Sunday, November 29, 2015

Review: The Story of Life in 25 Fossils

  • The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil-Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution
  • 408 pages
  • Columbia University Press; 2015

I'm almost through reading Donald R. Prothero's The Story of Life in 25 Fossils.  It's a genuinely excellent book, focusing mostly on  the key transition fossils between groups but also including some crowd-pleasers like T.rex.  He includes very well-written accounts of the human beings, like Mary Anning, who did so much to bring the past to life.  For the cryptozoologists, he takes a swipe at Loch Ness (a bit too harsh on the witnesses, but his scientific points are valid) and another at the supposed African sauropod mokele-mbembe (again, right on the science, harsh on the people),  He visits the endlessly interesting question of how big certain animals, like everyone's favorite giant shark C. megalodon, got to be. He is very insistent that the maximum sizes accorded in popular media are exaggerated, sometimes hugely: examples include pliosaurs, plesiosaurs (except for the long-necked elasmosaurs, he doubts any marine reptiles exceeded 13m), and fishes like Leedsichthys, which was once accorded a length over 25m but now seems about a third that size, placing Meg as the largest fish of any type ever in his reckoning. He does not include gigantopithecus, which I thought should be here on account of its displaying the size limit for primates, but there's plenty in this book for the paleontologist, the cryptozooloogist, and the general enthusiast of all things zoological.   The section of fossils, presented in timeline order, explains how each major group we know today (and some no longer with us) evolved, and how strong the transitional fossil record is - half-turtles, half-snakes, half-plesiosaurs, etc. abound in these well-illustrated pages.  Everyone, even those of us laypeople who think ourselves well-read,  will learn a few things: I didn't realize that the idea of feathers as modified scales had a competing theory.

A few nitpicks: the icthyosauyrs certainly did not have a speed limit of 1.2 km an hour - some kind of misprint there. And Loch Ness was searched by sonar, not radar - a very different thing.  When talking of sauropods, he doesn't address the recent attempt to resurrect Brontosaurus as a proper name.
This is a great Christmas present for any natural-history lover on your list.


John K. Patterson said...

I only read a tiny snippet of this book, so I won't comment on the work as a whole. But what I did see was Prothero pretty much repeating the same old rant that the people hunting for Mokele-mbembe are a bunch of dastardly and wild-eyed creationists (Didn't sound new, either; I think he has a prepared rant that he dusts off and tweaks whenever he feels like ranting about that old chestnut again). What that same rant was doing in a book about fossils, I'm not sure, but I could have easily missed a context.

Admittedly it's a big sore spot for me, because he has misstated many of the facts around that particular cryptid, and repeatedly attacked some of the "Mokele hunters" who I consider close friends.

Oh well. At least I'm enjoying *your* book, The Dolmen! Reached a nice, creepy moment while reading it last night. Well done!

-John Patterson

Matt Bille said...

John, Glad you're enjoying The Dolmen. I know some of the mokele hunters are sincere (and Prothero, I think, understates the extent to which scientists travel through the area in question), but since our topic is book review - if you're asking if anything in this book is new compared to Abominable Science, it is not.

John K. Patterson said...


Pertaining to the Congo, I have tentatively raised the topic of Mokele-mbembe with a paleontology student, and he was surprisingly open to the concept of *something* being there. He told me that hardly anyone goes to the Congo these days (compared to other jungle ecosystems). Some do, of course. Entomologists and primatologists obviously have a gold mine of information to gather there. Perhaps he was mistaken, but if not I presume it has much to do with the persistent conflicts and overthrown governments in Central Africa, scaring away expeditions. Prothero does have a high opinion of aerial surveys and satellite photography penetrating a jungle ecosystem, but to be honest I was left wondering, "What about the canopy? Doesn't that hamper observation a little?"

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