Darwin. Evolution. The two terms are now synonymous and inextricably associated with another, more unfortunate pairing: controversial and polarizing. Indeed, depending on which side of the ideological divide one falls, evolution can denote very different things to different people, regularly conjuring up deep-seated emotion and animosity.
It’s no surprise why. Evolution’s conflict with a literal exegesis of Genesis is a not insignificant problem for religious fundamentalists, including Charles Darwin himself who initially, like many at the time, found little reason to doubt the literal truth of the Bible. Darwin was raised in an Anglican family under the Church of England, the state-established Christian institution in Britain circa 19th century. By all tradition and probability, Darwin seemed destined to pursue a life of vicarage, until he was consigned to the HMS Beagle and embarked on the famed Pacific voyage that would forever imprint his thinking and shift his worldview. His observations during this expedition were difficult to stomach initially. So conscious was Darwin of the weighty implications of his newfound understanding that he sat on his theory of natural selection ( or”descent with modification”) for more than twenty years before taking it public. Even absent the evidence that would best support his theory – the fossil record – and the discovery that would tie it all together – genetics – Darwin’s observations and insight were groundbreaking.
For many, the topic provokes just as much dissonance now as it did in Darwin’s day. While biological evolution, specifically human evolution, is inarguably the most contentious discovery made in all of science, it is also the most important, as its manifestation ushered in a far more intricate and, indeed, far less anthropocentric tale of human origin compared with the long-held belief of distinctly created “kinds.” Yet even after 150 years of increasing corroboration, evolution science is still disputed and rejected, and by the global majority based on recent indicators. Darwin’s magisterial On the Origin of Species has never been out of print, and his observations scarcely out of controversy, though one fact is clear: this controversy does not reside within the scientific community, only outside. Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters, from reputable paleontologist of 30 years, Donald Prothero, illuminates both sides of the debate. With his expertise in fossils and other inter-applicable disciplines, Prothero enlightens his readers on why the occurrence of evolution is a fact of reality absent internal controversy and analyzes the Biblical and largely mythological underpinnings of those outside the community who deny this reality.
To construct the positive case for biological evolution, Prothero marshals his wisdom not just of the fossil record but of geology, biogeography, embryology, contemporary abiogenetic theory and yes, even, Biblical origins and authorship. Certainly one could make the argument that the title of the book is misleading and unrepresentatively specific, though given the broad scope and comprehensive aggregation of knowledge found here, it is a pleasantly misleading one. Prothero initiates the dialog by going into significant detail of historical and modern Biblical interpretation, even devoting entire sections to the Documentary Hypothesis and debunking “flood geology.” The Documentary Hypothesis, which remains as broadly supported as any among Biblical scholarship, posits (in Prothero’s words) “the Bible is a composite of multiple sources that did not always agree with each other.” Though his depth into these matters is largely cursory and unlikely to break new ground for those well-versed in Biblical historicism, his dissection serves as a lucid introductory for those just beginning to probe these thorny, nuanced issues.
Prothero then chronicles in exquisite detail the creationist and intelligent design (ID) movements up to present day, citing the momentous court decisions coming down on both sides of the debate and the major voices and states involved. There is a rich history to be told here of the rhapsodic and very much ongoing divide over the legality of teaching alternative theories to evolution in the public school system. The way he interlaces the separation of church and state doctrine with these affronts to evolution education is insightful and plainly laid out. He also recounts his various debates with creationists and the predictable tactics they use to dismiss and evade the portfolio of evidence now affirmed by all but the least suspicious, most ignorant or intentionally deceptive of minds.
Early on in the book is an exceptional little chapter titled “Nature of Science,” which is perhaps the most important chapter of all in terms of acquiring an understanding of how science works. As an essential prerequisite for the remainder of the book, Prothero was wise in choosing its placement. The essence of science, and its capacity to be relied upon and trusted, is largely a product of the imperatives discussed here, some of which cannot be overstated, such as the tenet of self-correction, proper distinction between the colloquial and scientific usages of theory and other popularly misunderstood terms, and the exclusive interaction of science with testable hypotheses. For those frequently finding themselves in debates over the veracity of evolution or the validity of science itself, this chapter constitutes an irreplaceable reference source.
After the foundation is laid, Prothero starts to unleash his dizzyingly capacious knowledge of the fossil record. Of course, this is the meat and potatoes of the book, and Prothero holds nothing back. As one of the most accomplished paleontologists of the past two decades who has been on the front lines of discoveries of the highest echelon, he presents case after case of evolutionary sequences, replete with transitional forms and supporting fossil data. The narration is logically structured according to fossil chronology, taking us on a sweeping tour from the earliest known life forms to the most recent large-scale transition, modern humans. He commences with the smallest of life on earth, the microorganisms, or the bacteria and viruses (virii?) which subsist in our shared struggle for survival, documenting the relatively rapid evolution these “microfossils” undergo.
