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Beasts of Eden

Beasts of Eden: Walking Whales, Dawn Horses, and Other Enigmas of Mammal Evolution

David Rains Wallace
Copyright Date: 2004
Edition: 1
Pages: 368
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    Beasts of Eden
    Book Description:

    Mammals first evolved at about the same time as dinosaurs, and their story is perhaps the more fascinating of the two-in part because it is also our own story. In this literate and entertaining book, eminent naturalist David Rains Wallace brings the saga of ancient mammals to a general audience for the first time. Using artist Rudolph Zallinger's majesticThe Age of Mammalsmural at the Peabody Museum as a frame for his narrative, Wallace deftly moves over varied terrain-drawing from history, science, evolutionary theory, and art history-to present a lively account of fossil discoveries and an overview of what those discoveries have revealed about early mammals and their evolution. In these pages we encounter towering mammoths, tiny horses, giant-clawed ground sloths, whales with legs, uintatheres, zhelestids, and other exotic extinct creatures as well as the scientists who discovered and wondered about their remains. We meet such memorable figures as Georges Cuvier, Richard Owen, Edward D. Cope, George Gaylord Simpson, and Stephen Jay Gould and learn of their heated disputes, from Cuvier's and Owen's fights with early evolutionists to present controversies over the Late Cretaceous mass extinction. Wallace's own lifelong interest in evolution is reflected in the book's evocative and engaging style and in the personal experiences he expertly weaves into the tale, providing an altogether expansive perspective on what Darwin described as the "grandeur" of evolution.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93940-0
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. PROLOGUE. The Fresco and the Fossil
    (pp. xv-xxviii)

    If there is a Sistine Chapel of evolution, it is Yale University’s Peabody Museum. Of course, the Peabody’s neo-Gothic brick edifice is less august than the Vatican’s papal shrine. Past a dim corridor off the museum’s vestibule, however, a painting as breathtaking as the Sistine murals covers the wall of a soaring room with an immense landscape of rosy cliffs, exotic vegetation, and life-sized dinosaurs. This is Rudolph Zallinger’sAge of Reptiles,and, like Michelangelo’s murals, it is a fresco, brushed on plaster day after day over a period of years. Like the Sistine’s biblical vision of human creation and...

  6. ONE Pachyderms in the Catacombs
    (pp. 1-13)

    THE MOST STRIKING FIGURE IN the Peabody’sAge of Mammalscomes toward the end, among the Ice Age’s brilliant foliage. It is a wooly mammoth, and it takes up most of the wall’s height with its rufous bulk, curling tusks, and high-domed cranium. It is the only figure, except for a soaring bird of prey, that extends above the horizon. Unlike the mural’s coryphodonts and uintatheres, it is not engaged in a confrontation but gazes forward serenely as though confident of its preeminence. Even the naked pink nostrils at the end of its trunk have a confident air. The entire...

  7. TWO Doctor Jekyll and the Stonesfield Jaws
    (pp. 14-24)

    THE PEABODY MURAL DOESN’T SHOW Cuvier’s Paris gypsum mammals, since they didn’t live in western North America, but some beasts in its early sections resemble them.Palaeosyops,“old piglike animal,” a tapir relative that stands behind snarlingMesonyx,inhabited America at about the time that Cuvier’sPalaeotheriumlived in France. Another example isPeradectes,“pouched biter,” an opossumlike creature perched on a mossy log near the dinosauresqueBarylambda.It lived even earlier than the French marsupial, but the group has changed so little in fifty million years that Zallinger paintedPeradectesto resemble the extant Virginia opossum, with whitish fur,...

  8. THREE The Origin of Mammals
    (pp. 25-40)

    ONE REASON THE PUBLIC PREFERS dinosaurs to prehistoric mammals may be that they are less threatening. There’s a certain aloof impartiality about a tyrannosaur’s aggressions. Despite baleful red eyes, the one in Zallinger’sAge of Reptilesseems bucolically oblivious of the hulking potential prey all around it. The computer-enhanced dinosaurs that rampage at Mack Truck speed through movies lack a certain discernment. We tend to think of large, predatory mammals as more deliberate and perceptive, and they still sometimes skillfully stalk, kill, and eat real humans, as no real nonavian dinosaur ever did. Hoofed mammals trample and gore more than...

