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Written In Stone

3.98 of 5 stars 3.98  ·  rating details  ·  273 ratings  ·  43 reviews
"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
Paperback, 320 pages
Published July 1st 2011 by Icon Books (first published 2010)
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Written in Stone is a pretty interesting guide to the fossil record and especially theories of evolution related to it, and also our own ancestry. I found it a little bit dry by the end, but I did read it in the space of two days, and even a little bit during halftime at the Wales v. Italy game today (to the astonishment of the gentleman next to me). So it can't really have been that dry.

It doesn't touch much on other aspects of paleontology, like genetic samples from fossils or even much about
Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature by Brian Switek

“Written in Stone” is a “solid” scientific book from freelance science writer Brian Switek. This book focuses on the history of fossil evidence in support of evolution. The 320-page book is composed of the following ten chapters: The Living Rock, Moving Mountains, From Fins to Fingers, Footprints and Feathers on the Sands of Time, The Meek Inherit the Earth, As Monstrous as a Whale, Behemoth, On a Last Leg, Th
Steve Van Slyke
May 01, 2011 Steve Van Slyke rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Those interested in learning about paleontology and evolution
Recommended to Steve by: Science News
Shelves: kindle, science, evolution
The story of evolution primarily from the paleontological perspective (as the name implies), although he does cite some of the biochemical lines of research that support what the rocks and bones have to tell us. It is also from a post-Cambrian perspective as he does not begin with the first appearance of macrobiotic life, and instead skips ahead to the end of the Devonian when a few species of fish took the first tentative steps away from the water’s edge. It is also the story of the development ...more
It's really great to read an up to date paleontology book. My only criticism is that the book itself reads like a textbook and can get a bit dry at times. Still it's a good book, packed with a ton of great information about the history of paleontology, including research into the evolution of dinosaurs, horses, whales and of course us! I just wish it was written differently.
A fun look into the fossil record. Switek offers an engaging look into evolution with his first book. The final two chapters on human fossils - and what they say about humans today - are particularly well crafted.
Totally absorbing read and a great book for the dinosaur-fossil aficionado, which I am. Written in a somewhat technical style, yet certainly not above the head of anyone with a science degree, background, or interest. (You have to have some science background, or you're going to be wading into deep water fast.) A good way to keep up with a lot of the new research in the field, while at the same time reviewing - or relearning - how we got here from there.

Chapters are complete, and can be read ou
Once upon a time, if you were rich enough then you could be a polymath. The word polymath comes from the Greek “mathe” for learning and “poly” for parrot, and as the etymology suggests it refers to people who know everything there is to know and can repeat it back to you when offered a cracker. True polymaths, those who know the sum total of extant human knowledge, probably haven't existed since the first group of homo sapiens in Ethiopia split into two. But there's a second etymology: “polus” f ...more
Elisabeth Montegna
Edited to add: I should mention that Brian Switek is a friend and this probably biases my review to some degree. However, my love of this book is genuine. If I had not liked the book, I would simply not have written a review..

If I were to teach a course on evolution there is no question I would Written in Stone as required reading. First, because it is a thoughtful, well-researched book that illustrates how the fossil record has contributed to our understanding of evolution. Second, because it d
Switek explores how the fossil record has been used in developing our ideas around evolution, and how our own human prejudices and vanities have impacted these fields. Chapter track developments in theories and discoveries in paleontology and paleoanthropology following sample evolutionary innovations -- from early ideas as to what fossils actually where, to trying to find the origins of the earlies land-dwelling vertebrates, to the development of birds, whales, horses, and us.

Throughout, Swite
Relatively quick and easy to understand read describing Darwin's theory of evolution based on external driving forces such as natural selection and genetic drift. The book deals primarily with natural selection, but it is important to realize that is not the only factor Darwin put forward in his theory.

A point to make since many of the other reviews are not clear on this. Evolution means change, no more, no less. Darwin's Theory of Evolution is specifically related to what forces were at work in
This is an easy, pleasant book to read.

The book is structured in an episodic way looking at different aspects of paleontology, for example the evolution of whales, or the evolution of horses, by first looking at the history of the science in these areas over the last couple of centuries or so showing how knowledge of the science has gradually built up followed by a summary description of current knowledge on the subject.

The structure of this book is what makes it a comfortable (but not shallow)
Brady Clemens
Most of what Switek writes about in this book is familiar territory to me in one way or another. That said, it was beautifully-written and accessible to the non-specialist as well as being an easy read. For anyone with an interest in the history of paleontology, geology or desiring an overview of the current thinking on the evolution of dinosaurs into birds, whales, horses or humans, this is the book you should get. Switek concludes with a chapter on the place of humans in nature, and he address ...more
I've enjoyed reading Brian Switek's blog on WIRED Science, Laelaps, and this book is a nice paper version of more in depth review of paleontology, particularly vertebrate paleontology. As a nice primer on vertebrate paleontology, it would be a great book to read if you are interested in fossils. It mixes the history of paleontology, with more current research. I wish he explored a little more of the recent research, but liked the way he wrote history and it was well researched, citing many older ...more
As with any brief survey of a complicated topic with a long, convoluted history, written for non-specialists, this book raises some questions, mostly due to the reader's own level of understanding going in. That said, Written In Stone does an excellent job of presenting the latest information about evolution, a rapidly (erm) evolving science that has added a considerable amount of data since I was in school. If you completed your education more than two or three years ago, there will be interest ...more
I remember the moment when I realized, at age 18, that I'd led a very fortunate life. Confronted with the need to do my own laundry, I reassessed my teenage melodramatic view of my life thusfar from a Biblical ordeal of suffering and torment to the pampered comfort it actually was. I had a similar reassessment of the past when I read this book: dammit, not every science history book is as interesting as "Life Ascending" or "Mutants"--I was spoiled and didn't realize it.

