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Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters Hardcover – Dec 15 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Prothero, a geologist at Occidental College (After the Dinosaurs), explains how rich the fossil record has become. His goal is two-fold. First, he wants to demonstrate the wide variety of transitional forms that have been found, many within the past 20 years. Second, he aims to discredit the creationist movement. I have tried to document how they routinely distort or deny the evidence, quote out of context, and do many other dishonest and unethical things—all in the name of pushing their crusade. He accomplishes both of his goals (though he can be repetitious regarding the creationists), and his descriptions of recent research, much of it his own, are compelling. Prothero explains that the Cambrian explosion of life forms was anything but an explosion, and presents the impressive transitional fossils between reptiles and birds, along with striking evidence for mammalian evolution, including the relationship among hominid groups. With good science and some specific rebuttals to creationist arguments, this book demonstrates the importance of paleontology to the study of evolution. 208 illus. (Nov.)
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This book demonstrates the importance of paleontology to the study of evolution.(Publishers Weekly)
A must read...Brilliant and masterfully researched.(Greg Sweatt Fossil News)
Engagingly written and scientifically accurate... Highly recommended.(CHOICE)
This is one of the best books of its kind.(Christopher diCarlo Guelph Mercury)
The book is very valuable as a demonstration of the quality of the fossil record, which has improved dramatically in the past decade.(Peter Dodson Reports of the National Center for Science Education)
(T)o anyone who wishes to be informed on our current knowledge about fossils and their interpretation, and for anyone who is still not so sure whom to believe, this book will straighten things out and will be an unforgettable reading experience.(Zentralblatt fur Geologie und Palaontologie) See all Product Description
Top Customer Reviews
Evolution, he declares forthrightly, is real. The fossils support it in too many ways to be subjected to doubt. Those who try to erode the idea or dismiss the evidence are mistaken, misdirected and often malicious in their methods. Let there be no uncertainty, the panorama of life is there to see. There are many ways of confirming how animal life has varied over time and Prothero takes us through the analysis tools used to assess the evidence. Radiometric dating should be well understood by now, but creationists still find ways to attempt to challenge it. We learn about taxonomy and cladistics, one of the more arcane aspects of fossil analysis. Molecular analysis, what DNA can tell us about the past is, of course, the fastest growing field in palaeontology.
These tools, applied to the fossils and the environment they were found in, establish the relationships demonstrating that challenging evolution is a meaningless enterprise. Still, the challengers continue to emerge. Prothero's prime target in his account is Duane Gish. The Institute for Creation Research.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
One of the most important (and appealing) aspects of Prothero's book is that he takes a "gloves off" approach to creationism, not waffling on the subject like other recent works (i.e. Whitham's "Where Darwin Meets the Bible"). This more up-front tone allows Prothero to look at the claims of creationists and ID advocates in depth, his excellent review of the formation of the Grand Canyon (the only one I know of in the popular literature) being a fantastic example of melding positive scientific evidence with a thorough refutation of pseudoscience. Still, while Prothero takes a more aggressive approach than other recent authors the book is hardly a long diatribe against creationism; Prothero combines personal experience debating YEC stalwarts like Duane Gish with his extensive knowledge of paleontology, geology, and evolution, delivering a successful one-two punch that is informative on more than just one level.
If I have any complaint about this book, it is only that some of the sections require a little more fine-tuning or focus to bring out the important evolutionary trends. The chapter on Dinosaurs is a good example of this; while Prothero provides a good review of important fossil finds, the origin and diversification of sauropod dinosaurs, ceratopsians, and dromeosaurs could use some further clarification as there is certainly more to the story than was given room for discussion. This is a minor point, though, as the book proceeds at breakneck speed through geologic time, providing an overview of various transitional fossils and important evolutionary changes. Indeed, while this treatment might not entirely satisfy a reader looking for excruciating detail, it is an excellent primer for those largely unfamiliar with the fossil record.
As Prothero himself notes in the book, the fossil record is incredibly rich and paleontologists continue to accumulate knowledge with every new day in the lab and the field, but up until now many writers have avoided listing many of the important fossils with unfamiliar and tongue-twisting names in popular works. Fortunately for us, Prothero breaks from the older approach and acts as a guide to the diversity of the fossil record, recognizing that it is no longer sufficient to place a group of fossils in a straight line in an attempt to convince the reader that evolution has occurred without illuminating the "bushiness" the evolution produces.
