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Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature

4.6 out of 5 stars 30 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1934137291
ISBN-10: 1934137294
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Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World's Most Famous Human Fossils by Lydia Pyne
"Seven Skeletons" by Lydia Pyne
An irresistible journey of discovery, science, history, and myth making, told through the lives and afterlives of seven famous human ancestors. Learn more
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Editorial Reviews

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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From Booklist

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
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Bellevue Literary Press (November 30, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1934137294
  • ISBN-13: 978-1934137291
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #483,770 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
I've been a reader of Brian Switek's Laelaps blog for years, and so I've known Written in Stone was coming. For years, I waited. At last, 'tis here! And I have only one thing to say to the author:

Brian, this had better be the start of a long and prolific career, because one's not enough, buddy.

This book constantly surprised me - not because it was good (it's Brian Switek, so obviously it's good!), but because of the number of times it made me say, "I didn't know that!" It's populated with bajillions of scientists I've read a lot about, people like Charles Darwin and Nicolaus Steno and Richard Owen, some of whom have been so extensively babbled about in the pop sci books that it seemed nothing new and interesting remained to reveal - but Brian almost always managed to find a little something awesome that hasn't made it into the 42,000 other books about them. And lest you think this is merely a history of paleontology, keep in mind that Brian fleshes out that history with the newest of the new discoveries. I'm amazed by how much territory he managed to cover without seeming to skimp. It's not that big a book!

It wasn't just things about people I didn't know, but how and why certain traits evolved. Brian's filled gaps in my knowledge I didn't even realize I had. That chapter on horse evolution: definitely worth the wait. Got me thinking in whole new directions, that did, and that kind of thinking is like solid gold to an SF writer.

He set out to prove that the fossil record, despite some arguments to the contrary, is essential to understanding evolution, and I do believe he succeeded. It certainly seems like we wouldn't have discovered as much as we did without the evidence those big, extinct critters showed us.
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Format: Paperback
Birds are descended from dinosaurs. But there is a lot of history to that idea. Paleontologists did not simply uncover fossils of dinosaurs and realize that living birds are a surviving lineage of theropods. Where can one turn to learn of all this? Brian Switek, whose blog Laelaps (in its current evolutionary stage with Wired) I have been reading for several years now, has just published his first book, Written in Stone. Each chapter focuses on a particular group of animals that we now have great fossil evidence showing their evolutionary history: birds, whales, early rodent-like mammals, elephants, horses, and humans, to name a few. We come away with a full understanding of the branching nature of the evolution of life on Earth, as Switek dispels the notion of progressive, ladder-like, and human-oriented evolution. He also gives us the sense of the vast amount of extinct vertebrates (relatives of ours included), for some of what we see on the planet today - horses, for example - are just a peek of the diversity of forms in the groups in which they are nested. "To focus solely upon our ancestors is to blind ourselvves to our own evolutionary context" (21).

Wielding a wealth of science information while attending to historical detail, Written in Stone offers a very-readable narrative of how European and American scientists have understood fossils over the centuries. While not an academic historian - he is a freelance science writer and a Research Associate in paleontology at the New Jersey State Museum - Switek gives importance to the historical development of ideas in paleontology.
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Brian Switek is a phenomenal writer, and I can't wait for his next book(s). This book is fantastic. I am a paleontologist and am familiar with many of the stories and subjects covered in this book, but not to the level of detail discussed here. Fascinating! I plan to make this required reading for my paleontology and geology students, but anyone with the slightest interest in natural history, evolution, or the history of scence would love this book.
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Format: Paperback
When I picked up this book, I was interested to see whether Brian Switek had anything new to bring to the table. Beyond the discovery of Tiktaalik a few years ago, has palaeontology nowadays got anything to add to the story of evolution?

Well, the answer is in: this is a very good book on the fossil evidence for evolution. However, I'm not so sure that this in itself is necessary, or sufficient; more on this below.

The book starts with an excellent summary of the development of geology and palaeontology in the first half of the 19th century, and how this created a fertile breeding ground for the development of evolutionary thinking. Most importantly, it tore scientific thought away from a literal interpretation of the six-day creation account found of the Book of Genesis. The geologic record showed that living things had changed over a long period of time, and that the more fossils were found, the more apparent the patterns of change became. Those patterns of change were explained by evolution, and, reciprocally, the fossils became evidence for evolution itself.

Primed with this introduction, Switek documents the discoveries of fossils linking fish with the first tetrapods (creatures with four limbs); how feathered theropod dinosaurs were the ancestors of birds; how the forebears of whales were land-dwelling relatives of hippos, that once lived in what is now Pakistan; the evolution of horses, and how they lost all but one of their toes; and, finally, how we humans are linked to a common ancestor that we share with chimpanzees.

All this is excellent.
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