He next works his way up to invertebrates and, from there, fish, then proceeds to the nonamniote tetrapods (what the rest of us call “amphibians”). Next he details the selection pressures giving rise to land-based animals’ return to the sea and the Reptilians’ branching evolutionary tree leading to the dinosaurs and, later, birds. Priority is then shifted to the mammals. Horse, rhino, pinniped (seals, sea lions and walruses) and whale evolution are among the most riveting and surprising narratives in all of bioevolution, and their origins are allocated space accordingly. Mammalian phylogeny is probably the most relatable and intriguing to non-scientists and the “curious layman,” but there is only so much space one can dedicate to the fossil evidence while giving equal due to the rest of animal taxonomy. For those looking for a more in-depth rundown of mammal-specific evolution, I recommend picking up Prothero’s earlier work Horns, Tusks, and Flippers: The Evolution of Hoofed Mammals.
Finally, a recap of the most broadly denied transition is provided, that of human primates. Properly, this section is treated no differently from the other evolutionary trees, with full descriptions of the transitional fossils and supporting illustrations. He documents in photo form the surprisingly complete hominid fossil collections preserved by various museums around the world, some of which contain many thousands of hominid bones. Upon his first visit to the Kenya National Museum, Prothero recounts: “A tour through the bomb-proof hominid vault in the Kenya National Museum in Nairobi is a revelation: a whole room full of fossils that document our evolution, and whose existence the creationists must deny.“
Image via IBTimes.com
Of all the lines of evidence buttressing evolution, the fossil record represents the most irrefutable testament to life’s evolutionary history, and the variety of support on display here reaches a scale few other works can match. Indeed, the punch line of the book is the completeness of the fossil record, which only grows more exhaustive with each passing year. As someone who was aware of the existence of fossils that are truly transitional beyond question, even I was a bit surprised at the sheer number of transitional fossils we have discovered and the thoroughness of the modern fossil record. Make no mistake; there is no paucity of specimens for nearly every genus of biological taxonomy. Best of all, this variety is accompanied by an anthology of photos (many of which are full-color) interspersed throughout the text.
I also found great value in the collection of quotes Prothero has chosen to introduce each chapter and section. Timelessly relevant quotes from popular books and scientists of past and present (Stephen Jay Gould and Michael Shermer are two of his favorites) are inserted throughout the book, furthering the effectiveness of each chapter.
If there is a knock to be made against the book, it is Prothero’s inordinate captivation with creationists, especially popular creationists like Duane Gish, whom Prothero has debated multiple times in public. Early in the book, he focuses on debunking creationist mantra, but doesn’t let up as the book proceeds. In fact, certain portions of the book seem almost entirely addressed to a creationist, which is rather obviously a dirty term from where Prothero stands. It wouldn’t be so bad if he had something new to say each time creationism was inserted into the discussion, but it seemed like he was largely repeating points made earlier.
On a slightly pickier note, I wished he had mentioned one of the primary oppositions to fossil science: the reconstruction of a full specimen from a small number of bones. As most all other paleontology books emphasize, you do not need all or even most of a fossil’s bones to extrapolate with accuracy a full fossil. For example, the human body is comprised of 206 bones, but many of those are redundant. If the left tibia bone is intact, the right tibia is unnecessary. Once you account for all the duplicate bones, you’re left with 120 unique fragments. Further, there are specific bones which serve as defining features for certain genera, relegating other bones to a lower priority.
After the last page had been turned, I couldn’t help but feel once again a sense of awe at the intricacy which gave rise to the diversification of species we’ve observed throughout history. The multiple lines of evidence interweaving various scientific disciplines (the synthesis of which is unexplainable outside of Gosse’s Omphalos hypothesis), point to the magnificence of evolution that is as well-supported as it is spellbinding. I find endlessly perplexing the fundamentalist’s continued preoccupation with ancient creation stories when life’s evolutionary origins are exponentially more fascinating and nuanced juxtaposed with the prosaic, simplistic two pages found in the Bible. Here Prothero erects a fine case, based on empirical evidence, for the truth of the former and against the fallaciousness of the latter.
Part textbook, part literary non-fiction, part creationists’ worst nightmare, Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters is perhaps the most universally accessible resource on the topic and presents the most comprehensively compelling case for evolution of any that I have read to date. It answered the most questions and, dare I say, qualifies as a fine candidate for the go-to reference for creationist debunking. Highly recommended.
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