Top critical review
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on 6 March 2011
I am quite frankly amazed at the other reviews of this book. I found it unremittingly poor. The only partially redeeming features were the small parts written by David Attenborough himself and some of the photographs.
So what's the problem? To start with I found the actual writing very bad, almost childlike in places. That is perhaps deliberate; the target audience is presumably children. The reason I say this is because there are frequent and very lengthy explanations of very simple concepts; for example: basic evolutionary ideas that would be part of the knowledge base of any educated child over the age of about fourteen. These concepts are repeated again and again, at length. Unfortunately, in an attempt to `dumb down' the subject matter to match the intended audience, which is quite acceptable although somewhat irritating to an adult, errors creep in. For example, it is asserted that `true flight' requires lift, and that lift defines 'true flight', whatever that is. This simplification is just incorrect, although repeated several times. A flying squirrel is used as an example of an animal that doesn't exhibit 'true flight'. However, a flying squirrel most certainly does develop lift in its glide.
But where things get really bad is the errors that don't arise due to an attempt to make things understandable to a child. They are just plain factual errors. And they should have been picked up either by the author, or by the copy-editor. They aren't isolated -- they are on almost every page. The book has the feel of something that has been knocked out at high speed and then either not copy-edited at all, or copy-edited badly. There are also numerous contradictions in the text.
In addition, in a scientific book aimed at children it is quite disgraceful to say that certain things are `proved' when this is clearly not the case.
A few examples will make the point; and I stress that these are just examples:
1. On page 109, we are told events at Mistaken Point took place between 575 and 560 Ma. On page 114: the rocks span 10Ma.
2. Page 135: the caption to the picture of Dickinsonia says the organism displays left-right bilateral symmetry. On the same page, David Attenborough's narrative is quite clear it doesn't display this.
3. Page 125: "Animals are formed from the union of genetic material from two separate parents". This is not correct. Yes, usually, but not always. The use of the words 'usually', 'often' etc are important in order not to mislead.
4. Page 137. In referring to the fossils of Mistaken Point: "Although they became extinct because they couldn't perform the more sophisticated functions of mammals...". This statement is just preposterous! My jaw dropped open that anyone could write this, let alone someone who apparently has a scientific background. At this point in the book I started to wonder whether Kaplan had actually subcontracted the writing of a lot of the text. The absolute tripe of that statement (and there is no polite way to otherwise put it) just beggars belief. (The mammals didn't appear for hundreds of millions of years after the Mistaken Point animals became extinct).
5. Page 140: "the Ediacaran, dating from 630 million to 542 million years ago". The accepted dates per the ICS (The International Committee on Stratigraphy) are 635 to 542Ma. Interestingly, Wikipedia has this error too at the head of the Ediacaran page -- I won't suggest this is where Kaplan got his dates. This point is important as I refer to dates later. Note particularly that the start of the Cambrian (the end of the Ediacaran) is 542Ma.
6. Page 147: "The fossilised tracks ... prove that something could slither". Page 129: "There is no way to prove without doubt that the traces are not geological in their origin". The use of the word `prove', on page 147, is indefensible, particularly when Kaplan contradicts himself so clearly. And this is not an isolated case -- he seems fond of the word 'prove'. This lends weight to my thought that Kaplan didn't write large sections of the text. A scientist would use a word like 'suggest'.
7. Page 167: There seems to be complete confusion over dates and what animals lived when. Markuelia is referred to in respect of Precambrian life and grouped with Spriggina and Kimberella. Elsewhere in the book, in detail, Markuelia is described as living after the start of the Cambrian.
8. Page 167: We now have the Cambrian period beginning at 543Ma (ICS 542Ma and see 5. above)
9. Page 176: Eldridge and Gould's theory of punctuated equilibrium is put forward in some detail as an accepted explanation in relation to evolutionary events. What is not explained is that this theory is widely disputed and most evolutionists believe it is not correct.
10. Page 251: "About 251 million years ago, during a time period known as the Permian...". 251 Ma ago was at the boundary between the Permian and the Triassic.
11. Geological and palaeontological `blinks of the eye' are clichés and often stunningly inaccurate and misleading. Page 176: 10Ma is mentioned as a palaeontological `blink of the eye', one of many 'blinks of the eye' in the book. Really? To give an example (my own): North and South America joined around 3-4Ma ago, and mammals spread south displacing and causing the extinction of marsupials. This is evidenced in the fossil record. 10Ma is most certainly a significant palaentological time period and no 'blink of the eye'.
12. Some statements in the book are really quite extraordinary, Page 192: "Trilobites were probably the most advanced forms of life on the planet for the 250Ma from the beginning of the Cambrian." That takes us up to the end of the Carboniferous... ie after fish, land tetrapods etc. It is just a quite staggeringly inaccurate statement. A land based tetrapod is, without doubt, more advanced than a trilobite.
13. Page 224: "Carolinites genacinaca was alive between 488 and 433 million years.... a period known as the Ordovician". No, that was a period that spans the Ordovician and Silurian. The Ordovician spanned 488 to 444Ma and the Silurian 444 to 416Ma.
14. Page 240. The caption to the picture is "Peripatus: ......". No, the picture is of Aysheaia.
The above are just a sample. For a book that retails at £25 we really deserve better. As a geoscientist with a particular interest in evolution the errors were glaring. As a scientist, the misuse of words like `prove' were disturbing. An interested lay reader would reasonably expect the text to be accurate. It isn't.
I am quite sure David Attenborough never read this book before printing and distribution. He would never have allowed it to go out under his name.
I suggest giving this book a miss.