Thursday, 22 April 2010

Palaeontology in Popular Science

I thought I would recommend a few books which give good insight into the world of palaeontology that are not too technical and are interesting to read.

Neil Shubin's book Your Inner Fish is a fantastic read, the sort where you absorb a lot of information without realising. It is very easy to follow and does not bombard the audience with complicated ideas and jargon. It begins with a palaeontological story, in which Shubin talks about how he learnt the trade and how he used palaeontological principles in order to discover the now famous transitional fossil Tiktaalik roseae,  aka the "fishapod". Shubin aptly demonstrates how this applies to us by crossing disciplines into developmental biology and genetics, something palaeontologists are doing more and more often. Personally for me this book was very useful. I almost didn't buy it but am so glad I did as it helped me make some big decisions. My life was hitting a dead-end and I had become heavily drawn to palaeontology. Reading this book helped confirm that I would like to go into the field of palaeontology during a time when I was having to make the decisions leading to it.

I was going to avoid books about dinosaurs, but I felt that Grave Secrets of Dinosaurs  by Phil Manning was worth mentioning. It presents the more glamorous side of palaeontology, the sort which grips the imagination of the public. It centres around the discovery of a Hadrosaur called Dakota, which is rare in that it has the soft tissues preserved in a 3D structure and can potentially tell us a lot about dinosaurs which we didn't already know. In other areas of palaeontology soft tissue preservation is quite common, but not with dinosaurs. I was going to avoid dinosaur books simply because people mistakenly equate palaeontology to the study of dinosaurs, when really dinosaurology is a small subset which gets a lot of attention. I chose to list this book as it also crosses disciplines, this time into geochemistry, and it also mentions a lot of hi-tech approaches which may contrast with the other books.

If I could only recommend one of these books, it would probably be Trilobite  by Richard Fortey. Not because of a fondness for trilobites (which pretty much emerged due to this book anyway) but because it is both superbly written and highly informative. Fortey applies the study of trilobites to a broad range of areas including evolution, biostratigraphy, continental drift and more. Not only does he demonstrate many different aspects and applications of palaeontology, but he also elucidates the world of trilobites, unveiling numerous wonders. This book has also been a personal help. I was beginning my journey into palaeontology at the time I read it (I am still a long way off of fully achieving it) and it gave me the comfort of feeling that I was on the right track and that this is what I want to do. I could not recommend this book more.

I recommend this book because it gives a good overview of the fossil record, documenting many excellent fossil transitions. It contains many images and is easy to navigate if you ever want to use it for quick reference. The title says it all really, Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters. Donald Prothero, the author, does at times get a little repetitive and shrill with his criticisms of creationism. Nearly every fossil example is followed by an example of how creationists distort or ignore the data. I often found myself hoping that he would stop doing that and focus on the fossils, as that is where this book shines. I've not seen any other books for the general public which match this one for its coverage of the fossil record and the study of evolution, so for this I recommend it.

Last but certainly not least is Wonderful Life as no list of books on palaeontology would be complete without the work of Stephen Jay Gould and this book is near enough a masterpiece. Quite a lot about palaeontology is presented in this book, demonstrating the techniques used by palaeontologists and the issues they face when interpreting fossils. Gould also puts them into a wider context in a way few could manage so effectively. He eloquently elucidates the weird wonders of the Burgess Shale Cambrian fauna, though for this it is sadly now out of date in many ways (science does progress, after all). To accompany this book I would recommend The Crucible of Creation  by Simon Conway Morris as it updates some of the findings, expands on some of the themes, and at the same time comes to the opposite conclusion to Gould, making for gripping reading. However, Conway Morris' book is also ageing and gets a bit shrill when criticising Gould, so if you just want to know more about Cambrian fauna, perhaps something more up to date is required.

No comments: