Evolution – What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters. Donald R Prothero, Columbia University Press. Reviewed by Louette McInnes.
If your local library doesn’t have this book, go out right now and request they buy a copy. Donald Prothero, is a professor of geology with a specialty in Tertiary mammals. While the book is designed to deal with the fossil evidence for evolution, it does so much more than that.
Prothero presents an entrancing saga of the evolution of life on earth, from the simplest molecules and life forms through to our own arrival as the third chimpanzee. Each chapter is a densely packed yet highly readable chronicle of evolution: the nature of science; the origins of the Biblical account and ‘flood geology’; the history of the theory and how Neo-Darwinism gave way before Hox genes and evo-devo; the major stages of evolution on Earth; some well-done examples of the fossils demonstrating the evolution of horses, whales, elephants, birds, and many other animals. The book is reasonably well illustrated, certainly enough for an interested non-biologist to follow. He also deals with cladistics and classification, which I never understood so well before, and how this has changed our view of which animals belong in the same families.
There are some lovely examples of evolution using structures already present to accomplish some function. The panda’s thumb is well illustrated, and is well known. The nerves in a giraffe’s neck was a new one for me – how the nerve connecting brain and larynx circles back down past the heart, then up again to the head, and how this arose from our fish ancestors and can be followed in the developing embryo – a wonderful example to confound the creationists when they talk about a ‘divine watchmaker’! He also has the best x-ray and photo I’ve ever seen of a genuine human tail.
As well as all this, Prothero fulfils his main aim of dealing with ‘creation science’ and ‘intelligent design’ arguments. He does an excellent job of detailing the creationists’ shortcomings: not understanding what they are reading; deliberately misleading tactics; ‘quote mining’ for fragments or sentences that can be used to claim some reputable scientist is denying evolution; using very out of date sources that don’t show the latest fossils. Tactics every good skeptic or teacher should know about. I am 100 percent certain that Stephen Gould, to whom the book is dedicated along with Niles Eldredge, would have loved this book if he had lived to see it.