  9. FOUR The Noblest Conquest
    (pp. 41-53)

    DARWIN COULD SNUB OWEN’S KAROO THERIODONTS easily enough. They sound like something out of a Lewis Carroll parody. If he had ignored another group of animals in which Owen had been the first to see progressive biological change, however, he would have had a much harder time convincing even friendly skeptics like Huxley and Lyell of “descent with modification.” Indeed, if Darwin had believed in a divine providence for transmutationists, he might have seen that other group’s existence as evidence of it. Asked to name the Creator’s salient trait, he might have replied, not “an inordinate fondness for beetles,” as...

  10. FIVE Terrible Horns and Heavy Feet
    (pp. 54-69)

    MARSH’S DARWINIAN APPLE CONTAINED A WORM, however, and the Peabody mural shows it along with his horse genealogy. It is a very large “worm”—Uintatherium,the bizarre, knob-skulled giant that confrontsMesonyxin the Eocene section. A similar but even larger beast rampages through the forest a few hundred feet back. The first has six paired knobs on the top of its head, while the second has four, prolonged to near-antler size. Both beasts have elongated canine teeth that gleam like sabers against earth and foliage. Knobs and sabers clearly leave little room for brains, and it is hard to...

  11. SIX Mr. Megatherium versus Professor Mylodon
    (pp. 70-78)

    COPE’S ERUDITION AND IMAGINATION gave hisPantolambdatoUintatheriumlineage a compelling plausibility. The image of a post-dinosaur tree-dweller peering down hungrily at an unprecedentedly vacant forest floor is vivid. But it has to be said that there was then no evidence thatPantolambdahad such an ancestor. The Peabody mural certainly hints at none. If anything it implies that most early Paleocene mammals spent more time on the ground than in the treetops. The fruit on its Genesis tree looks tempting, but no beasts are up there feeding on it. And although small, arboreal early Paleocene relatives ofPantolambda...

  12. SEVEN Fire Beasts of the Antipodes
    (pp. 79-90)

    FAITH IN PALEONTOLOGICAL PROGRESS was undergoing another test at the time of Marsh’s death. If there was one question that the new science’s first century seemed to have answered, it was that of when modern placental mammals had originated. Marsupial and monotreme beginnings might remain lost in the mists of time, but the work of Cuvier, Owen, Marsh, and Cope seemed to point to the same start for horses and other familiar creatures. Although the cause of their evolution might be obscure, they definitely seemed to have appeared after the Mesozoic’s saurian world had vanished. It was a story that...

  13. EIGHT Titans on Parade
    (pp. 91-103)

    ALTHOUGH ZALLINGER’S ICE AGE MAMMOTH dwarfs most of theAge of Mammalsbeasts, another creature, midway in the mural, is almost as impressive, and serves to balance the composition. A huge, whitish ungulate, it looks rather like a giant rhino and also has a horn, although not like any rhino’s, since it is bluntly forked at the end. NamedBrontops(“thunderous looking”), it has the mammoth’s muscular presence, and stands head and shoulders above a nearby early rhino,Subhyracodon.Its pallor glows like warm ashes beside the surrounding brown, tan, or rufous creatures—even the uintatheres seem almost unobtrusive by...

  14. NINE Five-Toed Horses and Missing Links
    (pp. 104-114)

    OSBORN’S FAYUM EXPEDITION WAS AN ACCOMPLISHMENT, but it was not quite the adventure that hisCenturyarticle made it seem, not for him, at least. He didn’t mention that he had traveled with his family, stayed at a separate, deluxe camp, and gone home after three weeks, leaving his assistants, Granger and Olsen, to keep digging in the Egyptian spring’s sandstorms and flies. As they began a planned return in late April, moreover, they got a cable from Osborn commanding them to stay in the desert and search for more specimens. They obeyed, but didn’t find many, and Granger had...

  15. TEN The Invisible Dawn Man
    (pp. 115-122)

    ANDREWS’S ELATION ABOUT THE MONGOLIAN fossils was premature, however. Osborn’s quests began to reveal a certain vacuity after 1925. In fact, he had reached his scientific, if not his administrative, peak with his 1907 probiscidean parade. King Henry thereafter found it increasingly hard to march titans orthogenetically about the globe (despite the Peabody mammoth’s placidity, its eye has a wayward gleam), and his regal pretensions assured that there would be Mordreds as well as Lancelots at his Round Table. In the end, the anomalous, whitish titan that he had set against Marsh would return to haunt him in his turn....

