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4.7 out of 5 stars
4.7 out of 5 stars

on 10 March 2017
I really enjoyed this book. Dr Prothero leads us through the story of life on Earth, with an emphasis on one of the most fascinating lines of evidence: fossils. I have read several other books on the subject, but I think the author stands out as someone who has worked hard to keep up with the current findings of palaeontology..
Highly recommended.
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on 18 August 2008
This book astounded me with quality from start to finish. Here we have a guy that really knows his field (paleontology), seems to understand many others and can communicate ideas superbly.

Prothero does talk hard evidence, of which he provides plenty of varied examples. He also understands when to stop elaborating and provides many good references for individual subjects; there is an absolute minimum of repetition in around 350 large pages.

The pages themselves are lavishly illustrated and I found the cartoon humour very amusing. I read this book over 9 days and found the individual topics were highly relevant to the main subject.

As for subject matter, this book is about evidence for biological evolution in the light of creationist denial of the same. Prothero was brought up amongst all of this. As somebody who can read the scriptures in greek, he cannot be accused of biblical ignorance, rather the other way around: I thought Prothero developed a compelling arguement that the creationists in charge of leading their movement are simply ignorant of real science (because they don't do any), preferring instead to quote carefully selected out of date sources, rather than put their claims to falsifiable tests. The rest follow these teachings with sincere trust.

This book would make a good companion to 'the making of the fittest' by Sean B Carroll for a genetic perspective, or 'the ancestors tale' by Richard Dawkins for the zoological works.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 27 October 2012
What do the fossils tell us? In a nutshell, that life started out simple, and over eons evolved to produce greater and greater complexity and diversity. We know this because the fossil record demonstrates this. Creationists do not dispute fossils as real natural artifacts but claim that their existence can be reconciled - indeed actually supports - the literal biblical account of creation. This book demolishes the creationists'case.

First of all he clears the ground by a discussion of the scientific method and some of the deliberate obfuscations of terminology used. Creationists posit that evolution is a theory in the sense of unfounded speculation. But in fact evolution both predicts (in the sense that it specifies what sort of evidence needs to be found to support the theory) and explains (both what has happened in the past and what happens now, like the evolution of drug resistant bacteria). Creationism is not even a theory - it's posited as a dogmatic truth, verified solely on the authority of scripture. It explains and predicts nothing: what sort of evidence would it need to find to verify that it is true? If there was a worldwide flood then we should find a layer of sediment in rocks everywhere on earth to confirm this event. But no such evidence exists. Nevertheless, the fiction of creationism persists. Evolution would not persist if the fossilized remnants of a Cro-Magnon man were found in the fossilized jaws of a T-rex!

Prothero demonstrates that the perception that Darwin invented the fossil record to show the truth of evolution is historically false. It was in fact Christian geologists who documented the evolution of complexity in the fossils, from simpler forms in older rock to more complex forms in younger rock, and this evidence was established by Darwin's time. These men did not abandon their faith wholesale but they did reject the literal account of Genesis, because a single flood could not explain the complex distribution of fossils in the rocks. This has practical implications today. We can extract oil and minerals from the earth because geological science allows us to do this. Creation `science' cannot do this because it would not even know where to start looking, constrained as it is not by a theory, which can be tested, but a dogma that by definition cannot be tested.

Darwin was not the first to posit that complexity in nature could create itself: the Roman philosopher Lucretius posited that nature was in flux and everything was made of atoms. The evidence in the fossil record was established but greater discoveries were to come in the next century and a half (and they are still coming). Darwin had the evidence for evolution but he did not understand the mechanism but predicted it would be found as it indeed it was found (he was unaware of the experiments of his contemporary Gregor Mendel who was uncovering the mechanism of natural selection, the gene).

