Written in Stone
“Switek seamlessly intertwines two types of evolution: one of life on earth and the other of paleontology itself.”—Discover Magazine““In delightful prose, [Switek] . . . superbly shows that ‘[i]f we can let go of our conceit,’ we will see the preciousness of life in all its forms.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)“Highly instructive . . . a warm, intelligent yeoman’s guide to the progress of life.”—Kirkus Reviews“Magisterial . . . part historical account, part scientific detective story. Switek’s elegant prose and thoughtful scholarship will change the way you see life on our planet. This book marks the debut of an important new voice.”—Neil Shubin“Elegantly and engagingly crafted, Brian Switek’s narrative interweaves stories and characters not often encountered in books on paleontology—at once a unique, informative and entertaining read.”—Niles Eldredge“If you want to read one book to get up to speed on evolution, read Written in Stone. Brian Switek’s clear and compelling book is full of fascinating stories about how scientists have read the fossil record to trace the evolution of life on Earth.”—Ann Gibbons“[Switek's] accounts of dinosaurs, birds, whales, and our own primate ancestors are not just fascinating for their rich historical detail, but also for their up-to-date reporting on paleontology’s latest discoveries.”—Carl Zimmer"After reading this book, you will have a totally new context in which to interpret the evolutionary history of amphibians, mammals, whales, elephants, horses, and especially humans.”—Donald R. ProtheroSpectacular fossil finds make today's headlines; new technology unlocks secrets of skeletons unearthed a hundred years ago. Still, evolution is often poorly represented by the media and misunderstood by the public. A potent antidote to pseudoscience, Written in Stone is an engrossing history of evolutionary discovery for anyone who has marveled at the variety and richness of life.

Written in Stone Details

TitleWritten in Stone
Author
LanguageEnglish
ReleaseNov 30th, 2010
PublisherBellevue Literary Press
ISBN-139781934137291
Rating
GenreBiology, Evolution, History, Nonfiction, Geology, Palaeontology, Science, Natural History

Written in Stone Review

  • Book
    January 1, 1970
    Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature by Brian Switek“Written in Stone” is a “solid” scientific book from freelance science writer Brian Switek. This book focuses on the history of fossil evidence in support of evolution. The 320-page book is composed of the following ten chapters: The Living Rock, Moving Mountains, From Fins to Fingers, Footprints and Feathers on the Sands of Time, The Meek Inherit the Earth, As Monstrous as a Whale, Behemoth, On a Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature by Brian Switek“Written in Stone” is a “solid” scientific book from freelance science writer Brian Switek. This book focuses on the history of fossil evidence in support of evolution. The 320-page book is composed of the following ten chapters: The Living Rock, Moving Mountains, From Fins to Fingers, Footprints and Feathers on the Sands of Time, The Meek Inherit the Earth, As Monstrous as a Whale, Behemoth, On a Last Leg, Through the Looking Glass, and Time and Chance.Positives: 1. Well researched, well written book that is accessible to the masses.2. Very respectful and pleasant tone throughout. 3. Evolution through the eyes of paleontologists, geologists, archeologists…The book focuses on fossils, their discoveries and how they inspire scientific discussions that ultimately lead to a consensus or even more questions.4. Fabulous use of drawings and illustrations. I also want to thank Mr. Switek for providing photos of many of the scientists involved in this book. I understand that there are legal issues involving the use of photos and such but it’s refreshing to see an author go out of his way to provide that to the readers. It makes reading that much more enjoyable.5. The core of paleontology discussed.6. Interesting tidbits throughout the book.7. The always fascinating clash of science and religion.8. Many brief historical accounts of scientists and their impact.9. The explanation of evolutionary history based on mainly fossil evidence of some of our main species: fish, birds, whales, elephants, horses and of course humans.10. Does a great job of dispelling Lamarck’s contention that life appeared to be progressive (well you know with a little help from Darwin…). 11. Transitional fossils and some very good examples.12. Archaeopteryx in updated context.13. The curveball that was the platypus.14. The impact of mass extinctions. Various accounts and theories.15. Hoaxes exposed. “Piltdown man” as an example.16. Vestigial traits. As an example, living whales retain vestiges of their hips and hind limbs.17. The curious tale of Thomas Jefferson regarding national pride in correlation to natural history. Loved that.18. Examples of punctuated equilibrium.19. The impact of Linnaeus.20. Human evolution, it’s in the bones.21. All the links, notes, glossary does this superb book justice.Negatives:1. The biggest negative of this book is that it’s a dry book. That is, it lacks panache; it lacks the ability to engage the reader. Let loose Mr. Switek. The final chapter Mr. Switek provides evidence that he is capable of lucid science writing with passion. I would have liked to have seen more of that immersed in the rest of the book. 2. Lacking in thought-provoking quotes. There are a few, Mark Twain has a great quote but they are few and far between.3. So many scientific terms for new species that it will make your head spin at times.In summary, this is a very solid book and another good contribution to evolution with the focus on fossils. It’s a bit dry at times but the author met all my expectations regarding the science involved. I recommend this book for all the science lovers out there and look forward to reading more books from Mr. Switek in the future.Recommendations: “Why Evolution Is True” by Jerry A. Coyne, “Your Inner Fish…” by Neil Shubin, “The Making of the Fittest” by Sean B. Carroll, “What Evolution Is” by Ernst Mayr, “Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution” by Nick Lane and “The Greatest Show on Earth” by the great Richard Dawkins.
