This fall has brought another book by famed Paleontologist Donald Prothero entitled, The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution and published by Columbia University Press. This book recounts some of the most important events in the history of biodiversity by taking the reader through 25 especially noteworthy species from the fossil record. Last month, I spoke with him about the book and these exciting days for paleontology.
The title of the book is somewhat misleading. While the book is organized into 25 chapters, each bearing a subtitle of a specific extinct species, Prothero provides abundant evolutionary and historical context for each species, often explaining many other species and fossils along the way. Readers will learn about many more than just 25 fossil species.
For example, the chapter focusing on Haikouichthys is not just a description of what we know from the fossil remains of this early fish. Rather, it’s an exploration of the origin of vertebrates, the evolution of craniates (animals with true “heads”), and the many other species, both discovered and postulated, that occupy critical points in this important evolutionary story. Animals from humans to frogs have heads and brains because of the way that Haikouichtys eked out its humble existence during the Cambrian radiation, totally unaware of its impending evolutionary legacy.
Prothero selected some species to highlight for the crucial position they occupy in evolutionary history, like Haikouichthys and also Cloudina, the first species to make shells and thus leave “hard” evidence (if you’ll pardon the pun) of their anatomy. Others are included as representatives of the “transitional species” that creationists love to claim don’t exist, such as Haasiophis, the snake with legs; Ambulocetus, the almost-whale; and Thrinaxodon, the mammal-like reptile (or is it a reptile-like mammal?).
“Ambulocetus is almost perfectly transitional between what everyone agrees is a whale and what everyone agrees is not a whale.”
Still others are included simply for how stunning the specimens are, such as the gigantic shark Carcharocles; the humongous aquatic reptile Kronosaurus; and Lucy, the haunting Australopithecus afarensis skeleton that proved that apes had been walking upright for millions of years before Homo sapiens appeared. Placing each species in its ecological context, Prothero paints vivid pictures of the many dramatic changes undergone by the life forms on our planet .
Although Prothero told me that he did not set out to write a course textbook, all I kept thinking while reading it was, “Oh, this is perfect for my new course!” That is not to say that the book is dry and thick, nor is it perfectly comprehensive, as he admits at the outset. The reason I like this book so much for a course on evolution or paleontology is because it is so much fun to read. It does one thing that textbooks usually don’t: it entertains.
Many, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), have bemoaned that the U.S. science curriculum, including and especially textbooks, is a “mile wide and an inch deep.” It seems Prothero got the memo.
Don’t get me wrong. The book is definitely authoritative. There are few out there with Prothero’s breadth and depth of experience in paleontology. But instead of trying to fit as many fossils and organisms into the book as possible; instead of trying to cover every period of earth’s history; instead of trying to load up on jargon and technical accuracy, Prothero tells stories.
Importantly, these stories include the who, when, where, and how of each organism’s discovery. First, we are drawn in, yearning for answers, as Prothero brings us up to speed about what was known and thought prior to each discovery. Then, he gives us a colorful narrative of the personalities and circumstances involved in the discovery. And finally, he helps us understand how the organism fits in its evolutionary context. Most important of all, in my view, he doesn’t gloss over controversies, past revisions or even errors, and points of continued disagreement. Science is a difficult and messy process and Prothero sees no value in hiding that. I quite agree.
For a book about paleontology and evolution, it also covers an impressive amount of the history of life science. Prothero sheds lots of ink explaining where, how, and by whom each fossil was discovered, which always makes for interesting anecdotes about important figures in modern biology. Readers get a real sense of how ideas developed and how the discipline matured from its early days of wild speculations and fantastical claims. Far from hero worship, there are some unvarnished and unflattering looks at a science just finding its feet, as the notion of extinction and evolution began to take hold in the 18th and 19th centuries.
“Science is always provisional; science is always tentative and open to changing its mind when better data come along. That’s what makes it so strong.”
[Ian Tattersall said almost the exact same thing when I interviewed him a few months ago.]
Prothero often recounts tales of “intrepid fossil hunters” as they conduct their difficult work. For example, Mary Anning scoured dangerous sea cliffs in her search for Plesiosaur and Icthyosaur fossils, narrowly escaping death in an avalanche that killed her steady companion, a terrier named Tray. (Manning may even have even been the inspiration behind the tongue-twister “She sells seashells by the seashore.”)
Prothero reminds us that fossil hunters work under the scorching sun, blistering cold, far removed from modern comforts, or even among deadly predators. The spectacular discovery of Homo naledi this year is a perfect example of this, having been conducted by a Herculean team laboring in the most difficult of conditions. Ironically, I am sure the tales of just how hard field paleontology can be are more likely to inspire young fossil hunters than dissuade them.
Two extinct hominins were included in the book, including Lucy, perhaps the most famous fossil skeleton in the world. I couldn’t help asking Prothero if Homo naledi would have been included, had it been discovered before he finished the book:
“Probably! It was a hard choice. I almost put in Ardi as well [Ardipithecus, an extinct hominin from about 4.5 million years ago] because the skeleton is almost as complete as Lucy.”
Because of its excellent coverage of the process and nature of scientific practice, The History of Life in 25 Fossils is not just suitable for an introductory course on evolution or paleontology, it is superior. Students, particularly those not majoring in science, will learn far more important lessons from this book than they will from the encyclopedic textbook approach. Research has shown that even the brightest students quickly forget all the details from courses they have taken. But, broad concepts and ideas, if deeply explored, will not just be remembered; they may change how students think permanently. If we want our students to think scientifically, we should be favoring books like this, that tell the stories of science, rather than reciting “facts.”
Another aspect of the book that delights me are the “see it for yourself” boxes at the end of every chapter. In these boxes, Prothero informs the reader where they can go to view for themselves the fossils and casts mentioned in that chapter. While the powerhouse museums in New York, London, Washington, Chicago, and Berlin harbor countless paleontological treasures, I was surprised to learn that some of the most important fossils can be found in more humble museums around the world.
There are even locations where amateur fossil hunters can dig up their own fossilized remains of Cambrian animals. After all, Mary Anning, one of the most important fossil collectors and distributors of all time, got started as an amateur with no formal training. This effort to guide readers to where they can see the fossils for themselves is further augmented by an appendix of museum recommendations from Prothero.
The Story of Life in 25 Fossils is a joy to read. Biologists, novice and veteran alike, will delight in turning its pages. Prothero brings erudition and expert perspective to the material, but animates it in an entertaining and accessible manner. It reads like a fun conversation with a learned friend.
The one positive adjective I cannot use to describe this book is satisfying. Prothero does not shy away from raising the unanswered questions and unfilled gaps in our knowledge of the natural history of our planet. Given the imperfect nature of billion-year-old evidence, we will always be left “wanting more.”
PS – Some cool blogs about fossils: