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Rock stars

Book>> Written in Stone, the Hidden Secrets of Fossils and the Story of Life on Earth • by Brian Switek • Icon Books • Rs 5,499

By Shatarupa Sen Mitra
Published: Thursday 15 September 2011

BookRocks and fossils tell many stories. They contain records of life on earth. But the geological record is fundamentally patchy. Even the most rapidly deposited sedimentary rock is marked by periods of non-deposition, or even erosion. So rocks need a narrator to tell their story. Science journalist Brian Switek is one.

In Written in Stone, The Hidden Secrets of Fossils and the story of Life on Earth, he ties together the complementary narrative of life’s history and humankind’s changing understanding of that history. Antediluvians, such as walking whales, land-dwelling fish, feathered dinosaurs, amphibious elephants and upright apes are presented through the eyes of scientists who puzzled over their origins. Switek uses the remains of prehistoric creatures to illustrate how the first tetrapods invaded land from the sea, how the ancestors of whales went back to the sea from land, and how a branch of the dinosaur family eventually took to the air as birds.

imageSwitek travels back centuries to recall how the dark, triangle-shaped tongue stones found across Europe’s countryside were revealed to be teeth of prehistoric sharks swimming in long-extinct seas. We are also called to witness to recent dramas like the 2004 discovery of Tiktaalik roseae, a flat-headed, long-snouted fish with joints that allowed it to flex its forelimb.

Switek does a good job of describing the lives, interactions and motives of many of the key players in the history of evolutionary theory—James Hutton, Charles Lyell, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Georges Cuvier, Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, O C Marsh, E D Cope and Richard Owen. But importantly, he shows how culture, politics, economics and geography played a role in paleontological endeavour. “The places paleontologists looked for fossils and how those fossils have been interpreted have been influenced by politics and culture, reminding us that while there is a reality that science allows us to approach, the process of science is a human endeavour,” he writes. We also learn how natural science was pressed into the service of empires in the 19th century.

Switek’s stories of the 19th century fossil finders are sometimes pertinent for current controversies on the evolution. For example, in the 1830s, the unusual fossil marine reptile, ichthyosaur, roused heated debates. Its flippers resembled those of a whale, head was crocodile-like and vertebrae seemed similar to those of a fish, leading Oxford geologist William Buckland to argue God had simply reused parts from original designs. Others thought the outlandish creature represented a transitional species.

Switek debunks the easy fallacy of believing that evolution is somehow directed towards complexity, intelligence or any such goal. He shows the power of contingency, and claims if evolution could be replayed it would not likely result in humans again. In fact, one of the important messages of this book—and that of fossil records—is evolution is messy. There is no linear “March of Progress”, with a simple succession of related forms linking the old lineage with the new.

Shatarupa Sen Mitra teaches zoology at Calcutta University

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