Compelling lessons by the veteran science writer.
Though he sticks to his traditional 25-chapter layout—e.g., The Story of Life in 25 Fossils, etc.—geologist and paleontologist Prothero usually describes more than one discovery per chapter. He delivers thorough, lucid lessons in evolution so comprehensive that science buffs may skip the most familiar parts but eat up gems such as an entire chapter on the evolution of the elephant and the whale. The author devotes several chapters to astronomy, describing the evolution of the universe and the discovery, barely a century ago, of the Earth’s great age. Darwin makes his entrance in the third chapter and rarely leaves the narrative, both because of his discovery—not evolution, an ancient concept, but natural selection—and his simple charisma as a subject of study. On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, was a bombshell that galvanized his contemporaries and generations of scientists that followed. He sorts out several ancient conundrums. That evolution cannot explain the dazzlingly complex eye is an ancient conundrum, but Prothero explains it. Many readers have seen the smooth progression of horse evolution from the dog-sized eohippus to the modern stallion, but that turns out to be wrong. In the concluding chapters, the author dutifully reviews the human family tree, fossils, and DNA, but he adds spice by emphasizing that we are continuing to evolve—although not into the giant-headed creatures often depicted in science fiction. Evolution, Prothero reminds us, aims for adaptation, not improvement. Brains have changed little in the past few hundred thousand years, but our teeth continue to shrink. White skin evolved about 20,000 years ago, adults acquired the ability to digest milk 8,000 years ago, and we’re becoming more resistant to disease. Like many science writers, Prothero cannot resist the temptation to urge creationists to examine the evidence, a futile effort because creationists believe they possess the truth, and truth—unlike theories such as evolution—doesn’t require evidence.
An outstanding update on evolution.
Pub Date: today
Page Count: 384
Publisher: Columbia Univ.
Review Posted Online: Sept. 10, 2020
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2020