Book Review: Evolution by Don Prothero


Even though I didn't get to go to SVP this year, my friends Julia and Neil were in attendance and were kind enough to send me a *signed* copy of Don Prothero's newest book, Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters. Although I was already in the middle of a book when Prothero's book arrived at my door, I dropped what I was reading and started tearing through the glossy pages, and I have to say that I was impressed. Aside from the excellent illustrations by the talented Carl Buell (plus tons of photographs and other diagrams), Prothero's book doesn't hold back when it comes to creationism, refuting creationist lies as well as acting as a guide to the overwhelming fossil evidence that shows the reality of evolution. While it isn't necessarily the book I'd write, it is the best treatment of the fossil evidence for a popular audience yet, and rather than write a whole new review from scratch here in my endorsement of the book;

A cursory look at the science section of any bookstore will reveal a current glut of books about evolution and creationism, some works being excellent reviews of the debate while others are not worth the paper they're printed on. Prothero's book falls into the former category, being the best popular resource I've come across to date about evolution and the evidence from the fossil record.

One of the most important (and appealing) aspects of Prothero's book is that he takes a "gloves off" approach to creationism, not waffling on the subject like other recent works (i.e. Whitham's Where Darwin Meets the Bible). This more up-front tone allows Prothero to look at the claims of creationists and ID advocates in depth, his excellent review of the formation of the Grand Canyon (the only one I know of in the popular literature) being a fantastic example of melding positive scientific evidence with a thorough refutation of pseudoscience. Still, while Prothero takes a more aggressive approach than other recent authors the book is hardly a long diatribe against creationism; Prothero combines personal experience debating YEC stalwarts like Duane Gish with his extensive knowledge of paleontology, geology, and evolution, delivering a successful one-two punch that is informative on more than just one level.

If I have any complaint about this book, it is only that some of the sections require a little more fine-tuning or focus to bring out the important evolutionary trends. The chapter on Dinosaurs is a good example of this; while Prothero provides a good review of important fossil finds, the origin and diversification of sauropod dinosaurs, ceratopsians, and dromeosaurs could use some further clarification as there is certainly more to the story than was given room for discussion. This is a minor point, though, as the book proceeds at breakneck speed through geologic time, providing an overview of various transitional fossils and important evolutionary changes. Indeed, while this treatment might not entirely satisfy a reader looking for excruciating detail, it is an excellent primer for those largely unfamiliar with the fossil record.

As Prothero himself notes in the book, the fossil record is incredibly rich and paleontologists continue to accumulate knowledge with every new day in the lab and the field, but up until now many writers have avoided listing many of the important fossils with unfamiliar and tongue-twisting names in popular works. Fortunately for us, Prothero breaks from the older approach and acts as a guide to the diversity of the fossil record, recognizing that it is no longer sufficient to place a group of fossils in a straight line in an attempt to convince the reader that evolution has occurred without illuminating the "bushiness" the evolution produces.

In summary, Prothero's book is a joy to read and provides an excellent summary of the current richness of the fossil record for specialist and layman alike, with the added bonus of a comprehensive refutation of creationist claims about the fossil record. If you're looking for a comprehensive primer on evolution, or even a refresher on the current state of fossil finds important to evolution, you need look no further than this book.

While I have hardly read every work on the evolution/creationism confrontation, many look at the philosophical underpinnings of both standpoints without necessarily providing positive evidence for evolutionary change. Even worse, some take the "Wouldn't it be nice if everyone was nice?" approach and respect creationists so much that the authors aren't critical of the bold-faced lies of creationists, this result a product of a modern media that believes that writers must give "equal time" to both sides of an issue, no matter how nutty the beliefs of one side. As stated in the review and my introduction, Prothero is more content with calling a spade a spade and this was a big relief to me, and while the book is not the be-all and end-all of treatments of evolution I must say that even despite sections I disagreed with I still enjoyed the book immensely.

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I really don't understand *who* all the books on the evolution vs. creationism controversy are written for. At Barnes & Noble or Borders, the evolution/paleontology section is almost entirely composed of these books, books by/about Darwin, and a fairly complete selection of books by Richard Dawkins and not much else (almost no honest-to-goodness paleontology at all).

If you're someone who believes in evolution, you don't need intelligent design debunked for the nth time (unless you're looking for tips to tear apart your fundie relatives arguments I guess). If you're a creationist, you're not going to pick up the book. The "fuzzy middle" with only a dim grasp of the issues seem highly unlikely to willingly visit the science section just to get more informed.

My only conclusion is that they are being given in large numbers as gifts by people seeking to enlighten friends and relatives - which is sad, as it means a large proportion of them remain unread.