Those books bring science
I've been a fan of Brian Switek for some time; his blog posts over at Laelaps are essential reading for anyone with an interest in palaeontology. Suffice to say that Written in Stone maintains the high quality of his previous (and subsequent) output, and then some. A wonderfully accessible and informative tour through evolution as evidenced by palaeontology.
An interesting history of paleontology. The writing is a little dry, and a little too dedicated to presenting all the evidence possible in chronological order, a little too textbooky for a popular science book.

It will be interesting to paleontology geeks and people into the history of science, but it won't appeal much to a general audience.

(If you're disappointed by this review, the book you're likely looking for is My Beloved BrontosaursMy Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New
Ryan Mishap
A deft delineation of how fossils provide proof of evolution while illuminating how various animals evolved over time. In addition, this reads partly as a history of the cultural and scientific shifts from a deity-based explanation of nature to one based on empirical proof. Rather than survey the entire field of fossils, Switek focuses on those cases historical and current that changed the way scientists and others viewed the past, the discipline, or the present--tetrapods, whales, horses, human ...more
This was good, though it's really better for a non-academic with an interest in evolution. It was sort of null for me, but also I wasn't THRILLED with the writing.
Tim Byron
Brian Switek is a worthy successor to the late great Stephen Jay Gould; both writers are not only palaeontologists who know their stuff, but they're both also fascinated by the history of thought, and how the way that we think now is influenced by what people used to think. Switek also, like Gould, has a laidback writing style, in the best way - he's not going anywhere, and the asides and fascinating stories come across as expressions of enthusiasm rather than distractions. The difference betwee ...more
Read this book if you like hearing a list of names of extinct animals. Discussed are the origins of mammals, birds, horses, and homo sapiens.
Jan 18, 2011 Scott is currently reading it  ·  review of another edition
Another reminder that despite the fact that science has been going on for a long time, significant contributions can still be made (even to areas that we seemingly know everything about). For example, the link between fish and early tetrapods was almost pure theory (very little fossil evidence) until the 1980s! For something as essential to evolutionary theory as a concrete example of an initial tetrapod species (eventually giving rise to many other terrestrial vertebrates, including humans? - n ...more
Dave Schey
Well written description of evolution of life and the history of paleontology. Enjoyable read.
So very many strange and wonderful creatures have lived on this earth! I can't help but wonder how much more is out there to be discovered (or reinterpreted) in the fossil record. Brian Switek has many stories to tell, and I enjoy the journey. I also like that he responds to my questions on Facebook.
Scott Weeks
Excellent and exoteric book on the history of paleontology; and the use of paleontology, with the assistance of embryology and comparative anatomy, to demonstrate evolutionary processes, at least in vertebrate animals. Insects and plants aren't really examined in this book.
Specific animal types have their own chapters, such as dinosaurs, birds, whales, horses, and species of genus Homo. Highly recomennded.
Well, that was a pleasant read, even if little of it was new to me. The chatty style was okay, though going through a lot of topics quite quickly. I particularly liked the last three chapters: the one on horses using that as a way to talk about ideas of pattern and process in evolution; an overview of changing thoughts about human origins; and a nicely-written conclusion about "our place in nature".
Mar 30, 2012 William rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to William by: The Guardian Science Weekly podcast
It was good for what it was, but I personally found it a bit boring a lot of the time.

Definitely liked getting a picture of science and scientists as our current understanding of evolution emerged.

Most of the book was just a lengthy description of bird, elephant, whale, horse and human evolution, and how we were wrong about them most of the time, however.
Jim Turner
Really excellent overview of the history of fossil collection and interpretation, and how each new discovery has added to our picture of how life on earth evolved. Switek has an engaging writing style, and an ability to keep things understandable for the lay reader, creating that most elusive of things, a popular science page-turner!
Bob White
A thoroughly researched piece. Sometimes the writing is a bit too technical for a general reader but one can breeze through those sections easily enough and still catch the gist of the arguments. The insights/conclusions at the end of the chapter on homo sapiens makes this read entirely worthwhile - thought-provoking indeed.
David Buhler
In spite of many long latin names hard to pronounce of the flora and fauna, this is a great book: a history of fossil discoveries which lead to the acceptance of the process of the evolution of life on our planet. Here we are - and it is all due to time and chance; were are not special except in the sense of being rare.
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“If an organised body is not in the situation and circumstances best adapted to its sustenance and propagation, then, in conceiving an indefinite variety among the individuals of that species, we must be assured, that, on the one hand, those which depart most from the best adapted constitution, will be most liable to perish, while, on the other hand, those organised bodies, which most approach to the best constitution for the present circumstances, will be best adapted to continue, in preserving themselves and multiplying the individuals of their race.” 0 likes
“In order to approximate dinosaurian physiology, the trio of scientists carried out the unenviable task of sticking thermometers in the cloacae of American alligators.” 0 likes
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