  16. ELEVEN A Bonaparte of Beasts
    (pp. 123-134)

    NOT ALL OF THE ARRESTING figures in the Peabody’sAge of Mammalsare huge or fierce. One of the more conspicuous is an amber-colored herbivore namedAepycamelusstanding near the early mastodon,Gomphotherium.It emphasizes the “African” aspect of North America’s Miocene plains, because its neck is so long that it might be a giraffe. ButAepycameluswas not a giraffe. As its name implies, it was a “highest camel,” a long-necked member of a family that, like horses, evolved in North America and spread almost worldwide, then became extinct in its home continent, and survives largely in domesticated form,...

  17. TWELVE Love and Theory
    (pp. 135-144)

    SIMPSON REMARRIED in 1938, in his usual epic mode. A childhood friend named Ann Roe had charmed him when they had met again in New York in 1926. “[S]he interests me tremendously,” he had written his sister. “Her judgement and taste, once so far behind, are catching up with her remarkable intellect. She has abandoned her bigoted pseudo religion and her ridiculous priggishness and is really human and sensitive—all of this to my surprise for I had not seen nor heard from her for several years. Physically she has ripened and is really striking in appearance.” Ann had married...

  18. THIRTEEN Simpson’s Cynodont-to-Smilodon Synthesis
    (pp. 145-156)

    GEORGE GAYLORD SIMPSON’S NOVEL IS BETTER than most of the paleontological pulp fiction that came after Conan Doyle’sThe Lost World.Some of the pulp evokes a livelier feeling for prehistory, however, like L. Sprague de Camp’s wry story “A Gun for Dinosaur,” whose “pukka sahib” narrator uses a time machine to guide rich sportsmen. Brandishing his doubledbarreled “sauropod gun,” which fires .600 “Nitro Express” cartridges the size of bananas, he tells one would-be client: “I’m sorry, Mr. Seligman, but I can’t take you hunting late Mesozoic dinosaur. I could take you to other periods, you know. I’ll take you...

  19. FOURTEEN Shifting Ground
    (pp. 157-165)

    LIKE THE 100 MILLION-YEAR-OLD EARTH that Lord Kelvin had thrown in Darwin’s way, the first challenge to Simpson’s synthesis came from underfoot. Simpson followed Darwin as well as mentors like Osborn and Matthew in assuming that mammal evolution has occurred on a planet with relatively stable geography. All of them believed that the continents had occupied more or less their present positions at least since the Mesozoic Era, albeit with fluctuating coastlines as land rose and fell, sometimes allowing inland seas to cover large areas. It was a convenient way to regard biogeography, providing a kind of proscenium stage for...

  20. FIFTEEN Dissolving Ancestries
    (pp. 166-175)

    ANOTHER CHALLENGE TO SIMPSON’S SYNTHESISmighthave had a noticeable effect on theAge of Mammalsmural if an idea related to it were shown. Zallinger’s giant sloth,Megatherium,would be even more striking if, instead of gazing into the past, it were upending its neighborGlyptodonas a prelude to ripping open its belly and devouring it. It is hard to imagine Zallinger’s teddy bear monster preying on the Volkswagen-sizedGlyptodon,and it would contravene what is known about the diet of living sloths. Still, carnivorous ground sloth theorists have a point when they say that the herbivory of...

  21. SIXTEEN Exploding Faunas
    (pp. 176-187)

    A THIRD CHALLENGE TO SIMPSON’S SYNTHESIS came closer than continental drift to reprising the unexpected obstacle that Lord Kelvin threw in Darwin’s path in 1866. Once again, an eminent physicist blindsided evolutionary theory, and in a monolithic way similar to Kelvin’s brusque calculations of planetary cooling. Indeed, the new assault was literally monolithic. It flung a Mount Everest–sized interplanetary rock at neo-Darwinism’s finespun web of environmental change, mutation, and adaptation.

    As Simpson’s science fiction novel showed, neo-Darwinism in the mid-twentieth century was not that much more confident than paleo-Darwinism had been about explaining the apparently abrupt break between the...