By Karl Zimmerman (not verified) on 05 Nov 2007 #permalink

Karl; Good point, but I think that the books do serve an important function. First, one can "believe" in evolution without truly understanding it, and so books like Prothero's serve as a good introduction as to what the evidence is (if you're going to uphold a position, you might as well be well-versed in it).

I do agree that that most of the B&N section on science dealing with evolution has almost no paleo or evolution books in it at all outside the context of the debate. It's hard to find anything by Stephen Jay Gould outside of the occasional copy of The Mismeasure of Man, and good technical or even popular books are left out to make room for the nth book on the creationism/evolution issue.

I think there are lots of creationists who accept the positions spewed by AiG and others by default, but who are more open-minded in one-on-one interactions (I know many people like this). Christopher Toumey's God's Own Scientists helps to illustrate this point, and while we might spend a lot of time refuting arguments made by the big dogs of creationism, I think there are many people who might be more accepting of evolution if they can be properly reached.

Prothero's book (and a few others I can think of) would make a good gift, but as you said one would have to be sure that the recipient would actually read the book, which depends on the person. As I mentioned in this comment and in the review, there is a glut of such literature out there and most of it is a let down. That's why I wanted to write this review, I suppose; here's a book that actually serves as a good review for those new to the debate but also could be a good resource to give inquisitive creationists who don't know much about evolution, either.

Funny you should post this; I just got my copy in the mail today. It sold out at SVP before I had a chance to snag one (but that's OK; I got a copy from Columbia to review for ostensible use in our Evolution course), so I didn't know what to expect from it other than I know the author's terrific reputation and his other books. So I was pretty disappointed in flipping through it to see how much of it was dedicated to the c---tionism vs. evolution "debate" (which it is, of course, not, since the c-side doesn't even make sense, let alone have a leg to stand on) Karl noted, there's not much point to such books for those of us already convinced by the overwhelming abundance of evidence, and not much use for the book as a textbook in an Evolution class in which "evolution happens" is not only tautological but the baseline assumption. So I'm disappointed already, but I'll read it to give it a fairer shake than first impressions provide...

Jerry; The book devotes some amount of time (especially in the beginning chapters) to debunking creationism, but much of the latter half is devoted to the actual scientific evidence. Overall the book reminds me a little of Gould's Book of Life, just with refutations to creationism thrown in, so I tried to review the book for what it was (an overview of the fossil record with some refutations of creationism thrown in) rather than what I wished it to be. I've had some correspondence with the author after I finished the book and if there is a future edition some things might be expanded in terms of the scientific content, but overall I think it's a decent overview for people unfamiliar with the fossil record or are on the fence about creationism. People like you, Karl, and I might not get the same thing out of the book that others might, but I don't think we're the intended audience either. As I also noted, some of the sections (like the one on dinosaurs) suffer for lack of detail and I disagree with some of the assertions made (i.e. all theropods may have been feathered), but these points are relatively minor.

Anyway, like I said towards the end of the review, if you're looking for a lot of detail the book will probably disappoint, but I think it's the best of it's kind yet published for the intended audience.

In fact, in my experience there certainly is an audience for books that explain evolution. There are many, many people who accept the reality of common descent but for various reasons, don't fully comprehend the mechanisms or present understanding of evolution and wouldn't be able to defend their views against someone armed with a standard list of creationist talking points. Such people would be greatly served by picking up Prothero's book.

Despite the unequivocal stance against creationism that Brian notes, I felt that the book presented the current scientific understanding of the fossil record in a clear and even-handed manner, unlike many of the more agenda driven books (Richard D: i'm looking at you) written on the same topic. [Though, keep in mind I too only gave the book a partial read on the plane back from Austin].

I don't think this book is necessarily well-suited as a course text, except perhaps for a freshman seminar or other class focussed on discussing the current debates surrounding the subject. Fortunately, Don already wrote Bringing Fossils to Life!

Certainly B&N is not the place to go to find quality science literature but luckily most communities have independent (and especially) used bookstores that tend to be far superior on the that front! Of course, if you really want to get an inside look at the science you have to delve into the primary literature anyway as much of the matrix of science is rapidly eroded in summary.

Hi Brian,

I am currently in the middle of Dennet's, Darwin's Dangerous Idea and just finished Dawkin's, DVD, Growing Up In The Universe. Many of the books I have read in support of Evolution seem to take more of a philosophical or conceptual approach to Evolution. Which is fine, but I am very hungry for positive, "hard" evidence in support of it. So, today, when I happended come across this book on PZ Myers blog I literally raced to my local Borders to buy this book.

Would you please recommend other books in this same vain, that get down to brass tacks and demonstrate more the physical evidence for Evolution, rather than philosophical and conceptual ones usually found in the context of the Creationism/ID debate?

Thank you,

By Eric Sherman (not verified) on 08 Nov 2007 #permalink