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The Garden of Ediacara: Discovering the First Complex Life [Paperback]

Mark A. S. McMenamin

Price: CDN$ 32.00 & FREE Shipping. Details
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Book Description

Sept. 26 2000

During an expedition in Sonora, Mexico, paleontologist Mark A. S. McMenamin unearthed fossils of creatures dated at approximately 600 million years old -- making them the oldest large body fossils ever discovered. These circular fossils, known as Ediacarans, seemed to defy explanation. Representatives of marine life forms that existed in Precambrian times, as much as fifty million years before life on earth began to diversify rapidly, the specimens bore a superficial resemblance to jellyfish.

A typical Ediacaran had a quilted body, three curving arms at the center, and a fringe of fine radial lines. McMenamin's curiosity was fueled by the puzzle of whether the Ediacarans were animals or some other type of organism. How could such complex forms of life appear so suddenly, without extensive records of prior evolution? Yet, this seems to be exactly what the Ediacarans had done.

The Garden of Ediacara presents a mesmerizing documentary of a major scientific discovery, detailing McMenamin's trip to Namibia, where, with a party that included the renowned paleontologist Adolf Seilacher, the author investigates a spectacular cast made from a colony of fossils in the Nama desert. He chronicles the long, often futile search made by earlier scientists for Ediacara, which began more than a century ago in Europe, North America, and Africa, and the various types of Ediacaran fossils that have been uncovered in the years since.

McMenamin concludes that Ediacarans were not animals because they never passed through the ball-shaped embryonic stage peculiar to known animal life forms. But, remarkably, Ediacarans seem to have developed a central nervous system and a brain independent from animal evolution. This startling conclusion has profound implications for our understanding of evolutionary biology, for it indicates that the path toward intelligent life was embarked upon more than once on this planet.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press (Sept. 26 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0231105592
  • ISBN-13: 978-0231105590
  • Product Dimensions: 22.4 x 14.5 x 1.7 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 440 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #1,395,298 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


"[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.

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Customer Reviews

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Amazon.com: 2.0 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Needs work, but still worth reading April 16 2005
By T. Morse - Published on Amazon.com
Although I've only given it two stars (I decided to be more charitable and give it three stars), I'm not sorry I bought the book (used), because it is the only popular book available on this fascinating subject.

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.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Why, Columbia UP, why? April 10 2007
By John T. - Published on Amazon.com
I'm still puzzling over how this one got through the editors at Columbia. The Ediacaran fauna represents a fascinating piece of evolutionary history, and a popular-press work on it would be a great help for students in understanding how the scientific study of evolution works. It could also give an insight into the mind of a scientist. It's a shame that this book does not fit the bill. Other reviewers have covered most of the shortcomings (although they missed my favourite gem - we now know the name of his parents' realtor), but I think the thrust of several reviews, that there is something worthwhile at the end to reward one's wading through the extraneous filler that comprises the majority of the book, is misleading. The meat of the work alluded to by other reviewers dissolves into a very loose presentation of neovitalism that does little more than take away from the author's credibility. I would like to see his scientific ideas presented lucidly, with better editing this time, and then the book could perhaps be of use. Until then, if you want a look at a quirky (but endearing) scientist doing evolution science, read Darwin's Dreampond. For a good popular look at evolution, try Carl Zimmer's "Evolution" or Mayr's "What Evolution Is."

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