paleozoic this is for you. He admits he didn't cover ever species that can be considered a living fossil.
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on January 6, 2013
For people who like to take their "escapism" in the form of random bits of factual information, this is a great book. The writing is clear and entertaining. Since it is not an "agenda" item for me, I can drop it and pick it up again without loss of context. A great book for hauling around to fill odds and ends of minutes while waiting, or as an alternative to wool-gathering.
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