Book Review: Evolution, What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters

One of the most frequent questions asked by creationists (of any stripe) is “Where are the transitional fossils?” They usually point, somewhat dismissively, at specimens such as Tiktaalik and ask for more. They claim that there should be thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of intermediate forms and hence many more transitional fossils than what makes it into the newspaper. This betrays a fundamental lack of knowledge about evolutionary theory in general and paleontology in particular. Outside of a few spectacular examples, most fossils, whether they be transitional or otherwise, never make it into the news. Rather they get descibed and discussed in journals such as The Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Paleobiology. and other specialized journals devoted to paleontology. How many of you have heard of Messelastur gratulator? Messelastur gratulator is a member of the sister taxon to owls and shows some morphological traits that link them to Falconiformes as well. Or Martinogale? Martinogale is one of the earliest New World skunks known and is close to the origins of all new world skunks. Of course, one could also find them in places such as Faunmap, Miomap, and The Paleobiology Database. You can also find them by searching the databases of many museums and universities. Although all of these methods can be time consuming and require more research skills than what creationists and intelligent design advocates seem to be able to muster.


Evolution.jpg So I was happy to receive a review copy of Donald Prothero’s Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters. The book is divided into two sections. The first sections contains chapters on the nature of science, the fossil record, the growth of evolutionary theory, systematics, and creationism. Each chapter provides some interesting material for those who are not very familiar with the subject. The first chapter on the nature of science, for example, covers the scientific method, the difference between the scientific use and the vernacular use of the word “theory”, belief systems and science, the supernatural, and pseudoscience and baloney detection. This chapter and several others make liberal use of Carl Sagan quotations, which won me over immediately. The chapter on systematics is, in my opinion, worth the price of the book. Starting with an overview of what systematics and taxonomy are, the chapter discusses cladistics, the impact of molecular biology on classification, the tree of life, and an interesting section on “Ancestor Worship.” In this section Prothero makes several important points:

Some aspects of cladistic theory have proven more difficult for many scientists to accept. For example, a cladogram is simply a branching diagram of relationships between three or more taxa. It does not specify whether one taxon is ancestral to another; it only shows the topology of their relationships as established by shared derived characters… The nodes are simply branching points supported by shared derived characters, which presumably represent the most recent hypothetical common ancestor of the taxa that branch from that node. But strictly speaking, cladograms never put real taxa at any nodes, but only at the tips of branches.

The important question you should be asking is “why?” Prothero supplies the answer a few paragraphs later (and this is the important part of the section):

But there’s another reason why cladists avoid the concept of ancestry. To be a true ancestor, the fossil must have nothing but shared primitive characters relative to its descendants. If it has any derived feature not found in a descendant, it cannot be an ancestor.

The importance of this point will not be lost on anyone who has debated human evolution, or discussed transitional species, with creationists. I have refrained from mentioning the chapter on creationism, technically the third chapter, till now. Anyone who follows the attempts of creationists to undermine science will be familiar with the material covered in this chapter. Prothero makes liberal use of Talk Origins and the chapter reads like an extended entry on The Panda’s Thumb.
This brings us to the second part of the book, called “Evolution? The Fossils Say Yes.” As you may surmise from the title, this is a play on Gish’s book and Gish, among others, comes in for some heavy criticism. There is, however, more to the section than bashing Gish. In eleven chapters Prothero presents the fossil evidence for the origin of life, discusses the Cambrian slow burn, invertebrate transitions, the origins of the vertebrates, the origins of fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, dinosaurs, and birds. He also discusses the evolution of ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, and mosasaurs, the evolution of snakes and crocodiles, whales, horses, rhinoceros, titanotheres, elephants, and hominids, just to touch on a few examples. Even more valuable is the photographic evidence. The book is lavishly illustrated with fossils of every type and provide powerful supporting evidence for the text. Over and above that are the superb illustrations by Carl Buell – paleoartist extraordinaire. Oh and I almost forgot, along the way Prothero provides the most efficient and complete refutation of creationist accounts of the origin of the Grand Canyon I have ever seen. It was a thing of beauty.
Overall, the book is well written, well organized and makes a powerful case for evolution. It is definitely a worthy addition to the anti-creationist literature and fills a much needed gap. It is also an excellent book for the average lay person interested in evolutionary biology and paleontology.

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17 Responses

  1. I just ordered this book. I was interested in the book anyways and then when I noticed it was illustrated by Carl Buell, that clinched it. I’m very excited, but I won’t be getting it until the new year; I ordered it along with a book that hasn’t been released yet.

  2. I had it on pre-order with Amazon and received a copy within a day or two of release. So far, I’ve found it well written and well illustrated. In my opinion, this book should be required reading for high school students, as it summarizes the main creationist arguments and bashes them to pieces with evidence and well-reasoned thought. It also provides a great overview of the numerous examples of transitional fossils…which the majority of laypersons are unaware of, allowing them to easily be swayed by creationist arguments.