    more
  • Nikki
    January 1, 1970
    Written in Stone is a pretty interesting guide to the fossil record and especially theories of evolution related to it, and also our own ancestry. I found it a little bit dry by the end, but I did read it in the space of two days, and even a little bit during halftime at the Wales v. Italy game today (to the astonishment of the gentleman next to me). So it can't really have been that dry.It doesn't touch much on other aspects of paleontology, like genetic samples from fossils or even Written in Stone is a pretty interesting guide to the fossil record and especially theories of evolution related to it, and also our own ancestry. I found it a little bit dry by the end, but I did read it in the space of two days, and even a little bit during halftime at the Wales v. Italy game today (to the astonishment of the gentleman next to me). So it can't really have been that dry.It doesn't touch much on other aspects of paleontology, like genetic samples from fossils or even much about properly dating fossils, which felt like a bit of an oversight when it does manage to explain in endless detail the descent of modern horses. Obviously, any book has to draw a line somewhere, but this felt like a mass of fine details without much of the framework that would support them (for me; if your interest is primarily in fossils, then I'm sure it'd be of more relevance, I just want a more holistic view -- though there's plenty of that out there).
    more
  • Steve Van Slyke
    January 1, 1970
    The story of evolution primarily from the paleontological perspective (as the name implies), although he does cite some of the biochemical lines of research that support what the rocks and bones have to tell us. It is also from a post-Cambrian perspective as he does not begin with the first appearance of macrobiotic life, and instead skips ahead to the end of the Devonian when a few species of fish took the first tentative steps away from the water’s edge. It is also the story of the development The story of evolution primarily from the paleontological perspective (as the name implies), although he does cite some of the biochemical lines of research that support what the rocks and bones have to tell us. It is also from a post-Cambrian perspective as he does not begin with the first appearance of macrobiotic life, and instead skips ahead to the end of the Devonian when a few species of fish took the first tentative steps away from the water’s edge. It is also the story of the development of paleontology as both a profession and a science.I thought it was a great first effort for young science writer with lots of potential. I would have rated it even higher if the writing were in some instances a little clearer and more directed toward supporting a central theme. Although I enjoyed the trip, there were times when I was not sure where we were going.Some of it will be repetitive for those who have read other authors' take on horse, whale and human evolution. But for those who are just beginning to read about paleontology and paleoanthropology this is great place to start.I have a hunch that Mr. Switek has a few more, and probably better, books still in him, given his youth and his obvious interest in his field. I will be watching for them. I was also pleasantly surprised that he was willing to take on his senior respected theistic science writers who still cling to the hope that somehow this all had to happen, that it couldn’t just be chance. Good for you, Mr. Switek.
