John's Reviews > Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters

Evolution by Donald R. Prothero
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Jan 11, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: books-i-own, science, favorites
Read in February, 2008

"Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters" is the best book I have ever read emphasizing the importance of the fossil record as the indisputable "facts" of biological evolution, documenting the history of life on Planet Earth. Its publication is long overdue, and yet, remains quite timely, when major publishers like Simon and Schuster have mistakenly published sterling examples of mendacious intellectual pornography like Michael Behe's "The Edge of Evolution". Indeed, Prothero's book ought to be viewed as the one that demolishes forever, Behe's inane assertion that the fossil record is irrelevant, claiming that the "truth" will be found only at the molecular level (More than anything else, that terse comment from Behe merely demonstrates his profound ignorance and understanding of the fossil record. Incidentally, Prothero refers to Behe as an "Intelligent Design creationist".). It also demonstrates the absurdity of creationist claims from the likes of Behe's Discovery Institute colleagues Paul Nelson, Jonathan Wells, and Geoffrey Simmons, among others, that the fossil record does not have "transitional forms". Indeed, as Prothero clearly shows his readers again and again, the history of life on our planet is replete with "transitional forms" documenting the evolutionary transitions from fish to tetrapods, from terrestrial carnivorous dinosaurs to flying birds, from primitive ungulate mammals to whales, and from apes to mankind. He also stresses the relevance of the fossil record to other aspects of evolutionary biology, noting its relevance with respect to molecular - as well as comparative anatomical - data. All of this is told in clear, concise, and persuasive, prose that often reaches the same literary heights attained by Prothero's mentor and friend, the late Stephen Jay Gould; without question this splendid book ought to be regarded as among the finest published last year.

Prothero's book is also a superb guide to the history and - regrettably - ever-present danger posed by Intelligent Design advocates and other creationists. The first three chapters emphasize the profound intellectual differences between valid mainstream science like contemporary evolutionary biology and pseudoscientific religious nonsense like "scientific" creationism in all of its flavors, especially Intelligent Design. Prothero offers a detailed look at the scientific method in the very first chapter, comparing and contrasting it with creationism (He also provides a superb introductory guide too to the writing of the Judeo-Christian Old Testament.). The second chapter is an in-depth exploration of creationism, tracing its roots in early 20th Century American Fundamentalist Protestant Christianity, and, of course, describing the emergence of Intelligent Design and its zealous promotion by the Discovery Institute, the Seattle, Washington-based "conservative" think tank (However, much to my amazement, he does not emphasize sufficiently, the important work done by philosopher of science Barbara Forrest and biologist Paul Gross in their book "Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design" in exposing the Discovery Institute's crypto-Fascist agenda for a future United States. Yet, to his credit, he does acknowledge that agenda by referring to its infamous "Wedge Document" while noting the Discovery Institute's deceitful promotion of Intelligent Design at the expense of valid mainstream science like contemporary evolutionary biology.). Finally, in Chapter Three, Prothero exposes both the intellectual inanity of "Flood Geology" and the popular creationist pastime of "quote mining"; the latter, a practice that's still popular with Discovery Institute Senior Fellows Michael Behe, William Dembski and Jonathan Wells.

The next two chapters comprise an excellent introduction to the history and science of evolutionary biology and the theory and practice of cladistic systematics. In Chapter Four, Prothero discusses the history of evolutionary biology, tracing its intellectual roots from the ancient Greeks to Lamarck, Darwin, and those biologists who became the "architects" of the Modern Synthesis Theory of Evolution (also known as the so-called "Neo-Darwinian Synthesis", since it merged population genetics with paleontology, biogeography, ecology and systematics). He also discusses some of the current controversies in contemporary evolutionary biology, beginning with evolutionary developmentaly biology, better known as "Evo - Devo", and, ending, of course, with punctuated equilibrium, noting how often it has been twisted and bent out of shape by creationists of all stripes, who have excelled only in "quote mining" from the published scientific and popular publications written by Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge; the two American invertebrate paleobiologists responsible for "punk eke". In Chapter Five, Prothero offers an especially lucid account of the theory and history of cladistic systematics, emphasizing its importance as a tool for studying both Earth's current biodiversity and its history of life.

In "Part II Evolution? The Fossils Say YES!", Prothero gives us a whirlwind tour of the history of life on Planet Earth, emphasizing major episodes in the history of life on Planet Earth, beginning with the origin of life, and culminating with the emergence of mankind. In Chapter Six, Prothero offers clear, persuasive evidence for the relative ease in creating life from inert organic compounds, brushing aside creationist arguments to the contrary. He debunks the outdated notion of a "Cambrian Explosion" - which remains popular with creationists, including Intelligent Design advocates - in Chapter 7, observing that the fossil record points to instead, a "Cambrian Slow Fuse", involving the gradual diversification of hard-part skeletonized fauna over the span of eighty million years, from the Late Precambrian through early Ordovician. He discusses the emergence of tetrapods from limbless fish in Chapter 10, the rise of early amniotes (which includes the reptiles, birds and mammals) in Chapter 11, and the evolution of flight in avian dinosaurs in Chapter 12, demonstrating the existence of countless "transitional forms". Further chapters are devoted to the origin of whales (Chapter 14) and humans (Chapter 15), and thus, offer a terse, but still thorough, glimpse, at the history of life on this planet. Prothero's coverage is so superb, that I am surprised by his all too brief references to mass extinctions, especially when their very existence ought to raise ample questions about an Intelligent Designer and his ability to "design" life that is extinction resistant.

In the final chapter of his book (Chapter 16), Prothero makes a truly compelling argument explaining why creationism is a clear and present danger, not only to American education, but indeed, the very survival of the United States too. He quotes from an extended excerpt from the Los Angeles Times, describing creationist Ken Ham's indoctrination of young school children against evolution, conjuring up - at least for me - an image of Adolf Hitler's infamous Nuremberg Nazi Party rallies. He blames the advent of creationism since the late 1950s for fostering scientific illiteracy among Americans, and noting that this threatens our future economic success as we compete with other, better educated, countries like those in Europe and East Asia in a global economy increasingly dominated by science and technology. He also argues persuasively that denial of evolution is harmful to our health and well being, graphically illustrating this point by reminding us of the unsuccessful 1984 baboon to human heart transplant by a creationist Loma Linda University surgeon. Prothero's dire warning is a message I have read before, especially from Niles Eldredge, but here, Prothero's remarks are most compelling, and ones that ought to be heeded by all (Not surprisingly, Prothero compares and contrasts current denial of evolution with that of global warming, and finds obvious parallels with both.).

(Reposted from my Amazon review)
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