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Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature

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Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature Cover

ISBN13: 9781934137291
ISBN10: 1934137294
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Synopses & Reviews

Publisher Comments:

“Switek seamlessly intertwines two types of evolution: one of life on earth and the other of paleontology itself.”—Discover Magazine

““In delightful prose, [Switek] . . . superbly shows that ‘[i]f we can let go of our conceit, we will see the preciousness of life in all its forms.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Highly instructive . . . a warm, intelligent yeomans guide to the progress of life.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Magisterial . . . part historical account, part scientific detective story. Switeks elegant prose and thoughtful scholarship will change the way you see life on our planet. This book marks the debut of an important new voice.”—Neil Shubin

“Elegantly and engagingly crafted, Brian Switeks narrative interweaves stories and characters not often encountered in books on paleontology—at once a unique, informative and entertaining read.”—Niles Eldredge

“If you want to read one book to get up to speed on evolution, read Written in Stone. Brian Switeks clear and compelling book is full of fascinating stories about how scientists have read the fossil record to trace the evolution of life on Earth.”—Ann Gibbons

“[Switek's] accounts of dinosaurs, birds, whales, and our own primate ancestors are not just fascinating for their rich historical detail, but also for their up-to-date reporting on paleontologys latest discoveries.”—Carl Zimmer

"After reading this book, you will have a totally new context in which to interpret the evolutionary history of amphibians, mammals, whales, elephants, horses, and especially humans.”—Donald R. Prothero

Spectacular fossil finds make today's headlines; new technology unlocks secrets of skeletons unearthed a hundred years ago. Still, evolution is often poorly represented by the media and misunderstood by the public. A potent antidote to pseudoscience, Written in Stone is an engrossing history of evolutionary discovery for anyone who has marveled at the variety and richness of life.

Review:

"Beginning with a recently discovered 47-million-year-old primate fossil, Switek effectively and eloquently demonstrates the exponential increase in fossils that have been found since Darwin first published On the Origin of Species. In delightful prose, he blends information about fossil evidence with the scientific debates about how that evidence might be best interpreted. Switek, who writes the Smithsonian's Dinosaur Tracking blog, focuses on evidence for the evolution of major lineages, from reptiles to birds and from fish to tetrapods. He also explains at length how whales, horses, and humans evolved, marshaling compelling fossil evidence and combining it with information from molecular biology; at every step, he makes clear what is still unknown. He underscores that life forms have not 'progressed' through evolution to end with Homo sapiens as the highest life form; rather, evolution has produced 'a wildly branching tree of life with no predetermined path or endpoint.' He superbly shows that 'f we can let go of our conceit,' we will see the preciousness of life in all its forms. 90 b&w illus. (Nov.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright PWyxz LLC)

Synopsis:

The epic quest for missing links and other myths about evolution.

Synopsis:

Laelaps by Brian Switek: Brilliant writing about paleontology and evolution.--Times Online, Eureka's Top 30 Science Blogs

Spectacular fossil finds make today's headlines; new technology unlocks secrets of skeletons unearthed a hundred years ago. Still, evolution is often poorly represented by the media and misunderstood by the public. A potent antidote to pseudoscience, Written in Stone is an engrossing history of evolutionary discovery for anyone who has marveled at the variety and richness of life.

Brian Switek is author of SEED magazine's Laelaps blog (http: //scienceblogs.com/laelaps), acclaimed by The New York Times, Popular Science, and New Scientist; and the Smithsonian's Dinosaur Tracking blog (http: //dinosaur.smithsonianmag.com).

About the Author

Brian Switek is a science writer and research associate at the New Jersey State Museum who has done fieldwork on fossils in Utah, Montana, and Wyoming. He has been a frequent guest on the BBC and has written about paleontology for the Smithsonian magazine, London Times, Wired Science, Eureka and elsewhere. He is also the author of the acclaimed science blog Laelaps and Smithsonian magazines Dinosaur Tracking.