In summary, Prothero's book is a joy to read and provides an excellent summary of the current richness of the fossil record for specialist and layman alike, with the added bonus of a comprehensive refutation of creationist claims about the fossil record. If you're looking for a comprehensive primer on evolution, or even a refresher on the current state of fossil finds important to evolution, you need look no further than this book.
Prothero's book is also a superb guide to the history and - regrettably - ever-present danger posed by Intelligent Design advocates and other creationists. The first three chapters emphasize the profound intellectual differences between valid mainstream science like contemporary evolutionary biology and pseudoscientific religious nonsense like "scientific" creationism in all of its flavors, especially Intelligent Design. Prothero offers a detailed look at the scientific method in the very first chapter, comparing and contrasting it with creationism (He also provides a superb introductory guide too to the writing of the Judeo-Christian Old Testament.). The second chapter is an in-depth exploration of creationism, tracing its roots in early 20th Century American Fundamentalist Protestant Christianity, and, of course, describing the emergence of Intelligent Design and its zealous promotion by the Discovery Institute, the Seattle, Washington-based "conservative" think tank (However, much to my amazement, he does not emphasize sufficiently, the important work done by philosopher of science Barbara Forrest and biologist Paul Gross in their book "Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design" in exposing the Discovery Institute's crypto-Fascist agenda for a future United States. Yet, to his credit, he does acknowledge that agenda by referring to its infamous "Wedge Document" while noting the Discovery Institute's deceitful promotion of Intelligent Design at the expense of valid mainstream science like contemporary evolutionary biology.). Finally, in Chapter Three, Prothero exposes both the intellectual inanity of "Flood Geology" and the popular creationist pastime of "quote mining"; the latter, a practice that's still popular with Discovery Institute Senior Fellows Michael Behe, William Dembski and Jonathan Wells.
The next two chapters comprise an excellent introduction to the history and science of evolutionary biology and the theory and practice of cladistic systematics. In Chapter Four, Prothero discusses the history of evolutionary biology, tracing its intellectual roots from the ancient Greeks to Lamarck, Darwin, and those biologists who became the "architects" of the Modern Synthesis Theory of Evolution (also known as the so-called "Neo-Darwinian Synthesis", since it merged population genetics with paleontology, biogeography, ecology and systematics). He also discusses some of the current controversies in contemporary evolutionary biology, beginning with evolutionary developmentaly biology, better known as "Evo - Devo", and, ending, of course, with punctuated equilibrium, noting how often it has been twisted and bent out of shape by creationists of all stripes, who have excelled only in "quote mining" from the published scientific and popular publications written by Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge; the two American invertebrate paleobiologists responsible for "punk eke". In Chapter Five, Prothero offers an especially lucid account of the theory and history of cladistic systematics, emphasizing its importance as a tool for studying both Earth's current biodiversity and its history of life.
In "Part II Evolution? The Fossils Say YES!", Prothero gives us a whirlwind tour of the history of life on Planet Earth, emphasizing major episodes in the history of life on Planet Earth, beginning with the origin of life, and culminating with the emergence of mankind. In Chapter Six, Prothero offers clear, persuasive evidence for the relative ease in creating life from inert organic compounds, brushing aside creationist arguments to the contrary. He debunks the outdated notion of a "Cambrian Explosion" - which remains popular with creationists, including Intelligent Design advocates - in Chapter 7, observing that the fossil record points to instead, a "Cambrian Slow Fuse", involving the gradual diversification of hard-part skeletonized fauna over the span of eighty million years, from the Late Precambrian through early Ordovician. He discusses the emergence of tetrapods from limbless fish in Chapter 10, the rise of early amniotes (which includes the reptiles, birds and mammals) in Chapter 11, and the evolution of flight in avian dinosaurs in Chapter 12, demonstrating the existence of countless "transitional forms". Further chapters are devoted to the origin of whales (Chapter 14) and humans (Chapter 15), and thus, offer a terse, but still thorough, glimpse, at the history of life on this planet. Prothero's coverage is so superb, that I am surprised by his all too brief references to mass extinctions, especially when their very existence ought to raise ample questions about an Intelligent Designer and his ability to "design" life that is extinction resistant.
