Brian Switek Investigating Evolution, the Fossil Record, and the History of Science

Written in Stone

Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature

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The U.S. cover of Written in Stone

On November 24, 1859 Charles Darwin unveiled his revolutionary idea that all life had evolved over countless ages by means of natural selection. It made sense of the whole of biology, yet it was dogged by a major problem: the fossils that would confirm Darwin's predictions were seemingly nowhere to be found. Most naturalists agreed that evolution was a reality but this absence of ‘transitional fossils’ became one of the most hotly debated issues in evolutionary science. Even by the 1970s some paleontologists were starting to wonder if the transitions – ‘missing links’ in common parlance – had been so quick that no trace of them had been left.

Thankfully these scientists turned out to be wrong. New discoveries and reinvestigations of long-forgotten specimens have coalesced into a flood of transitional fossils. During the past three decades paleontologists have unearthed walking whales from Pakistan, feathered dinosaurs from China, fish with feet from the Arctic Circle, ape-like humans from Africa, and many more bizarre creatures that fill in crucial gaps in our understanding of evolution.

Written in Stone is the first popular account of the remarkable discovery of these fossils and how they have changed our perspective of the tree of life. Only now, with the marriage of paleontology with genetics and embryology, can such a comprehensive story be given. One hundred and fifty years after the publication of Darwin’s Origin, scientists are finally beginning to understand how whales walked into the sea, how horses stood up on their tip-toes, how feathered dinosaurs took to the air and how our own ancestors came down from the trees. As this book shows, there is much still to discover and debates will continue, but this is truly a golden age for those looking to reconstruct the past.

Yet fossils do not speak for themselves. From the staunch opposition to Darwin’s theory by the cantankerous Victorian anatomist Richard Owen to the vociferous debates among anthropologists today about the last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees, Written in Stone also tells the story of the scientists who made the discoveries. By combining the latest discoveries with the history of science Written in Stone explores our changing ideas about nature and our place in it as well as celebrating the variety of life on Earth.

Praise for 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. Prothero

Published in November, 2010 by Bellevue Literary Press