The Garden of Ediacara: Discovering the First Complex Life Paperback – Sep 26 2000
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"[A] thought-provoking personal exploration of what the Ediacaran fossils represent." -- "Tree"
About the Author
Mark A. S. McMenamin is professor of geology at Mount Holyoke College. He is the author of a number of groundbreaking books on paleobiology and evolution, including The Emergence of Animals: The Cambrian Breakthrough and Hypersea: Life on Land (with Dianna L. S. McMenamin), both published by Columbia. He edited and annotated the English translation of Vladimir Vernadsky's The Biosphere, and is also the coeditor (with Lynn Margulis) of the English translation of L. Khakhina's Concepts of Symbiogenesis.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The "travelogue" or biographical information didn't bother me much. It's fairly standard in popular science writing, because the non-scientific challenges of field work in remote and exotic (to Western readers, anyway) locations is interesting to the lay public. (See, for example, Peter Ward's book Gorgon, which I think strikes a better balance between personal detail and the scientific story.) However, I agree with some of the critics in thinking that McMennamin overdoes it with his extended digressions on Namibian history and the evolution of German aircraft. Some of his diary entries are overlong and could have been summarized in a few sentences. The space taken up by these digressions and diary entries could have been devoted to more photos and high-quality illustrations, and to a more detailed discussion of the evidence supporting his conclusions. The author does a better job focusing on the science in the second half of the book.
What most bothered me in this book was the author's 9th inning invocation of neovitalism to explain parallel or convergent evolution, which seemed to come out of left field (to continue the baseball metaphor). It appears to me to be based on rather thin evidence: the very termite-like social organization of naked mole rats (Heterocephalus glaber), and the similar adaptations of distantly related desert plants. The naked mole rat example seems exceptional and coincidental. If vitalism was at work in evolution, I'd expect more widespread termite-like eusociality in fossorial vertebrates and the close but non-fossorial relatives of naked mole rats. The example of convergence in desert plants seems to me adequately explained by the extremity of the environment limiting the range of possible adaptations that will work. Only those organisms that come up with successful adaptations will survive in the desert, another form of contingency. McMennamin should consider writing another book more fully making the case that natural selection cum evo-devo cum self-organizing criticality (call it neo-neo-Darwinism) needs help from any sort of vitalism.