    more
  • Jamie
    January 1, 1970
    Evolution seem so obvious today that it is hard to understand why it took so long for it to become widely known. In essence, evolution can be summed up with the phrase “descent with modification.” In every generation more offspring are produced than an environment can support, so there is a ruthless culling of all but the best adapted. Even small advantages can have big results if they allow an individual to survive long enough to reproduce and pass on their genes. Eventually, as generations pas Evolution seem so obvious today that it is hard to understand why it took so long for it to become widely known. In essence, evolution can be summed up with the phrase “descent with modification.” In every generation more offspring are produced than an environment can support, so there is a ruthless culling of all but the best adapted. Even small advantages can have big results if they allow an individual to survive long enough to reproduce and pass on their genes. Eventually, as generations pass, species become better and better adapted to their environment. No angels, no demons, no supernatural forces required.This book focuses not on the grand sweep of evolving life, but on specific examples of changes over time. It looks at the fossil record of animals such as fish, whales, birds, horses, and good old homo sapiens and his predecessors. Each of these has its own fascinating story of change and survival, and the fossil record, while not complete, clearly shows the accumulating changes over time. In birds, for example, feathers that originally evolved for warmth and coloration displays gradually provided a gliding capability when paired with forelegs modifying into wings. Once these changes indicated clear survival advantages, other adaptations were selected for, such as lighter bones and stronger flight muscles. And thus, slowly and over a very long time, one family of reptiles became birds. It is an amazing story, and the stories of the fish, the whales, and the hominins are just as interesting.It is also a story of the people who made the discoveries. For a very long time religion seemed to provide all the answers: marine fossils in strata high up in mountains? – Noah’s flood, of course. A multitude of subspecies, each perfectly adapted to its own niche environment? – why, it’s God’s plan, can’t you see? The many similarities between humans and apes? – You should stop asking questions, heretic. Solving the puzzle of evolution took not only intelligence and determination, but also the courage to question religion. It happened slowly, one generation’s answers building upon those that went before, until finally Darwin (and Alfred Russell Wallace, independently) put all the pieces together, and then it seemed so obvious. When Thomas Huxley read Origin of Species he couldn’t believe he had not thought of it himself.This book provides an excellent introduction to how evolution works, and its examples are clear and informative. It should – but it won’t – put to rest the old claim that there are no transitional fossils, because the people who cling to religious explanations will not read books like this anyway. You should read it, though. It’s well worth your time.
    more
  • Troy Blackford
    January 1, 1970
    Brian Switek writes with unrivaled lucidity about the ramifying branches of evolution over the ages, chronicling the history and origin of types as diverse as whales, horses, birds, dinosaurs, and humankind itself. Along the way, we learn the history not just of these biological categories, but the history of humanity's understanding of these categories. Switek catalogs the human drama of science and discovery alongside the far richer drama of evolutionary development, weaving the strands togeth Brian Switek writes with unrivaled lucidity about the ramifying branches of evolution over the ages, chronicling the history and origin of types as diverse as whales, horses, birds, dinosaurs, and humankind itself. Along the way, we learn the history not just of these biological categories, but the history of humanity's understanding of these categories. Switek catalogs the human drama of science and discovery alongside the far richer drama of evolutionary development, weaving the strands together into a seamless description of our foray into the past and trundling journey into the present, from humble beginnings. A strict 'must-read' for anybody all interest in biology, nature, human kind, and scientific history. It is one of the best books on this topic I've ever encountered, and everything is explained in a style that is at once both clear and precise as well as easy to understand and enjoyable to consume. A vivid, moving, and well-studied examination of an endlessly fascinating topic. Highly, highly recommended.
    more
  • Jack
    January 1, 1970
    It's really great to read an up to date paleontology book. My only criticism is that the book itself reads like a textbook and can get a bit dry at times. Still it's a good book, packed with a ton of great information about the history of paleontology, including research into the evolution of dinosaurs, horses, whales and of course us! I just wish it was written differently.
    more
  • Brad
    January 1, 1970
    A fun look into the fossil record. Switek offers an engaging look into evolution with his first book. The final two chapters on human fossils - and what they say about humans today - are particularly well crafted.
  • Christopher
    January 1, 1970
    Fascinating survey of life on Earth as revealed by the fossil record, evolution, and extinction. Underscores how precious and tenuous the existence of any species has been over the course of hundreds of millions of years.
