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The Cambrian Explosion: The Construction of Animal Biodiversity

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The Cambrian Period records one of the most extraordinary transitions in the history of life. Beginning as simple sponges more than 635 million years ago, the earliest animals evolved into a diverse marine fauna over the course of 100 million years. In The Cambrian Explosion, Erwin and Valentine synthesize research from many fields to explain why there was such remarkable novelty of animal forms. This is an integrative work of the highest quality, covering one of the most fascinating and transformative periods in life’s history.

416 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2010

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Douglas H. Erwin

8 books9 followers

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Displaying 1 - 8 of 8 reviews
Profile Image for Lois Bujold.
Author 167 books37.8k followers
February 4, 2014
Every once in a while, it's good to revisit the difference between pop sci and real sci. This book is real sci -- a graduate level textbook, I gather, which is why I've been nibbling through it for a month but it will still have to go back to Interlibrary Loan tonight with the last couple of chapters merely skimmed.

The stiff cover price is not merely explained but fully justified by the many gorgeous color plates, illustrations, charts, and figures, beautifully and cleanly rendered in, sometimes, hair-fine print. This was not a book where the publisher cut corners on production, and it shows.

It's always pretty interesting to see the changes in bioscience since my little time with it in the late 60s. The rise of cladistics, displacing Linnean classification as the central template for organizing species relationships, is something I first encountered in a book on fossil horses I read a couple of years ago; it is fully assumed here. Cladistics is interestingly mobile; Linnean classification presents a single static snapshot, but cladistics intrinsically includes the dimension of time and change over time. It's the difference between the world-views of creation and evolution, right there.

And every time I look at how computers make modern genetics possible, crunching mind-boggling amounts of intricately related data to reveal new insights, I am reminded of the brilliant Tom Stoppard play Arcadia, one plot point of which turns on the frustrations of an early 19th C. young math prodigy who has an insight that could only be proved through technologies not due to be invented for another century and a half. Working out genetic relationships among a set of creatures that exist, now, only as squashed rock, through the detailed comparative study of genomes of living creatures, is quite a deductive feat.

The book is organized logically and temporally: some basic (well, not all that basic -- let's say, "fundamental") concepts explained, then the very strange, gentle pre-Cambrian -- Ediacaran -- creatures explored, giving the context for the Cambrian diversification to follow; then broader genetic and ecological issues following, as best as can be deduced or constructed, from that data. The parts about how life changed the physical world were particularly fascinating.

Not light reading, even if read, by me, lightly, grateful every paragraph that I wasn't going to be facing a midterm on all this.

Ta, L.
July 24, 2016
Very well written and comprehensive book about the Ediacaran and Cambrian explosion of animal life. The book not only contains a lot of colorful photographs of ediacaran and cambrian fossils, but it is also spoiled with 3D CGI reconstructions of their plausible body plans. I would recommend this book to anyone with a significant interest in early life, however, be aware that some prior knowledge of paleontology, and science in general, is required to fully enjoy this book.
990 reviews
March 13, 2023
An exploration of the Cambrian Explosion, the period about 550 million years ago when most animal body plans came to be. The book covers not just the explosion, but the entire Cambrian and also the Precambrian, necessary to set the stage. It is interdisciplinary with a vengeance, delving into paleontology, ocean chemistry, comparative anatomy, genetics, cladistics, ecology, and even a couple pages on economics (which has a lot in common with ecology). Though written for graduate-level students, most of it is explained well enough for someone with a more basic science background, though the book could still have benefitted from a glossary. If you do follow the vocabulary, the writing style is clear and engaging, not dry academese. The illustrations are of high quality, and only once or twice did I find myself wishing for one that wasn't there. And though my exposure to the areas covered by this book are only slight from other sources, I did not get the impression that it was at all outdated in the 13 years since it was published.
28 reviews
March 8, 2022
Beautifully illustrated and concisely written. A good intermediate between college textbook and palatable-for-general-readers pop science (it skews quite more toward the former, however). This book is full of taxonomic nomenclature, so having a device handy to refresh on terms is recommended. The most difficult sections in my opinion involve the geochemistry of the oceans and genetics, whereas the exciting and relatively easy are the chapters on Ediacaran and Cambrian fossils of which a large portion of the book is devoted.
Profile Image for Rachel Welton.
Author 1 book4 followers
August 9, 2022
The Cambrian explosion resulted from positive feedback caused by many ecological, behavioural and genetic alterations to the ecospace.
Very well written and detailed account of our current understanding.
Profile Image for Mark Balson.
50 reviews8 followers
February 18, 2014
I could not put it down

You see how minor differences in conditions can Shepard you through a whole different evolutionary path is fascinating and chilling.
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