This book is bringing the good news about cladistics to a public that needs to be weaned from the narrative view of evolution. In this older approach, paleontologists used fossils to weave a story of species mutating into species as the relentless pressure to adapt pushed them along. The author claims that the vastness of Deep Time (that is, geologic as opposed to historical time) does not allow such narratives to be strung together by using isolated bits of bone, often separated by vast numbers of generations. Or rather, he claims that such stories are untestable, that there simply is not enough context in these widely scattered finds to build any coherent picture, to make predictions, and to verify them. In other words, it is not possible to proceed scientifically. One may have a good story as to why, for example, Triceratops had a crest and horns, but there is no way to verify that it's better than anyone else's rival story. So we're awash in "just-so stories" that advance our real knowledge not a whit.
Enter cladistics. Cladistics does not speculate on why the elephant has a trunk but, instead, uses that feature to help define the clade to which elephants belong, and to relate it to all the other clades, from worms to whales. Cladistics is an important advance in classification method, which makes it an important advance in knowledge, because it provides a new lens to look at old facts. It is a sometimes bracing antidote to too much story-telling with no reality checks. So the topic is an important one. It's too bad that the author fails to grapple with it.
I had the feeling of treading water as I read this: not getting anywhere and unable to get any purchase. The few diagrams are annoyingly uninformative, and Gee apparently is uninterested in actually illustrating anything that would support his words: though his points are mostly visual ones there are no anatomical diagrams. He never really shows just why narrative is unscientific - although he asserts it almost continuously - but more importantly, he never gives the reader any sense of how cladistics can illuminate, of where its particular power lies.
Henry Gee is not without charm - this book is heavy on the atmospheric evocation of person and place, and I cannot dislike anyone who heads so many chapters with apt and esoteric quotations from Borges. But he just doesn't SAY anything, not really. When one is done with this book, one has no telling counterarguments to use down at the bar when the other guys are pooh-poohing cladistics and roaring out their ad-hoc adaptionist fantasies.
I chose it because the blurbs were from individuals, and impressive ones at that. But, of course, paleontology is an exclusive club, and many of these same folks appear in the acknowledgement section. Perhaps what they liked about the book was that it talked about the profession a lot, and about individuals they knew. In that respect the book was a pleasant read, as it introduced a cast of characters, human and fossil, and tried to make a narrative (!) using them. But that sort of thing should be the sauce, not the entrée.