  • David Evans
    January 1, 1970
    A superbly readable account of the fossil record that pieces together the links that lead from the most unlikely original creatures to produce profusions of branching descendants, some of whom are living today, and once you consider how unlikely it is that any of us or our fellow creatures are here right now the sense of wonder is immense.This sounds quite dry but the author’s wit and knowledge of the men and women who worked so tirelessly and assiduously to piece bits of fragmented stone A superbly readable account of the fossil record that pieces together the links that lead from the most unlikely original creatures to produce profusions of branching descendants, some of whom are living today, and once you consider how unlikely it is that any of us or our fellow creatures are here right now the sense of wonder is immense.This sounds quite dry but the author’s wit and knowledge of the men and women who worked so tirelessly and assiduously to piece bits of fragmented stone together and work out what on earth evolved from what, let alone what didn’t (and how they tell the difference I still have no idea but am very grateful that they bothered). We might have got to our current level of knowledge sooner but for the hubris of mankind desiring to see a purpose in evolution to reach the supposed pinnacle that is Homo sapiens. “But our human conceit blinds us to the true pattern of the fossil record...” we only have 4 limbs because of an ancient error in which some fish got four fins rather than the usual two. The tails of whales go up and down because their land ancestors’ spines worked that way. This is a fascinating book and, finishing it, I wish to sit right down and read it again.
    more
  • Last Ranger
    January 1, 1970
    Reading the Book of Earth:This excellent book covers a lot of ground, in more ways than one. Part science and part history, "Written in Stone" by science writer Brian Switek offers an overview of how men of science came to understand the Earth and its myriad life forms. If you are an experienced reader of the Earth Sciences some of this material may already be familiar to you but Switek presents it in a fresh, informative manner. Starting in the 15th Century, and probably before, men Reading the Book of Earth:This excellent book covers a lot of ground, in more ways than one. Part science and part history, "Written in Stone" by science writer Brian Switek offers an overview of how men of science came to understand the Earth and its myriad life forms. If you are an experienced reader of the Earth Sciences some of this material may already be familiar to you but Switek presents it in a fresh, informative manner. Starting in the 15th Century, and probably before, men of science noticed how the landscape was arranged in layers and some of those layers contained rock formations that looked a lot like the remains of living things. If these were indeed traces of long dead plants and animals, how did they come to be entombed in solid rock and why were the shells of sea creatures often found so far inland or in high mountain locations? Early studies of Geology and Evolution were often hampered by Religious Doctrine that teaches a strict interpretation of Scripture that often ran contrary what science had to say on the subjects. Throughout the book Switek introduces you to some of the scientist who shaped our understanding of the world around us. Men like Charles Lyell, Thomas Huxley, Alfred Wallace and, of course, Darwin himself. What they discovered and what they proposed was controversial to say the least and has remained so, to this very day. For me the most interesting parts of the book dealt with the history of life as we understand it today. The transition of fish to tetrapod, how birds may have learned to fly, why whales and elephants got so big. Then there's Man's story, tracing our journey from the trees to the ground and why "Homo sapiens" is probably the last of a varied group. This book may not be for everyone but if you're at all interested in prehistoric life and the geological history of our world then "Written in Stone" may be just what you've been looking for. This is Switek's first book and it's a good one, a little technical in parts but clearly written for the layman reader. Both the print and e-reader editions are illustrated with archival photos, numerous charts, graphs and animal reconstructions. I had no technical or downloading problems with this Kindle edition.Last Ranger
    more
  • Eric
    January 1, 1970
    Relatively quick and easy to understand read describing Darwin's theory of evolution based on external driving forces such as natural selection and genetic drift. The book deals primarily with natural selection, but it is important to realize that is not the only factor Darwin put forward in his theory.A point to make since many of the other reviews are not clear on this. Evolution means change, no more, no less. Darwin's Theory of Evolution is specifically related to what forces wer Relatively quick and easy to understand read describing Darwin's theory of evolution based on external driving forces such as natural selection and genetic drift. The book deals primarily with natural selection, but it is important to realize that is not the only factor Darwin put forward in his theory.A point to make since many of the other reviews are not clear on this. Evolution means change, no more, no less. Darwin's Theory of Evolution is specifically related to what forces were at work in evolving species. At the time of Darwin, many scientist realized there was some evolution occurring, but they thought it was more ordered and followed a linear trend from least advanced to most advanced species.What Darwin hypothesized was that natural selection and other forces that effect evolution. The driving forces were external, based on environmental changes, time, and random chance. The important point was that forces were not internal to a species. Because a species swam a lot, didn't make that species better swimmers. Instead: because a species were good swimmers that species had a competitive advantage over the species that were not as good of swimmers make them more likely to survive (less likely to get eaten by predators, etc).Based on the information in this book, much of what Darwin did was present the framework for the theory of evolution by the process of natural selection. The fossil evidence of the time was lacking, and they didn't have the advanced gene techniques that we understand now, and he did an excellent job of laying down a general purpose answer and over time other scientists found evidence that supported Darwin's theory, and even came to use that theory (successfully) as a prediction method.The book can be a bit difficult to keep track of all the species names mentioned, but overall you can glaze over the individual names if you have trouble following those, and the book is still relatively easy to read (but still a lot more difficult than most novels). I recommend the book for anyone who wants a better understanding of the Theory of Evolution by the Process of Natural Selection (and other driving forces).
