Book Review: Evolution – The Whole Story
by Steve Parker
Firefly Books, 2015
So rapid is the rate of scientific discovery these days, so hard-working are the field workers and lab workers, so vast are the new tracts of land laid open by farming and deforestation, that an ethos of watchful, inquiring humility is laid thick upon the writers of science textbooks, who know better than most the constant state of flux that characterizes their subject. Not for these writers the grandiose proclamations that might come from experts in feng shui or paleo cuisine, no! They’re far to acutely aware of how the quicksilver progress of science would make a mockery of, wait, wait, hang on – here’s a big new textbook from Firefly called Evolution: The Whole Story. Huh.
It’s written by Steve Parker, Senior Scientific Fellow of the Zoological Society of London, and it’s well over 500 pages long, and between the time when its page proofs entered the printing press and the time when the printed texts emerged two hours later, roughly 1500 new fossils were discovered, including two entirely new species of upright, large-brained hominids. In between the time when the still-warm copies of the book were boxed up for distribution and the time when those same boxes reached their mobbed-up New Jersey distribution warehouses, paradigm-shifting new discoveries were made in the evolutionary record of snails, bats, three-toed lizards, dogs, zebras, orangutans, and humans. By the time Evolution: The Whole Story actually reached the shelves of your nearest Barnes & Noble, most browsing molecular biologists would look at it and think, How quaint.
Perhaps Steve Parker has a subtle sense of humor. Or perhaps he fought for the plainly obvious title Evolution: The Ongoing Story and was overruled (although to overrule a Senior Fellow of the Zoological Society of London must require some pretty hot cupcakes indeed). Regardless, we must look beyond the title if we’re to appreciate the wonders of the book itself, however provisional those wonders might be.
And make no mistake, there are wonders aplenty in Evolution: The Whole, Complete, Unalterable Story. Of course, what with evolution being the pitiless process it is, the bulk of any book like this will deal with extinction; for every type of unoffending mollusk or loathesome but apparently unkillable mosquito or weird horseshoe crab that seems to amble through the millennia unchanged, there are hundreds of far gaudier creatures who rose, flourished, dwindled, and vanished in the long ages of Earth’s history. Indeed, the Earth itself has changed, sometimes radically, as Parker’s book makes clear in ways both clever (the very first image is one of a chameleon, that symbol and synonym for change) and overt (an artist’s-conception painting of a newly-formed Earth, is surface barren, airless rock, its night sky filled with fragmentary moons). For millions and millions of years, Earth was what humans living today would think of as an alien world – hotter, colder, its atmosphere unbreathably rich or poor, and its strange-looking forests and swamps teeming with nightmarish monsters such as the Arthropleura of the Carboniferous Period, some 330 to 270 million years ago, a great barking, clicking millipede the size of a hippopotamus:
Its size according to the time must be taken into account. Arthropleura armata has been estimated to have grown to 9 feet long, which makes it the largest land arthropod in history, and perhaps the biggest arthropod of all, along with the giant sea scorpions. This millipede weighed 220 pounds and would have been able to curl up on a modern double bed with no spare room.
(A giant, alien, vaguely hostile slug-like creature filling up one’s bed – the very thought of it …)
Or the more famous among the dearly departed, also represented in the beautiful illustrations of Evolution: The Whole, Complete, Unalterable Story in Every Detail, marquee animals such as the triceratops, the dodo, and the Tyrannosaurus rex, along with a certain super-shark:
Bearing teeth as big as a human hand, the giant shark megalodon (mega-tooth), 52 feet long, menaced the seas between 16 million and 11/2 million years ago, in the middle Miocene and early Pleistocene epochs. Vying in the stakes for the world’s largest predator with the living sperm whale and one of its extinct cousins – as well as a few mosasaurs and pliosaurs, megalodon is certainly the most fearsome. This legendary creature has a strong grip on the public imagination, given that the shark is only known from several dozen vertebrae and a few hundred teeth.
(In that reference to “the public imagination,” Parker might be alluding to a certain series of gripping novels now sadly in abeyance)
Of course, that mention of megalodon only being known from a few tiny bits of fossilized bone and teeth draws attention to the sheer number of illustrations here that are of neither living creatures in the world today nor reconstructed skeletons in the American Museum of Natural History but rather the aforementioned artist’s conceptions, as in the case with pakicetus, a posited and much-contested “transitional form” between terrestrial quadruped and ocean-going whale, here shown in a computer mock-up wading in some primordial estuary. These pictures will be bones of contention for the two-thirds of the adult American population who don’t believe that anything in Parker’s book really happened, who believe instead that all the kinds of animals that have ever existed on Earth are the kinds we see around us right now, today, and that their ancestors were taken onto a gigantic wooden boat in order to save them from a world-wide flood four thousand years ago. Those readers will look at something like Evolution: Case Closed with scorn and mockery, and as the tsunami of anti-intellectualism continues to engulf the United States, those readers continue to grow in number and conviction.
But their children still have to go to school, and a copy of Parker’s book – with its by-now-necessary updates – should be parked squarely in every middle grade and high school (and, hell, college)-level science classroom from Maine to Marin County.