  22. SEVENTEEN The Revenge of the Shell Hunters
    (pp. 188-197)

    INVERTEBRATE PALEONTOLOGISTS LIKE STEPHEN JAY GOULD had good reason to welcome the Alvarezes’ extinction theory. It supported a new evolutionary paradigm that some of them had initiated, one that questioned not only Darwinian ideas about progress and competition but many other assumptions about life that paleontology had accumulated. The paradigm had already gained wide acceptance when the impact extinction theory emerged. Mammals proved a peculiar stumbling block for it, however.

    Vertebrate paleontologists had tended to dominate evolutionary theory ever since Cuvier’s time. Darwin, who spent years becoming the world’s fossil barnacle expert, was a great exception to this, but Darwin...

  23. EIGHTEEN Simpson Redivivus
    (pp. 198-206)

    ONE ASPECT OF ZALLINGER’SAGE OF MAMMALSdoes seem more applicable to punctuated equilibria than its stately neighbor. Because the smaller mural’s landscapes change so much, each epoch could stand as a picture on its own, giving a sense of the Gould-Eldredge theory’s abrupt shifts. Zallinger literally punctuated his epochs by placing foreground trees between them—an epiphyte-draped palm closes the Paleocene, a stout sycamore the Eocene, a spindly pine the Miocene, a small aspen the Pliocene. Trees also punctuate theAge of Reptiles—a fan palm closes the Jurassic, a primitive conifer the Triassic. But the bigger mural evokes...

  24. NINETEEN Wind Thieves of the Kyzylkum
    (pp. 207-215)

    SIMPSON’S RETREAT FROM MOSCOW in 1934 was only a temporary hiatus in Central Asian evolutionary grail quests. After World War II, Soviet bloc scientists took over the search for early mammals in Mongolia, assisted by local collaborators. The Soviet Union fielded well-equipped Gobi expeditions in the late 1940s, which, beside making impressive dinosaur discoveries, brought the Cold War into bone-hunting by questioning the Cretaceous date of the Americans’ 1920s Flaming Cliffs mammal fossils. Then, from 1963 to 1971, eight Polish-Mongolian expeditions led by Zofia Kielan-Jaworowska, an early mammal authority, explored the Gobi.

    Inspired during Nazi occupation underground schooling by one...

  25. TWENTY The Serpent’s Offering
    (pp. 216-232)

    THE GIANT SNAKE DANGLING FROM a fruit tree at the beginning of theAge of Mammalsis one of the mural’s most arresting figures, and its most enigmatic. The Edenic reference is clear, but exactly why it should come at the start of a picture of Cenozoic evolution is less so. Zallinger probably wasn’t suggesting that a serpent offered some kind of malign temptation to our biological class as they emerged from the Mesozoic, although the contrast between the placid dinosaur mural and the turbulent mammal one does seem to raise the issue. Yet the biblical serpent evolved from older...

  26. TWENTY-ONE Anthropoid Leapfrog
    (pp. 233-248)

    A SCRAP OF POSSIBLE EVIDENCE for Gaston de Saporta’s idea came to light in the 1960s. Among the apparently Cretaceous mammal fossils that Sloan and Van Valen found at Bug Creek was a single lower molar that may have belonged in the same genus as teeth from Hell Creek’s Paleocene Tullock formation, 100 miles to the west. That genus, namedPurgatorius,after Purgatory Hill, where it was found (so called for the Dantean torments of hauling fossil matrix down it), was thought to be an early primate. As with zhelestids, an adaptation to plant as well as animal foods distinguishes...

  27. EPILOGUE. Cenozoic Parks
    (pp. 249-260)

    I began this book by comparing Zallinger’s murals to Michelangelo’s because, whatever their differences, history impels us to view them both as mythological evocations of deep time. But Zallinger’sAge of Mammalsmay actually have more similarities to much older murals. People entered low, dim chambers to see painted horses, mammoths, and bison in some famous other places. W. J. T. Mitchell recognized this when he wrote that Zallinger’s images look “as if they had always existed, like the anonymous animal cave paintings at Lascaux.”

    The problem with this is that we know much less about Lascaux, Altamira, Les Trois...

  28. NOTES
    (pp. 261-296)
    (pp. 297-314)
  30. INDEX
    (pp. 315-340)