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Average customer rating based on 2 comments:

Michael Barton, August 5, 2012 (view all comments by Michael Barton)
Birds are descended from dinosaurs. But there is a lot of history to that idea. Paleontologists did not simply uncover fossils of dinosaurs and realize that living birds are a surviving lineage of theropods. Where can one turn to learn of all this? Brian Switek, whose blog Laelaps (in its current evolutionary stage with Wired) I have been reading for several years now, has just published his first book, Written in Stone. Each chapter focuses on a particular group of animals that we now have great fossil evidence showing their evolutionary history: birds, whales, early rodent-like mammals, elephants, horses, and humans, to name a few. We come away with a full understanding of the branching nature of the evolution of life on Earth, as Switek dispels the notion of progressive, ladder-like, and human-oriented evolution. He also gives us the sense of the vast amount of extinct vertebrates (relatives of ours included), for some of what we see on the planet today ��" horses, for example ��" are just a peek of the diversity of forms in the groups in which they are nested. “To focus solely upon our ancestors is to blind ourselvves to our own evolutionary context” (21).

Wielding a wealth of science information while attending to historical detail, Written in Stone offers a very-readable narrative of how European and American scientists have understood fossils over the centuries. While not an academic historian ��" he is a freelance science writer and a Research Associate in paleontology at the New Jersey State Museum ��" Switek gives importance to the historical development of ideas in paleontology. Here we are introduced to not only various species of vertebrate animals and the myriad of transitional forms bridging them, but also to their discoverers and the thoughts of those who have studied them (in some cases, this includes indigenous peoples, with a nod to the work of Adrienne Mayor).

One of the criticisms Darwin knew he would receive on publishing On the Origin of Species was that the fossil record was incomplete. Maybe so, but move ahead in time a century and a half, and the amount of material evidence for past life on earth is remarkable, thousands upon thousands of specimens across the kingdoms packed away or lining cabinet drawers in museum collections worldwide, a minute percentage on view to the public. Despite what we do have, it will never be complete, and the answers to paleontologists’ questions about what animal is related to another, and how are those in turn related to this group will never be, well, set in stone. Like any field of science, paleontology is an ongoing human process. Ideas are constantly refined based on new evidence or someone coming along and looking at things differently. In Written in Stone, Switek shows us that in paleontology, this is definitely the case.

There are generally two ways we could look at the history of paleontology. One, as Switek does, is to tell the story of those involved (we get Darwin, Huxley, Owen, Marsh, and Cope, but we also learn about a lot of relatively unknowns, too, such as Albert Gaudry; and there’s a female paleontologist as well, Jennifer Clack), their ideas, conflicts and competition between figures, and the contingent nature of history ��" this happened, so therefore this happened; or, this only happened because this happened. We receive such history for the early nineteenth century all the way up to, well, now. Just as evolution is contingent (what say you, Gould?), certain events can happen that change the course of paleontological history. For example, Switek tells us about how only when a graduate student dropped a specimen did that act help to understand the evolutionary history of whales. Today, CT scanning is the norm in paleontology for peering into the insides of bones. Before, such were chance opportunities, or, deliberative slicing of specimens.

The other, which Switek acknowledges but does to a lesser degree (but he does get some in there!), is to show how factors seemingly beyond the purview of science actually inform it, and vice versa (how culture, politics, economics, geography, etc. play a role in the conduct of science). “The places paleontologists looked for fossils and how those fossils have been interpreted have been influenced by politics and culture, reminding us that while there is a reality that science allows us to approach the process of science is a human endeavour” (23). Covering so much about geology, the age of the earth, and fossils of animals, Switek shows how religion affected the ideas of some naturalists or paleontologists. We learn how politics enabled naturalists to travel, “natural science, pressed into the service of empire” (69, 181, 183); of the public’s thirst for spectacles (145); how national pride pitted Thomas Jefferson against the Comte de Buffon concerning large mammals in North America; and how Philip Henry Gosse attacked evolution because of personal reasons (204-5).