Prothero then details, in chapter after chapter, the vast amount of fossil evidence from all branches of life. Evolution is a story not of a foreordained progression of simple life forms to complex ones. There are lots of simple life forms that have been around for hundreds of millions of years and have no need to `progress' to greater complexity, because they are sufficiently adapted as they are. Rather it is like a bush branching out in all directions. He presents the evidence from the roots up. First of all there is the pristine evidence of microfossils from ocean deposits, which offer the best record there is for evolutionary progression. Then we have the so-called Cambrian explosion - which some creationists adduce as evidence for support of the Genesis account - but which in fact lasted millions of years. He outlines the development of all branches of life, the development of invertebrates, fish emerging out of water, the evolution of dinosaurs and the mammalian explosion, and then finally the evolution of humans. He presents a vast amount of evidence, documenting transitional forms from microfossils to mammals. But the crux of the matter is the evolution of humans from an ancestor shared with other primates. When Darwin published `The Origin of the Species; in 1859, there were still no good hominid fossils for him to point to but he predicted that evidence would be found that we evolved from a common ancestor shared with the other great apes, and that our own progenitors came from Africa. And so it has come to pass.

If you are a believer, then you can accept the evidence of evolution as documented in the fossil record and you can still believe in the transcendent. Personally, I don't. But it is not impossible to reconcile your faith with evolution. But the Genesis account of creation cannot be squared with the evidence from geology, paleontology, genetics, molecular biology and other fields of human sciences. Creationism neither explains nor predicts anything about the natural world. Prothero provides overwhelming evidence that when it comes to explaining the fossil record as it is currently known, and predicting the sorts of fossils that we can expect to find as our knowledge grows, only the theory of evolution makes any sense. If the fossils could speak, then this is what they would say.
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on 13 March 2010
The truth should be a good thing, and when people purport to be leading you to the truth, but instead lead you astray, then they do a disservice to the truth, and to you. If you are being told that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old (young Earth creationism), that fossils are created "kinds" (Intelligent Design) or that Noah's ark is a literal account of geologic history then they are not bringing you closer to the truth but obfuscating it from you.

Readers who are religious should not shy away from this book, in fact it specifically deals with the issue of what evolution means to your religious beliefs and your experience of meaning in the face of scientific understandings of nature, and Dr. Prothero clearly makes his case for the compatibility of evolution and religious belief. If the truth matters to you, then this is a vital book.

Personally, I prefer to see the evidence, hear compelling argument and make up my own mind, as any thinking person (regardless of religious affiliation) should do. Well, in Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters by Donald R. Prothero we have the ingredients for a great serving of truth, and an eminently readable and accessible book delineating the appropriate methods for viewing the science of evolution (the nature and philosophy of scientific claims), the multiple lines of evidence from horses to ancient camels, and the author's considerable and rigorous arguments for evolution by natural selection. We are entertainingly told how to avoid being led astray by creationist muddling of geologic history, unqualified and deliberately misleading interpretations of fossil anatomy and their baseless and devious attacks on our current understanding of the process of evolution as an underlying principle behind accepted modern natural science.

Without resorting to only attacking creationist arguments purely on their flaws, which in itself is deftly and convincingly done, Dr. Prothero elucidates the lines of evidence for a scientific understanding of evolution and adds weighty argument for the idea that these lines of evidence are our most informed and accurate understanding of the processes behind the complexity and beauty of the natural world as we see it today. This book is a fine example of emotionally restrained, yet scientifically rigorous and devastatingly effective argument for, not only evolution, but intellectual honesty and moral courage in the face of creationists who clearly want to deceive and distort science for their own evil ends.

One can clearly hear the author's frustration throughout the text in the face of creationist mischief, but he remains restrained in dealing with these misguided and misguiding folk by refraining from resorting to their underhanded tactics and instead focuses on the evidence, and the weight of clear argument and correct interpretation. And there is almost too much evidence to be contained in this book, even though it does a good job of introducing and explaining a wide variety and pithy selection of the molecular, genetic, fossil and philosophical. This book is sure to be intellectually stimulating to readers who are new to evolution, or experienced readers who would like to update their information to the latest lines of evidence, and to any person who cares about getting to a good understanding of how the fossil record informs our understanding of the natural world. The book also points to additional sources for furtherance of your appreciation of the evidence.

I particularly enjoyed reading about how sequentially unbroken the lines of evidence are in the microfossil record (radiolarians) and in the synapsid line (a transitional form delineating evolution from primitive amniotes, to synapids and finally mammals).

Carl Buell's illustrations are immaculate and really add illustrative and educational value to the chapter contents.

