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Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters

Donald R. Prothero
With Original Illustrations by Carl Buell
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 408
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Over the past twenty years, paleontologists have made tremendous fossil discoveries, including fossils that mark the growth of whales, manatees, and seals from land mammals and the origins of elephants, horses, and rhinos. Today there exists an amazing diversity of fossil humans, suggesting we walked upright long before we acquired large brains, and new evidence from molecules that enable scientists to decipher the tree of life as never before.

    The fossil record is now one of the strongest lines of evidence for evolution. In this engaging and richly illustrated book, Donald R. Prothero weaves an entertaining though intellectually rigorous history out of the transitional forms and series that dot the fossil record. Beginning with a brief discussion of the nature of science and the "monkey business of creationism," Prothero tackles subjects ranging from flood geology and rock dating to neo-Darwinism and macroevolution. He covers the ingredients of the primordial soup, the effects of communal living, invertebrate transitions, the development of the backbone, the reign of the dinosaurs, the mammalian explosion, and the leap from chimpanzee to human. Prothero pays particular attention to the recent discovery of "missing links" that complete the fossil timeline and details the debate between biologists over the mechanisms driving the evolutionary process.

    Evolution is an absorbing combination of firsthand observation, scientific discovery, and trenchant analysis. With the teaching of evolution still an issue, there couldn't be a better moment for a book clarifying the nature and value of fossil evidence. Widely recognized as a leading expert in his field, Prothero demonstrates that the transformation of life on this planet is far more awe inspiring than the narrow view of extremists.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51142-1
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Paleontology, Technology, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Foreword: Why People Do Not Accept Evolution
    (pp. xi-xvi)
    Michael Shermer

    Thomas Henry Huxley proclaimed the Origin of Species to be “the most potent instrument for the extension of the realm of knowledge which has come into man’s hands since Newton’s Principia.” Ernst Mayr, arguably the greatest evolutionary theorist since Darwin, asserted that the Origin of Species triggered the greatest paradigm shift in the history of science. The late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who inherited Huxley’s mantle as public intellectual, called the theory of evolution one of the half dozen most important ideas in the entire history of Western thought. The philosopher of science Daniel Dennett called evolution the most dangerous...

  4. To the Reader: Is Evolution a Threat to Your Religious Beliefs?
    (pp. xvii-xviii)

    Many people find the topic of evolution and religion troubling and confusing. Some were raised in very strict churches that preached that evolution is atheistic and that to even think about the evidence of evolution is sinful. Fundamentalists have long tried to drive a wedge between traditional Christians and science, arguing that their interpretation of the Bible is the only one and that anyone who accepts the evidence for evolution is an atheist.

    But this is not true. The Catholic Church, along with most mainstream Protestant and Jewish denominations, have long ago come to terms with evolution and accept it...

  5. Prologue: Fossils and Evolution
    (pp. xix-xx)

    Most people think that the idea of evolution came from studying the fossil record. Although it is true that the change in fossils through time was well established by 1805, none of the early naturalists who studied fossils were driven to the notion of evolutionary change. The leading paleontologist of his time, Baron Georges Cuvier of France, did not accept the wild evolutionary speculations of his peers, such as Lamarck and Geoffroy, and used the fossil record to criticize these evolutionists. Early nineteenth century ideas about evolution came strictly from living organisms, and paleontology and fossils played little or no...

  6. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xxi-xxiii)
  7. Part I: Evolution and the Fossil Record

    • 1 The Nature of Science
      (pp. 2-23)

      Before we discuss evolution and the fossil record in detail, we must clear up a number of misconceptions about what science is—and isn’t. Many people get their image of science from Hollywood stereotypes of the “mad scientist,” fiendishly plotting some diabolical creation with a room full of bubbling beakers and sparking electrical apparatus. Invariably, the plot concludes with some sort of “Frankenstein” message that it’s not nice for science to mess with Mother Nature. Even the positive stereotypes are not much better, with nerdy characters like Jimmy Neutron and Poindexter (always wearing glasses and the obligatory white lab coat)...