And, so what? Does it matter if we understand how life on Earth evolved? Yes, it surely does, since we are part of that story. In the last two pages of the penultimate chapter and in the short final chapter, Switek pulls his thoughts together and unpretentiously puts us in our place. “We are merely a shivering twig that is the last vestige of a richer family tree.” If that saddens you, then: “Life is most precious when its unity and rarity are recognized, and we are among the rarest of things.” Humans are just like any other organism on the planet, and all should be appreciated together.

There have been several books over the last few years that look at the evidence for evolution (particularly, Richard Dawkins’s The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution and Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True, and another to be published next June, The Evidence for Evolution by Alan R. Rogers). What value, then, is Written in Stone? One, because it is so very well-written by a young writer. And two, for its coverage of the history of science, however limited. Three, it is the perfect antidote to the ignorance of some members of our society [largely creationists; however, Switek does not explicity engage with anti-evolutionists in his book, rather, his text works as "letting the evidence speak for itself," or, as Switek states, "the bones of our distant ancestors... should speak to us from the earth" (18)].
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darwinsbulldog, January 1, 2011 (view all comments by darwinsbulldog)
There have been several books over the last few years that look at the evidence for evolution (particularly, Richard Dawkins’s The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution and Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True, and another to be published next June, The Evidence for Evolution by Alan R. Rogers). What value, then, is Written in Stone? One, because it is so very well-written by a young writer. And two, for its coverage of the history of science, however limited. Three, it is the perfect antidote to the ignorance of some members of our society [largely creationists; however, Switek does not explicity engage with anti-evolutionists in his book, rather, his text works as "letting the evidence speak for itself," or, as Switek states, "the bones of our distant ancestors... should speak to us from the earth" (18)]
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Product Details

ISBN:
9781934137291
Author:
Switek, Brian
Publisher:
Bellevue Literary Press
Subject:
Life Sciences - Evolution
Subject:
Evolution
Subject:
Biology-Evolution
Edition Description:
Trade Paper
Series Volume:
Evolution, the Fossi
Publication Date:
20101131
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Language:
English
Illustrations:
BandW photos throughout, BandW illustrat
Pages:
320
Dimensions:
9 x 6 in

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Related Subjects


Science and Mathematics » Biology » Evolution
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Science and Mathematics » Geology » Paleontology
Science and Mathematics » Nature Studies » Evolution

Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature New Trade Paper
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Product details 320 pages Bellevue Literary Press - English 9781934137291 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "Beginning with a recently discovered 47-million-year-old primate fossil, Switek effectively and eloquently demonstrates the exponential increase in fossils that have been found since Darwin first published On the Origin of Species. In delightful prose, he blends information about fossil evidence with the scientific debates about how that evidence might be best interpreted. Switek, who writes the Smithsonian's Dinosaur Tracking blog, focuses on evidence for the evolution of major lineages, from reptiles to birds and from fish to tetrapods. He also explains at length how whales, horses, and humans evolved, marshaling compelling fossil evidence and combining it with information from molecular biology; at every step, he makes clear what is still unknown. He underscores that life forms have not 'progressed' through evolution to end with Homo sapiens as the highest life form; rather, evolution has produced 'a wildly branching tree of life with no predetermined path or endpoint.' He superbly shows that 'f we can let go of our conceit,' we will see the preciousness of life in all its forms. 90 b&w illus. (Nov.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright PWyxz LLC)
"Synopsis" by ,
The epic quest for missing links and other myths about evolution.
"Synopsis" by , Laelaps by Brian Switek: Brilliant writing about paleontology and evolution.--Times Online, Eureka's Top 30 Science Blogs

Spectacular fossil finds make today's headlines; new technology unlocks secrets of skeletons unearthed a hundred years ago. Still, evolution is often poorly represented by the media and misunderstood by the public. A potent antidote to pseudoscience, Written in Stone is an engrossing history of evolutionary discovery for anyone who has marveled at the variety and richness of life.

Brian Switek is author of SEED magazine's Laelaps blog (http: //scienceblogs.com/laelaps), acclaimed by The New York Times, Popular Science, and New Scientist; and the Smithsonian's Dinosaur Tracking blog (http: //dinosaur.smithsonianmag.com).

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