    more
  • Jaksen
    January 1, 1970
    Totally absorbing read and a great book for the dinosaur-fossil aficionado, which I am. Written in a somewhat technical style, yet certainly not above the head of anyone with a science degree, background, or interest. (You have to have some science background, or you're going to be wading into deep water fast.) A good way to keep up with a lot of the new research in the field, while at the same time reviewing - or relearning - how we got here from there. Chapters are complete, and can be read ou Totally absorbing read and a great book for the dinosaur-fossil aficionado, which I am. Written in a somewhat technical style, yet certainly not above the head of anyone with a science degree, background, or interest. (You have to have some science background, or you're going to be wading into deep water fast.) A good way to keep up with a lot of the new research in the field, while at the same time reviewing - or relearning - how we got here from there. Chapters are complete, and can be read out of order. They're actually long essays on different topics: evolution of cetaceans, the horse, an update and overview on human evolution, etc. I wish there'd been more diagrams, but that's the sort of book this is, factual and multi-viewpoint, though Switek will eventually tell you where he stands on certain issues.I love the fact, though, that evolution is portrayed as a multi-facted web or network, and not a single staircase-type process as so many of us were taught (when I went to school.) Species change over time, and many arrive at a 'dead end' - bad word - or in other words, become extinct. But as Switek candidly points out, and portrays, all species come to an end, even those who are the most successful for their time and place.One way to read this book: with an ipad or laptop at your side. I often did this so I could see for myself the many species mentioned in the book. It colored up my reading, so to speak, which took place mainly during the Blizzard named 'Linus,' in February, 2015. (Yeah, we had about fourteen inches of snow on top of a previous 18 or so inches.)I used to follow Switek when he wrote his column, 'Laelaps' on wired.com. I know he's elsewhere on the net now, but that was my first experience with his writing and expertise. Great writer. I hope he keeps them coming.
    more
  • Scott
    January 1, 1970
    As with any brief survey of a complicated topic with a long, convoluted history, written for non-specialists, this book raises some questions, mostly due to the reader's own level of understanding going in. That said, Written In Stone does an excellent job of presenting the latest information about evolution, a rapidly (erm) evolving science that has added a considerable amount of data since I was in school. If you completed your education more than two or three years ago, there will be interest As with any brief survey of a complicated topic with a long, convoluted history, written for non-specialists, this book raises some questions, mostly due to the reader's own level of understanding going in. That said, Written In Stone does an excellent job of presenting the latest information about evolution, a rapidly (erm) evolving science that has added a considerable amount of data since I was in school. If you completed your education more than two or three years ago, there will be interesting new information in this book. If you are looking for a basic knowledge or refresher about this science, or if you just want to become familiar with the latest aspects of the theory, this is a good place to start. If it leaves you with questions, as it surely will, you can use this as a springboard into more detailed info on specific elements.
    more
  • Fernando M.
    January 1, 1970
    Brian Switek, delivers a comprehensive look into the broad history of evolutionary science. From the minutiae of paleontological record-keeping and debate, to the inner-mechanisms of the science itself. The topics are broad, varied, and impressive, but Switek makes it work. An impressive debut from the young science writer.If you're a new reader in the field of evolutionary science or paleontology, this book can do you no wrong.If your looking for new-ground t Brian Switek, delivers a comprehensive look into the broad history of evolutionary science. From the minutiae of paleontological record-keeping and debate, to the inner-mechanisms of the science itself. The topics are broad, varied, and impressive, but Switek makes it work. An impressive debut from the young science writer.If you're a new reader in the field of evolutionary science or paleontology, this book can do you no wrong.If your looking for new-ground to tread on the topic, you're better looking off elsewhere. Cetacean, Equine, and Hominid ancestry is stuff you've probably already seen.