    • 2 Science and Creationism
      (pp. 24-49)

      Nearly every culture on Earth has some form of a creation story or myth that it uses to explain its place in the universe and its relationships to its god or gods. As Joseph Campbell wrote in The Power of Myth (1988), these stories are essential for a culture to understand itself and its role in the cosmos and for individuals to know what their gods and their culture expect of them. At one time, myths served the role of explaining how the world came to be, usually with the subtext that it explained how that culture fit within the...

    • 3 The Fossil Record
      (pp. 50-85)

      To debunk creationist distortions about fossils, we must start with a clear understanding of the fossil record and the process of fossilization. As we discussed in the prologue, the fossil record was embarrassingly incomplete when Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, but it soon became one of his strongest lines of evidence. During the twentieth century, our fossil collections have vastly improved, so that hundreds of evolutionary sequences and transitional forms were documented.

      This transformation from an embarrassing fossil record in 1860 to an embarrassment of riches by 1960 represented the hard work of thousands of dedicated...

    • 4 The Evolution of Evolution
      (pp. 86-119)

      Although Charles Darwin (fig. 4.1) deserves most of the credit for bringing about the scientific revolution in biology, he was by no means the first to suggest that life had changed through time. As early as the fifth century B.C., Greek philosophers such as Empedocles promoted the idea that life is constantly transforming. In 50 B.C., the Roman philosopher Lucretius wrote the poem De rerum naturae (“On the nature of things”), which postulated the existence of atoms and argued that everything in nature was in flux. With the fall of the Roman Empire, however, this bold style of thinking was...

    • 5 Systematics and Evolution
      (pp. 120-142)

      In the previous chapter, we briefly introduced the concept of systematics. However, we will not be able to talk about most of the fossils or animals in the rest of the book if we do not review the basic concepts of systematics and the major breakthroughs in systematic thought that have occurred in the past decades. Of all the topics in biology, systematics is the least understood by the general public; yet, it is one of the most essential.

      Most people are vaguely aware that there is a scientific system for naming and classifying organisms. This field is known as...

  8. Part II: Evolution?: The Fossils Say YES!

    • 6 Life’s Origins
      (pp. 144-159)

      How did life on Earth begin? This is one of the most fascinating and controversial topics in science. Unlike many of the other areas of life’s history that we discuss in the remaining chapters, we have only a few fossils to guide us. The oldest fossils that are clearly formed by living things are microscopic fossils of cyanobacteria (formerly mislabeled “blue-green algae,” but they are not true algae) from 3.5 billion year old rocks of the Warrawoona Group near North Pole in Western Australia. In addition to these microfossils, there are layered domed structures known as stromatolites (fig. 6.1) that...

    • 7 Cambrian “Explosion”—Or “Slow Fuse”?
      (pp. 160-171)

      Of all the distortions of the fossil record that the creationists promote, the worst is their version of the “Cambrian explosion.” The idea that most invertebrate fossils might first appear “suddenly” at the beginning of the Cambrian Period with no fossils preceding them seems to suggest special creation. Creationists love to quote a variety of legitimate scientists about the “mystery” of the Cambrian explosion, although most of their quotes are grossly out of date, and many are out of context and say just the exact opposite when the full quote is read carefully. The quote by Darwin above is representative...

    • 8 Spineless Wonders of Evolution
      (pp. 172-197)

      Most people are interested only in our own phylum Chordata, which includes vertebrates. They don’t know or care about clams, snails, and “bugs” (or they consider them disgusting and don’t want to know). Typically, people call most members of the phylum Arthropoda (including not only insects but also spiders, scorpions, “pillbugs,” centipedes, millipedes, lice, ticks, and many other unrelated groups) bugs and think of most marine invertebrates that are worth eating as “shellfish.” Nevertheless, the invertebrates make up more than ninety-nine percent of all living animals on earth. In fact, insects alone outnumber all other groups of organisms in total...

    • 9 Fish Tales
      (pp. 198-215)

      Most people don’t get too excited about evolution in sand dollars, snails, scallops, or microfossils. But they are far more interested in where our group, the vertebrates, comes from. For this transition, there is abundant evidence not only from the fossil record but also from embryology and from a number of “living fossils,” which preserve the steps in the evolution of vertebrates and are still alive today.

      Humans are members of the phylum Chordata. This group includes the vertebrates (animals with a true backbone and other kinds of bone as well) such as mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish (fig....

