What is it all about?: The Great Book Project

Those of you who are regular readers know that I have been yammering about my book-in-progress for quite some time now (at least since March, if not before). I am pleased to say, though, that as the weeks and months have rolled by I have attracted some new readers, but some of them have expressed their frustration that they don't know what the hell I'm talking about in the "Book Progress" posts. This post should serve as a temporary conceptual anchor for the "Great Book Project," and I hope that this description will clear things up a bit.

Two years ago I took a course at Rutgers about communicating marine science to the public, and part of it involved teaching a local 5th grade class. When I wanted to cover whale evolution, however, I was told that the topic was too controversial. Some people's religious sensibilities might be upset, I was told, and it was better to pick something else. (I taught the lesson anyway.) Prior to this I had never heard of young earth creationism or would imagine that anyone would have a problem evolution, and so I started to educate myself.

After the class ended a steady stream of books started arrive in my mailbox. I needed to know more about evolution, but not just that; I wanted to know why some people found it so objectionable. After I finished books like The Triumph of Evolution: and the Failure of Creationism I immediately picked up tracts like The Lie from Answers in Genesis, although the repetition of the creationist propaganda soon made continued reading of their works unnecessary.

Armed with my partial and newly-acquired understanding of evolution I set out to write a book about reconciling Christian theology with science to convince those who felt threatened by evolution. I talked about it quite a bit, but I didn't actually do any writing. I was like many who are so enamored with the idea of writing a book that I didn't actually spend much time doing the work!

By the summer of 2007 the scope of the project had changed. I had no enthusiasm for the project as I originally envisioned it, but I still wanted to write a book about evolution. Rather than trying to be a peacemaker I decided to go on the attack against fundamentalist dogma, wielding fossil evidence to accomplish my goal. I finally started to write things down. I still have much of this early material, but it is absolutely wretched stuff. Even though I filled pages with observations and data there was no coherent voice to tie everything together. I was starting to get discouraged.

Then, at the beginning of 2008, I came across an interesting passage in Stephen Jay Gould's The Structure of Evolutionary Theory where the terms "archetypes" and "ancestors" appeared in close proximity to each other. I was hit between the eyes by a unifying concept for my book; understanding evolution in terms of both actual ancestors and representative archetypes, using the history of science to introduce the reader to modern concepts. The alliteration in the title Archetypes and Ancestors was just too good to resist, and I felt that I was finally ready to pen a truly good book.

Shortly after my minor epiphany I spoke about the project with someone I knew I could trust and would offer good advice. They provided me with not only encouragement, but also some key details that helped to consolidate what I was thinking about. My goal was no longer to write an entire manuscript and submit it for approval; I would write a few strong chapters and try to find an agent. I just needed to do the work.

Just as I had gathered the resolve to commit to the project the wind was taken out of my sails. Although I thought Archetypes and Ancestors was an original title, it turned out that Adrian Desmond had written a book on Victorian paleontology with just that title many years earlier. To my embarrassment, it was even on my Amazon.com wishlist, and I cannot rule out the possibility that I was so struck with the title because I had already seen it used (even if I did not remember it). I immediately purchased a copy of Desmond's book and found it to be exceedingly useful, but despite my enjoyment of the book I was disappointed that I had lost my title.

Even without a snappy title I moved ahead with the project. Taking a cue from Stephen Jay Gould's essays, I decided to introduce scientific topics with little "quirks" of history, to build a narrative rather than beat the reader over the head with facts. I was sick of books that tried to review the entire 3.6 billion year history of life on earth, particularly when the same old sequence would show up in discussions of vertebrate evolution (fish -> amphibian -> reptile -> mammal -> human). I knew I had neither the expertise nor experience to do write such a broad overview, even if I was interested in doing so, and so I decided to stick with what I knew. I tried to figure out why I was so interested in evolution.

Ultimately I decided to make the evolution of whales, birds, horses, and humans the core chapters of the book. I was familiar with each transition and had written about them before, and I had yet to come across a good, up-to-date, popular summary of each transition. Even when the transitions were mentioned in newer books, they were often presented in the context of the evolution/creationism controversy, with much of the most compelling evidence left out. There definitely was an open niche for me to exploit.

I became convinced that it was not enough to string a series of fossils in a line and say "This is how life evolved." Evidence for evolution comes from every part of an organism, and I wanted to write something that reveled in the fascinating scientific discoveries that kept fueling my interest in the topic. The book I set out to write was the one I had always wanted to read but had never found.

The first few months were scattershot. I wrote about what interested me on any particular day, adding piles of information and prose into each section. Finally, after completing another writing project, I settled on the chapter on whales and spent about a month finalizing it. Even though I am still not entirely satisfied with it, it felt good to complete a full chapter. Since starting the project I also decided to cover the evolution of early tetrapods and elephants, as well as to present a historical review of evolutionary history, which (along with those already mentioned) will make up the core of the book.

So that is where I am now. I am presently focused on the chapter covering the evolution of birds, and I suspect that it will probably take me about a month to get it into satisfactory form. After that it will be on to human evolution, at which point I will review the three completed chapters and get my proposal in order. The process has taken a lot longer than I anticipated, but I feel that the extra effort is going to be well worth it.

To sum things up, I am presently working on an untitled book about evolution, using examples from the vertebrate fossil record and the history of science to provide an introduction to the "endless forms most beautiful" that so entranced Darwin and other naturalists. The public doesn't need to have any more books published that hold back astonishing information because authors are afraid readers won't understand it. How can we ever expect people to understand our passion for this subject if we don't respect them enough to share it with them? Perhaps I will be proven wrong, but I can say that I know of no book like the one I am writing.

For past updates on this project, see the archives.

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Go for it! I think you hit the nail right on the head in your last paragraph; people need the evidence for evolution that goes beyond your standard 'textbook' examples such as pepper moths and darwin's finches. Such instances are certainly captivating and present a strong case for biological evolution, but until we make other pieces of evidence (just the you've described) well-known to the public, creationists will allways be able to say that we haven't produced anything new and are instead reverting to the 'tired old arguments' (and evidently ignoring the massive plank in their eye here) despite all evidence to the contrary. If we discovered a thousand new pieces of evidence and failed to adequately inform the public, we'd have done our research for nothing! Your book will be very much appreciated! (One minor suggestion, though, be sure to incorporate a thourough glossary of terms; most people can't stand biological anatomobabble that frequently accompanies 'higher end' scientific texts)

By Mark Mancini (not verified) on 05 Sep 2008 #permalink

Thanks, Mark.

I actually try to make a point of explaining what I mean when I use a technical term or am talking about a bit of anatomy. In the chapter on whales, for example, I spend some time explaining the detachment of the pelvis from the backbone and stable isotopes found in teeth. It's complicated stuff, but it doesn't have to be incomprehensible.

If anything, I'm more worried about the proper names of the genera I mention in the book since there's nothing I can really do about them. If kids can manage Pachycephalosaurus, though, I think there is hope.

What I have read from what you have sent me is very approachable for someone with an interest in what evolution is all about. It is not a textbook. The chapter I am reading is a narrative with some good backstory on the development of the paleontology that has led to the discovery of the common ancestors of the whales.

I had always been confused about how basilosaurus gained its nomenclature, even though it was a mammal and not related to the dinosaurs, and Brian explains it very well.

I can't wait for the book (I hope a smart publisher is reading this blog.)

I've been following your book's progress with interest, although I think I happened on your blog after you'd begun, so I really appreciate this back-story. And I am very much looking forward to buying a copy when it hits the shelves!