    more
  • Jente Ottenburghs
    January 1, 1970
    If someone says that 'there are not transitional fossils', give them this book. Brian Switek does a great job in explaining how evolution works and what we can deduce from the fossil record. He presents a nice mix of history, biology and a bit of philosophy. The book nicely documents impressive cases, such as the evolution of land animals, dinosaurs to birds, reptiles to mammals, whales, horses and humans. The only minor point is that the writing is sometimes a bit dry (hence 4 stars instead of If someone says that 'there are not transitional fossils', give them this book. Brian Switek does a great job in explaining how evolution works and what we can deduce from the fossil record. He presents a nice mix of history, biology and a bit of philosophy. The book nicely documents impressive cases, such as the evolution of land animals, dinosaurs to birds, reptiles to mammals, whales, horses and humans. The only minor point is that the writing is sometimes a bit dry (hence 4 stars instead of 5).
    more
  • Kim Browning
    January 1, 1970
    I think this one is for paleontology geeks. It is a little too dry and in the weeds for the masses. But as a paleontology geek myself, this was an enjoyable read. Switek ends the book with this philosophical take:"If we can let go of our conceit, we may find that an understanding of evolution makes life on this planet all the more precious. Every living species is a unique, still-changing part of lineages that have persisted for billions of years, and once they are gone they are lost I think this one is for paleontology geeks. It is a little too dry and in the weeds for the masses. But as a paleontology geek myself, this was an enjoyable read. Switek ends the book with this philosophical take:"If we can let go of our conceit, we may find that an understanding of evolution makes life on this planet all the more precious. Every living species is a unique, still-changing part of lineages that have persisted for billions of years, and once they are gone they are lost forever. The same is true of our species. Sooner or later extinction claims all."
    more
  • Joshua Wetenkamp
    January 1, 1970
    1 star means “I didn’t like it”. That doesn’t mean it was terrible, just means the few chapters I read were ok, then the last one was boring. I just came off of a bad book; wasn’t willing to invest more time into a so so read. But honestly, the chapter that talks about lungfish was boring. Kinda like he was writing a fixed length essay without enough content.
    more
  • Kirsten
    January 1, 1970
    The history of paleontology, its main figures and theories, and thereby a theoretical (if abbreviated) history of life on earth as well. A bit dry at times, esp considering it seems to be written for a popular audience, but nonetheless fascinating.
  • Michael Reilly
    January 1, 1970
    A detailed examination of fossil history, evolution and new discoveries. Brian Switek's book asks a lot of questions, and answers many of them with some clarity, producing a rich, multifaceted storyline that is always engaging and informative, and backed by solid research and science.
    more
  • Conrad Leibel
    January 1, 1970
    Exceptional book on the fossil record. Detailed history of how evolution grew as a scientific theory in addition to a good overview of paleontology and aspects of both environmental science and biology. Highly recommended!
  • Wanda Ruzanski
    January 1, 1970
    This is a decent layman's summary of paleontology. I'd give this to a bright student interested in dinosaurs as a good introduction to the field. One star removed because there is no index.
  • Laura (Madsen) McLain
    January 1, 1970
    Part history, part science; tells the story of evolution with particular discussion of whales, horses, and humans.
  • Na
    January 1, 1970
    One of the best non-fiction books I have read in the last couple years. Switek does a phenomenal job through his story telling to illuminate the beauty and brilliance of evolution.
  • Jessica
    January 1, 1970
    Had to stop at the 50% mark. Started off really great–fresh writing and original concept. But the halt starts at about the 30% mark and never quite picks up again.