  3. I had it on pre-order with Amazon and received a copy within a day or two of release. So far, I’ve found it well written and well illustrated. In my opinion, this book should be required reading for high school students, as it summarizes the main creationist arguments and bashes them to pieces with evidence and well-reasoned thought. It also provides a great overview of the numerous examples of transitional fossils…which the majority of laypersons are unaware of, allowing them to easily be swayed by creationist arguments.

  4. I’ve never understood the carping about ‘transitional specimens’. Asking those people never helps. Am I wrong in suspecting this is simply a specious argument?

  5. Haven’t see the book, but if the rest is as nicely done as the quotes on cladistics, it is a winner.

  6. I think it is, and would recommend it to anyone…

  7. Sounds great but how many creationists, IDers or any other evolution-deniers will read it? I’d bet they’ll carry on using the same old arguments.

  8. I haven’t seen this book either, but now you mention it, I will keep my eye out for it. Just for the record, I’m currently reading Ken Miller’s book “Finding Darwin’s God”.
    Anne G

  9. Thanks for the review. I have peeked in before but have never commented but this book has been on my mind and, speaking of timing, I’ll probably be heading out tonight to buy a copy (St. Louis Borders’ stores apparently stock copies). One thing in the review caught my eye immediately though,
    …the fossil evidence for the origin of life…
    I assume you mean the origin and/or development of vertebrate life? I’ve become somewhat sensitive to making the distinction between abiogenic origin of life vs. evolution terminology. I blame this on the Discovery Institute.

  10. Thanks for the review. I have peeked in before but have never commented but this book has been on my mind and, speaking of timing, I’ll probably be heading out tonight to buy a copy (St. Louis Borders’ stores apparently stock copies). One thing in the review caught my eye immediately though,
    …the fossil evidence for the origin of life…
    I assume you mean the origin and/or development of vertebrate life? I’ve become somewhat sensitive to making the distinction between abiogenic origin of life vs. evolution terminology. I blame this on the Discovery Institute.

  11. No, I mean the origin of life. There are fossils that are relevant to the issue.

  12. Opps. Maybe I was thinking too narrowly – my apologies. Are you referring to the cyanobacteria?
    Also, they did have one copy at the Borders in Brentwood – now gone – and there are two more Borders in town that show it in stock.

  13. Yup, among others. Did you try the one on Olive?

  14. I’m very excited, but I won’t be getting it until the new year; I ordered it along with a book that hasn’t been released yet.

  15. Terry said: “Sounds great but how many creationists, IDers or any other evolution-deniers will read it? I’d bet they’ll carry on using the same old arguments.”
    Maybe a couple, but that misses the point, Terry. I would think that the book is intended to be read by folks who are not dyed-in-the-wool IDCers; that is, by folks whose minds are not closed–especially student minds.
    I would not waste a breath on trying to convince an IDCer of the facts and evidences of the organic processes of biological evolution or of the fossil record in support of it. In contrast, I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to discuss this matter with others.
    IDCers will never convince me of the righteousness of their evolutionary beliefs; why should I think I’d be able to convince them of what I accept as legitimate science?

  16. There is a troubling note in the above exchange. The reason that people become creationists is religious, pure and simple. They are taught that believing in evolution will destroy their faith in God and they accept that. So it becomes essential for the continuation of their religious faith to find some way to NOT accept evolution. Intelligent design is just a fancy name for creationism, a Christian fundamentalist notion based on the idea that the narrative of creation described in Genesis must be literally true. When I taught anthropology, I had the best success by simply refusing to debate. I told my students that they did not have to “believe” in evolution — they only had to understand the theory enough to repeat it back on the test. Their faith was important to tell them how to deal with life and that was something that anthropology could not do — no science could. And I told them to hang onto that, no matter what any professor told them in any class. That seemed to satisfy everybody, the religious and the science minded. It seems to me that having science and religious debate one another is simply the wrong way to go about it. We need both, but for fundamentally different purposes. But, by all means, buy that wonderful book!

  17. There is a troubling note in the above exchange. The reason that people become creationists is religious, pure and simple. They are taught that believing in evolution will destroy their faith in God and they accept that. So it becomes essential for the continuation of their religious faith to find some way to NOT accept evolution. Intelligent design is just a fancy name for creationism, a Christian fundamentalist notion based on the idea that the narrative of creation described in Genesis must be literally true. When I taught anthropology, I had the best success by simply refusing to debate. I told my students that they did not have to “believe” in evolution — they only had to understand the theory enough to repeat it back on the test. Their faith was important to tell them how to deal with life and that was something that anthropology could not do — no science could. And I told them to hang onto that, no matter what any professor told them in any class. That seemed to satisfy everybody, the religious and the science minded. It seems to me that having science and religious debate one another is simply the wrong way to go about it. We need both, but for fundamentally different purposes. But, by all means, buy that wonderful book!

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