In the final chapter of his book (Chapter 16), Prothero makes a truly compelling argument explaining why creationism is a clear and present danger, not only to American education, but indeed, the very survival of the United States too. He quotes from an extended excerpt from the Los Angeles Times, describing creationist Ken Ham's indoctrination of young school children against evolution, conjuring up - at least for me - an image of Adolf Hitler's infamous Nuremberg Nazi Party rallies. He blames the advent of creationism since the late 1950s for fostering scientific illiteracy among Americans, and noting that this threatens our future economic success as we compete with other, better educated, countries like those in Europe and East Asia in a global economy increasingly dominated by science and technology. He also argues persuasively that denial of evolution is harmful to our health and well being, graphically illustrating this point by reminding us of the unsuccessful 1984 baboon to human heart transplant by a creationist Loma Linda University surgeon. Prothero's dire warning is a message I have read before, especially from Niles Eldredge, but here, Prothero's remarks are most compelling, and ones that ought to be heeded by all (Not surprisingly, Prothero compares and contrasts current denial of evolution with that of global warming, and finds obvious parallels with both.).
This book is another "smoking gun", distinctly pointing out how Paleontology complements the evidence of Molecular Biology. The first part of the book is devoted to understanding the issue. Chapter 5 "Systematics and Evolution" is very relevant in understanding the evidence in Part 2 of the book. Plus one gets a really good explanation of the "Flood Geology" perspective and the evidence that does not support that illusion.
The second part of this book is exquisite: One sees the evidence, learning how to do so by the expertise of the author (been there as opposed to just reading about it). The excellent drawings and recommended readings at the end of each chapter just encourages one to learn more.
Another objective of the book is clearly spelled out by explicit examples of how people with a particular fundamental religious agenda would abandon honor and reason, redefine science, to arrive at a predetermined conclusion. In other words, I think the author is really annoyed at the "there-are-no-transitional-fossils" from non-scientists who make big bucks on the talking-head circuit. Cool...those jerks irritate me too.
In summary, I LOVE this book - The climb up the cladistic tree of life is so well done. I want to learn more...
First, the book is a thorough, devastating and decisive critique of creationism. Prothero does not settle for summarizing the creationists' main points and announcing, in broad and general terms, why those points fail. He destroys creationist arguments "root and branch," with patient and careful attention to detail, from flood geology to the history of religion, from misconceptions about the Cambrian explosion to the verbal shell-game of so-called "intelligent design" creationism; the result is a veritable evolutionary deluge, which leaves no creationist argument living.
Second, this is the most thorough and fascinating treatment of the fossil evidence for a wide range of evolutionary transformations I have ever seen in a book addressed to a general readership. The origins of the major phyla; the evolution of birds from dinosaurs; the origin of mammals from non-mammalian ancestors; all of these and more are treated in detail, with many clear and helpful drawings by Carl Buell to guide those of us who are not so adept at understanding anatomical lingo. "Everyone knows" that the fossil record is woefully inadequate to inform us much on these subjects; and what everyone knows is wrong. We all know archaeopteryx, for example, but most popular articles and books which address it fail to mention that archaeopteryx is only one of a whole range of interesting dinosaurian/avian transitional fossils; Prothero treats us to a glimpse of the real richness of the fossil record in this and other areas.
Often, books which address creationism in detail lack deep and detailed treatment of real science; and often, books which deal well with biological issues ignore or give only summary discussion of creationism. This book is well worth reading either for its treatment of creationism or for its treatment of the wonders of the fossil record; and these two go hand in hand because ultimately, of course, the best answer to creationism's negative arguments is the positive evidence for evolution.
Somewhere out there is a creationist who is looking for a good read. Would you like to better understand geology, paleontology and biology, whether it's to "know your enemy" or just to improve your general state of knowledge? Have you heard it said that there are no transitional forms in the fossil record? Would you like to see for yourself? I can think of no better book to read.
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