Book Review: Remarkable Creatures


When I first happened upon Sean B. Carroll's new book, Remarkable Creatures my first thought was "Damn! He beat me to it!" For over a year I have been preparing my own pop-sci book about paleontology, evolution, and the history of science, and as I skimmed through Remarkable Creatures I saw that Carroll had already covered a number of the same subjects. I would have been interested in Carroll's book regardless of my own project, but given my goal I knew I had to read it.

Fortunately for me Remarkable Creatures is not as similar to my own project as I had first thought. Instead it is a collection of biographies hand-chosen to reflect the adventures of evolutionary scientists, both in far-flung regions of the world and in academia. From Darwin, Wallace, and Bates to Sarich, Wilson, and Paabo, the titular "remarkable creatures" are the scientists themselves.

The difficulty in writing such a book is that discoveries made decades ago also have to be shown in the light of present understanding. This can be very tricky, but Carroll generally does a good job of illustrating the changing significance of different discoveries. The actual science does take something of a backseat to biography, but there are plenty of other books the more technically-minded can pick up to supplement their knowledge.

There are some substantial flaws with Carroll's treatment, however. The first is that some of the sections promulgate popular falsehoods about certain scientists. This is most apparent when Carroll repeats the well-worn claim that T.H. Huxley was the first to propose that dinosaurs evolved into birds. Huxley did no such thing, but many paleontologists and pop science writers who have never read his actual work on the subject continue to say otherwise. Perhaps I cannot blame Carroll for repeating what so many others have said, but as my forthcoming paper on the topic shows Huxley's views were far more complex than others have realized.

The second issue is that Carroll treats many of the scientists with kid gloves. This is particularly the case with some of the paleoanthropologists. No mention is made, for instance, that Eugene Dubois denied other scientists access to the "Pithecanthropus" (=Homo erectus from Java) fossils for years or that he was so concerned about preserving the place of "Pithecanthropus" as a human ancestor that he fudged some of his data. Such factors that led to much of the resentment and misunderstanding surrounding Dubois and "Pithecanthropus", and I think they deserved more attention.

Similar issues mar the chapter on the Leakeys. Carroll does not mention the storm of controversy that surrounded Louis when he left his former wife with child to be with Mary. This was on top of the fact that Louis was so eager to find direct ancestors of Homo sapiens that he had already twice embarrassed himself scientifically. It took a lot to dig himself out of the hole he had created early in his career, but no sign of those rough times appears in Carroll's treatment.

Even more puzzling is the fact that Carroll does not mention the way Louis' pride heavily influenced his science; Leakey often saw his fossils as important direct human ancestors and everyone else's as dead-ends. This was most startlingly apparent when Louis and Mary identified "Zinjanthropus", clearly a robust australopithecine (now known as Paranthropus boisei), as belonging to an ancestor of Homo distinct from other australopithecines. We do not hear about this side of Leakey. Carroll only provides the cleaned-up, romanticized version. I can understand why Carroll might have wanted to avoid airing dirty laundry but in so doing he has, in some cases, created a false historiography.

Such qualms aside Remarkable Creatures is a very entertaining and enjoyable book. I wish I had come across it earlier, back when I was first becoming introduced to the science of evolution. While most of the stories will be familiar to those well-versed in evolutionary studies (the chapter on Henry Walter Bates being a pleasant exception) Carroll's enthusiasm for his subject keeps the book interesting. It provides a glimpse of Darwin's legacy, and Carroll is to be credited for describing what happened in evolutionary science since beyond 1859. If you are hankering to read some scientific adventure tales Remarkable Creatures is not a bad place to start.

Post-Script: In a rather odd coincidence Blake put up this almost uncomfortably apt impression of my reaction to Remarkable Creatures as I was finalizing my review;

Well, the historical development of our modern principles is a topic right up his alley. So, after a spell of is-my-book-now-redundant anxiety, I'd start poking at all the places where I would have done it differently, or where Carroll seems to've gone glitchy. But then I'd reflect that Carroll is making a timely assault on the myth of St. Darwin the Inspired, coming down from the North Pole in a sleigh drawn by finches with natural selection stuffed in his bag. I'd go back and check that, indeed, Carroll does not claim that Dubois hid Pithecanthropus erectus under his floorboards. Hooray!

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That is very much as shame. So often are non-fiction science and medical books are 'dumbed down'. In order to make some points more simple to understand, I find, in particular to medical non-fiction as that is more pertaining to my specialty, the author will clip out the complex or extraneous information. In most cases, this leads to misunderstanding. In a book I am reading about prions or TSEs, The Pathological Protein, the author thankfully corrects a constant mistake made from the media. One of the prion diseases in humans is called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, but if a human contracts Mad Cow or BSE, it's called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. To describe the difference, it took an extra chapter, as the author had to go into the technical differences that is a prion and how they are different.

However I often find that most authors either do not want to take the time to explain and go into more technical detail or they skip over the details in order to highlight was is more pertinent to their point. Often I find that the details they skip are important to their discussion or theory, but it may contain a flaw. In the book How Doctors Think, I found that the author almost purposefully ignored pertinent details and often included stories or facts completely irrelevant to his point. A few of the doctors I know have been greatly unimpressed by the book and all have stopped near the middle of the book when the author goes to great lengths to describe a sob story about a woman who adopted a very ill baby.

Carroll does the same thing in his book with scientists that we often do with politicians, lionize them. Most well-known figures in the fields of anthropology and paleontology were deeply flawed in one respect or another (Leakey, for example, was known to be somewhat of a lecher.) I believed Huxley was the first one to propose the dinosaurian ancestry of birds, mainly because I've not heard of any other 19th century scientist proposing it, (and of course, because he made the claim a century before Ostrom and Bakker.) I guess I've learned something new. Authors should work a little harder to get their facts right!

By Raymond Minton (not verified) on 10 Apr 2009 #permalink

Raymond; I wish I could say more, but even though Huxley did a lot of work on the relationship between birds and dinosaurs he did not say that birds evolved from dinosaurs. Like I said in the post his ideas were more complex, and in some ways they were more modern than current scientists appreciate. (Cladistic ideas before cladistics.) He did bring dinosaurs and birds close together, but just how close? Unfortunately I will have to leave you with a cliffhanger until the paper is out!

Brian, now that I think of it, I have never read him saying anything specifically to that effect, all I can recall is his commenting on the anatomical similarities between chickens and dinosaurs when they were compared bone by bone, and I extrapolated from there. I'll be anxious to hear what he really said when the paper comes out.

By Raymond Minton (not verified) on 10 Apr 2009 #permalink