  • Lee
    January 1, 1970
    Once upon a time, if you were rich enough then you could be a polymath. The word polymath comes from the Greek “mathe” for learning and “poly” for parrot, and as the etymology suggests it refers to people who know everything there is to know and can repeat it back to you when offered a cracker. True polymaths, those who know the sum total of extant human knowledge, probably haven't existed since the first group of homo sapiens in Ethiopia split into two. But there's a second etymology: “polus” f Once upon a time, if you were rich enough then you could be a polymath. The word polymath comes from the Greek “mathe” for learning and “poly” for parrot, and as the etymology suggests it refers to people who know everything there is to know and can repeat it back to you when offered a cracker. True polymaths, those who know the sum total of extant human knowledge, probably haven't existed since the first group of homo sapiens in Ethiopia split into two. But there's a second etymology: “polus” from the Latin for much, and “mathe” from the Latin for heavy. As in: he's learnt so much that his brain is quite heavy. And so polymath came to mean simply someone who knows a lot, in particular they should be able to hold a decent conversation on any scientific topic (knowledge of arts not required).The last polymath was apparently a guy called Thomas Young who died in 1829. Look: there's even a book about him. It's no secret why polymathism died off. It takes ten years to go from secondary school to finishing a PhD, and all that means is that you're very knowledgeable about one question in one small area of one small sub-field of your area of science as a whole. So you might know all there is to know about, say, I don't know, counting algebraic points in sets that are definable in certain o-minimal structures, but know nothing about other areas of maths, never mind chemistry, biology, or physics.So until someone figures out how to download Wikipedia into people's brains, there's little hope of anyone ever knowing everything about everything, or even something about everything. But science is a big and awesome world, and I'd rather explore it all my life than sit down where I am and complain that I'll never see it all.Written in Stone is a nice little book for this venture. It captures some of the science behind palaeontology as well as its history. The fossil record is infamously incomplete – a boon for young Earth creationists who smugly point out there's no evidence for evolution because no one has ever found a fossil of a fish with legs, or an amphibian with half a spine, or a young Earth creationist with an open mind. But fossils of all these things are out there (save the last one I guess), they're just rare and hard to find. Every fossil found is a single frame from a movie that's been running for billions of years. How people read the script of this aeon-long film based on a few thousand stills makes for an interesting story in itself, and Brian Switek tells it well.
    more
  • Melissa
    January 1, 1970
    I ended up skimming a little in the middle because I need to get this back to the library. Not a quick read for me, having no paleontology background, but interesting nonetheless. A few quotes from the end:In our lonely isolation we have often wondered, "What makes us human?" We now know the answer: "Surprisingly little." ...Foolishly, we have taken our isolation to mean that we are the true victors in life's relentless race. Whether meaning is to be found in the heavens or in oursel I ended up skimming a little in the middle because I need to get this back to the library. Not a quick read for me, having no paleontology background, but interesting nonetheless. A few quotes from the end:In our lonely isolation we have often wondered, "What makes us human?" We now know the answer: "Surprisingly little." ...Foolishly, we have taken our isolation to mean that we are the true victors in life's relentless race. Whether meaning is to be found in the heavens or in ourselves, we feel a pervasive need to ennoble our heritage. ...There is no reason to fear. Life is most precious when its unity and rarity are recognized, and we are among the rarest of things.We are constantly grappling with our place in nature. In the over 4.6-billion-year history of our planet and the over three billion years that life has existed on earth, organisms like us and our hominin cousins have only evolved once, and at a relatively late date, at that. Rather than suggest that creatures like us were somehow predestined to be, this fact of the record means that...hominins are the rare products of a contingent process that probably would not evolve again if evolution were restarted. Some might find this hard to accept. Life-forms in innumerable splendid varieties have flourished and been extinguished on this planet, and yet we still feel compelled to find some reason, any reason, that our existence was premeditated and imbued with special meaning...Such hubris is absurd. If we can let go of our conceit, we may find that an understanding of evolution makes life on this planet all the more precious. Sooner or later, extinction claims us all...If we wish to know ourselves, we must understand our history. We are creatures of time and chance.
    more
  • Brady Clemens
    January 1, 1970
    Most of what Switek writes about in this book is familiar territory to me in one way or another. That said, it was beautifully-written and accessible to the non-specialist as well as being an easy read. For anyone with an interest in the history of paleontology, geology or desiring an overview of the current thinking on the evolution of dinosaurs into birds, whales, horses or humans, this is the book you should get. Switek concludes with a chapter on the place of humans in nature, and he address Most of what Switek writes about in this book is familiar territory to me in one way or another. That said, it was beautifully-written and accessible to the non-specialist as well as being an easy read. For anyone with an interest in the history of paleontology, geology or desiring an overview of the current thinking on the evolution of dinosaurs into birds, whales, horses or humans, this is the book you should get. Switek concludes with a chapter on the place of humans in nature, and he addresses the question of whether, were the tape of evolution played over again, as Gould wrote, humans would be the end-product once more. They would likely not, he asserts, though naturally we can never know the answer to that question with certainty. I'll end with Switek's final thoughts, as wonderfully-stated as the ending of Darwin's "Origin" :"If we can let go of our conceit, we may find that an understanding of evolution makes life on this planet all the more precious. Every living species is a unique, still-changing part of lineages that have persisted for billions of years, and once they are gone they are lost forever. The same is true of our species. Sooner or later, extinction claims all. "Nothing quite like us has ever existed on earth before and may not ever again after we are gone. Given the contingencies of our own history, that we exist at all is amazing. If we wish to know ourselves, we must understand our history. We are creatures of time and chance."