I am in awe at what a great book this is, and reminded that there is so much evidence in favour of evolution as a fact, and evolution by natural selection (the process by which evolution takes place) that creationist counter efforts are clearly spurious.

Dr Prothero has done a great service to the advancement of science and our understanding of the natural world in writing this book, and he does you a great service in illuminating the truth should you be so lucky as to pick up a copy of this work.
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on 10 June 2008
What a fantastic book....and yet, extremely sad and worrying. The author explains with extreme clarity the scientific method, evolution, transitional fossils, etc. It's lovely reading, I only wish I had such a concise, concentrated series of effective chapters when I was an undergraduate student! What's the sad part? Despite the overwhelming evidence...well, there are a lot of people out there who would wish us to stay in the Dark Ages. I had no idea (as a British citizen) how well organised, funded and determined these Creationists types are. It's very worrying indeed. This book acts as a perfect example to what is required - an affordable book with explanatory laymen's terms - to all scientists out there, never mind the next paper - get writing like Prothero, a scientific literate society NEEDS YOU, urgently. Well done, an excellent book!
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HALL OF FAMEon 24 July 2008
A society driving an eminent scientist to produce a book such as this is in need of some serious reflective thinking. The UK has as much need for that as the author's US audience. Prothero's account is not the first such investigation of the clash of science and superstition, but it ranks as one of the most thorough and revealing. Although this is a work of science, it is also a campaign manifesto. The author is eager to expose the fallacies of "Christian" creationism and the duplicitous methods used to foster it. The account may appear strident in some places, but it's too well researched - at many levels - and too well written to dismiss it as purely polemical. Above all, it's a needed work, deserving serious attention.

Evolution, he declares forthrightly, is real. The fossils support it in too many ways to be subjected to doubt. Those who try to erode the idea or dismiss the evidence are mistaken, misdirected and often malicious in their methods. Let there be no uncertainty, the panorama of life is there to see. There are many ways of confirming how animal life has varied over time and Prothero takes us through the analysis tools used to assess the evidence. Radiometric dating should be well understood by now, but creationists still find ways to attempt to challenge it. We learn about taxonomy and cladistics, one of the more arcane aspects of fossil analysis. Molecular analysis, what DNA can tell us about the past is, of course, the fastest growing field in palaeontology.

These tools, applied to the fossils and the environment they were found in, establish the relationships demonstrating that challenging evolution is a meaningless enterprise. Still, the challengers continue to emerge. Prothero's prime target in his account is Duane Gish. The Institute for Creation Research. Gish, who seems to have been around at least since the Noachean Flood, still plods the lecture circuit, where Prothero demolished his presentation at least once. Prothero notes that ICR publications, and Gish's lecture presentations are, at best two decades behind what real research has revealed. Prothero is scathing about those who can write of palaeontology without even gotten their hands dirty doing field work. Even creationism's illegitimate offspring, "Intelligent Design", fares no better in the author's hands. If a "designer" was involved in prompting evolution, It botched the job. Why so many forms of wings, for example, when one or two would suffice? Wings and hands are physically related through what palaeontologists call "homology". As Prothero ably demonstrates, adaptations of similar bone arrangements through time produced wings and hands in various animals. Creationists, who continue to call for "missing links" want the entire process lined out in exquisite detail. That's not likely in the world in which fossils form.

Prothero then describes the emergence of early life. His discussion of the Cambrian Period - once referred to as the "Cambrian Explosion" - and its precursor "The Garden of Ediacara" makes an excellent read. He goes on to the value of invertebrate fossils, most notably the formenifera, in showing the slow, but discernable progress of life over time. Vertebrates, who form the beginnings of our own body plan with a backbone, brain and vision systems, are well depicted. In "The Great Leap Upward", he explains how some of those vertebrates learned to live on land. The lobe-finned fishes led the way, and the recent find of Tiktaalik in Canada, gives much information on how they did it. More significant is the revelation of what body plan changes could lead to dinosaurs, primates, and us.