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
    • 10 Fish Out of Water
      (pp. 216-231)

      We come now to one of the classic transitions in all of evolution: how did the aquatic vertebrates crawl out on land and become four-legged (tetrapod) terrestrial animals? This subject has intrigued paleontologists and biologists for over a century, and naturally there has been plenty of controversy, mistakes, and false leads (as in any area of science exploring a difficult topic). Creationists, of course, cannot allow themselves to admit that this transition ever occurred, so they attack it with vigor, mostly by citing out-of-date sources (even in more recent books like Gish 1995) and ignoring all the evidence that doesn’t...

    • 11 Onto the Land and Back to the Sea: The Amniotes
      (pp. 232-247)

      Like the transition from “fish” to “amphibians,” the transition from “amphibians” to “reptiles” has long been confused by misunderstandings and inadequate terminology. If we use the terms fish, amphibians, and reptiles in the traditional sense, they are not natural monophyletic groups, but “grades” of evolution because they do not include all descendants of that group. We have already discussed in chapter 10 how the monophyletic group Tetrapoda is preferred to the archaic term “amphibian.” The same goes for the grade we call “reptiles.” If you look at the living turtles, snakes, lizards, and crocodiles, they all have scaly skins and...

    • 12 Dinosaurs Evolve—and Fly
      (pp. 248-269)

      Dinosaurs are big business these days, with millions of dollars of merchandise featuring their likenesses, three of the highest-grossing movies ever made (the Jurassic Park trilogy), and dozens of documentaries on cable television. Almost every kid between ages four and ten is fascinated with them. Most of the public knows or cares nothing about prehistoric life except for the dinosaurs, and many use the word “dinosaur” for any extinct beast (including prehistoric mammals and many other creatures not even remotely related to dinosaurs). Some people still have the “Flintstones” or the comic strip “B.C.” as their mental image for prehistory...

    • 13 Mammalian Explosion
      (pp. 270-297)

      Of all the transitional series that we have examined between major groups of vertebrates, one of the best documented is the transition from primitive amniotes to mammals via the synapsids, formerly known as the “mammal-like reptiles.” As we explained previously (fig. 11.1), however, the synapsids that evolve into mammals are not reptiles and never had anything to do with the lineage that leads to reptiles. Both the earliest true reptiles (Westlothiana from the Early Carboniferous—fig. 11.4) and the earliest synapsids (Protoclepsydrops from the Early Carboniferous and Archaeothyris form the Middle Carboniferous) are equally ancient, demonstrating that their lineages diverged...

    • 14 Bossies and Blowholes
      (pp. 298-329)

      After rodents and bats, the third largest group of placental mammals is the ungulates, or hoofed mammals. Hoofed mammals make up about a third of the genera of living and extinct mammals, and nearly all large-bodied herbivorous mammals are ungulates. Most people are familiar with the common domesticated animals that provide us with food and services, such as horses, donkeys, cows, sheep, goats, pigs, as well as elephants, camels, and alpacas and know of more exotic hoofed mammals in the zoo or wild, such as rhinos, giraffes, antelopes, and hippos. But the diversity of hoofed mammals of the past is...

    • 15 The Ape’s Reflection?
      (pp. 330-347)

      Throughout the second half of this book, we have documented example after example of transitional forms in everything from microfossils to mollusks to mammals. We could continue to do this for hundreds of pages more, but it wouldn’t really make a difference to the creationists or to those who are confused and misled by them. The only transition that really matters is, of course, the evolution of humans. Many creationists readily concede many of the examples we have just discussed as evolution as just variation within “created kinds,” although we have documented many examples of macroevolutionary changes that exceed anyone’s...

    • 16 Why Does It Matter?
      (pp. 348-360)

      As discussed in chapter 2, creationism is not about science, but about political power and dictating the agenda for schools and textbooks now and eventually exerting control over society. Creationists play by whatever rules (dirty or otherwise) they need to in order to win. I have tried to document how they routinely distort or deny the evidence, quote out of context, and do many other dishonest and unethical things—all in the name of pushing their crusade. I was raised in a Christian church and learned Bible verses every Sunday, so it appalls me to see how unethically these supposed...

  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 361-372)
  10. Index
    (pp. 373-381)