    more
  • Pctrollbreath
    January 1, 1970
    This is an easy, pleasant book to read.The book is structured in an episodic way looking at different aspects of paleontology, for example the evolution of whales, or the evolution of horses, by first looking at the history of the science in these areas over the last couple of centuries or so showing how knowledge of the science has gradually built up followed by a summary description of current knowledge on the subject.The structure of this book is what makes it a comfor This is an easy, pleasant book to read.The book is structured in an episodic way looking at different aspects of paleontology, for example the evolution of whales, or the evolution of horses, by first looking at the history of the science in these areas over the last couple of centuries or so showing how knowledge of the science has gradually built up followed by a summary description of current knowledge on the subject.The structure of this book is what makes it a comfortable (but not shallow) read. By focusing to start with on the history of an aspect of evolution, the author takes the opportunity to include a large number of entertaining anecdotes about early scientists and their quirks, which keep you interested and entertained, whilst the way that he describes there understanding of what the science is takes you from the intuitive assumptions that you initially had on the subject to the more counter intuitive facts that are the modern day view on an easy to climb learning curve. This is impressive science writing.The book is modern enough that if you haven't took much notice of the science over the last four or five years, like me, you'll find that things have moved on......e.g. Previous reading made me aware that birds had evolved from dinosaurs, I wasn't aware that many dinosaurs that we traditionally think of as scaled were in fact feathered.I really enjoyed this book, and would recommend reading it.
    more
  • Steven
    January 1, 1970
    Switek explores how the fossil record has been used in developing our ideas around evolution, and how our own human prejudices and vanities have impacted these fields. Chapter track developments in theories and discoveries in paleontology and paleoanthropology following sample evolutionary innovations -- from early ideas as to what fossils actually where, to trying to find the origins of the earlies land-dwelling vertebrates, to the development of birds, whales, horses, and us. Throughout, Swite Switek explores how the fossil record has been used in developing our ideas around evolution, and how our own human prejudices and vanities have impacted these fields. Chapter track developments in theories and discoveries in paleontology and paleoanthropology following sample evolutionary innovations -- from early ideas as to what fossils actually where, to trying to find the origins of the earlies land-dwelling vertebrates, to the development of birds, whales, horses, and us. Throughout, Switek describes how scientists in the past, and to this day, have tried to apply order, hierarchy and an idea of movement toward "higher" forms to the process of evolution. But more and more, we are finding that the development of life on earth is more of, in his words, "a directionless unfolding." One finishes the book with a sense of how, with any number of small changes in the development of life on Earth, this could be a vastly different place. As he concludes, "We are creatures of time and chance."
    more
  • Carlos
    January 1, 1970
    Having recently finished The Origin of Species I found this book to be a nice follow up to that seminal work. Switek takes the reader through the historical journey of understanding what fossils are and why they are important. Along the way he manages to both highlight the way in which fossils were misused, from being physically misassembled to being ignored for not suiting the discoverer’s preconceived notions, and the way in which they served to shed massive new light in our understanding of e Having recently finished The Origin of Species I found this book to be a nice follow up to that seminal work. Switek takes the reader through the historical journey of understanding what fossils are and why they are important. Along the way he manages to both highlight the way in which fossils were misused, from being physically misassembled to being ignored for not suiting the discoverer’s preconceived notions, and the way in which they served to shed massive new light in our understanding of evolution. By pointing out the several (recent!) times in which fossils have been misunderstood to fill some “missing link” or earliest ‘____’ ancestor Switek also manages to give the readers a more nuanced understanding of evolution and the way in which it is sometimes contaminated with the erroneous idea of the “March of Progress”. While the book make not make all readers fall in love with fossils, the interested reader will definitely benefit from Switek’s interesting take on the subject.
    more
Write a review