In his conclusion, "Why Does It Matter?", the author answers the question in two ways. First, he castigates his fellow "Christians" for using deceit and deception in thinking they are reinforcing their faith by deluding others about the validity of evolution. The story of the roots of who we are is too important to dismiss or take lightly. Such tactics must be kept out of classrooms - particularly in the US where Constitutional strictures apply [lucky US!]. Most important of all, he urges, the movement is creating a scientifically illiterate population. In a highly competitive technological world, such a condition bodes ill. Denial of evolution, he notes, reaches into domestic realms such as health care and agriculture. Allowing ideologues influence into the political realm is liable to result bad decisions with long-term effects. How to avoid such ill-considered eventualities? The place to start is here, by reading this book carefully, shedding as much as possible preconceived notions about life and how it works. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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on 31 July 2008
The initial ambition of the book is quite a tall order: To present, in a concise, well structured and all inclusive way, the overwhelming evidence for the existence of Evolution in the Natural World, as developed by Darwin and confirmed through the continuous and arduous research by thousands of scientists for the last 150 years.
The material evidence itself is vast, since it covers hundreds of millions of years and innumerable families of creatures, from simple single-celled organisms to complex living beings in many animal lineages. The author repeatedly laments the constrictions of space imposed by the book, which forces him to focus only in some "key" groups and their evolutionary history, while mercilessly abandoning a wealth of valuable fossils and the arguments for the nature and process of Evolution they offered.
But he has chosen well. The moments of Earth's evolutionary history he examines closely and the species selected for each and every one of them, present ample and undisputable proof for the way the Natural World evolves, creating the wealth and beauty of prehistoric and modern ecosystems. Again and again, a veritable avalanche of data, from an immensely rich fossil record worldwide, is used, in an objective, well-structured, scientific way, in order to demonstrate that Evolution exists and works more or less according to Darwinian principles.
The book strives for scientific cold-blooded objectivity and an adherence to provable and well-established facts. Nevertheless it has a militant character, since the author aims to utterly discredit the creationist view of the world, with its narrow-minded interpretation of physical reality. And he clearly means business, since his arguments, in every chapter, are akin to concentrated artillery fire, against the unrelenting attacks of the opposite side to all things scientific which do not agree with their strict beliefs.
To an educated European like myself, the sole fact that such a wealth of scientific evidence for the existence of Evolution, is not enough proof by itself, but has to be deployed as an army against a fundamentalist ideology, fills me with a mixture of amusement and dread. The later because this whole conflict takes place within a supposedly free, democratic, fully developed and powerful nation as the USA. So, for all our sakes, the book, apart of very well written and pleasurably educating, is critical in the positions it defends and the thorough way it does it.
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on 8 August 2008
"Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters" is the best book I have ever read emphasizing the importance of the fossil record as the indisputable "facts" of biological evolution, documenting the history of life on Planet Earth. Its publication is long overdue, and yet, remains quite timely, when major publishers like Simon and Schuster have mistakenly published sterling examples of mendacious intellectual pornography like Michael Behe's "The Edge of Evolution". Indeed, Prothero's book ought to be viewed as the one that demolishes forever, Behe's inane assertion (which he had expressed in a private e-mail reply to me that I've posted elsewhere here at Amazon.com) that the fossil record is irrelevant, claiming that the "truth" will be found only at the molecular level (More than anything else, that terse comment from Behe merely demonstrates his profound ignorance and understanding of the fossil record. Incidentally, Prothero refers to Behe as an "Intelligent Design creationist".). It also demonstrates the absurdity of creationist claims from the likes of Behe's Discovery Institute colleagues Paul Nelson, Jonathan Wells, and Geoffrey Simmons, among others, that the fossil record does not have "transitional forms". Indeed, as Prothero clearly shows his readers again and again, the history of life on our planet is replete with "transitional forms" documenting the evolutionary transitions from fish to tetrapods, from terrestrial carnivorous dinosaurs to flying birds, from primitive ungulate mammals to whales, and from apes to mankind. He also stresses the relevance of the fossil record to other aspects of evolutionary biology, noting its relevance with respect to molecular - as well as comparative anatomical - data. All of this is told in clear, concise, and persuasive, prose that often reaches the same literary heights attained by Prothero's mentor and friend, the late Stephen Jay Gould; without question this splendid book ought to be regarded as among the finest published last year.

Prothero's book is also a superb guide to the history and - regrettably - ever-present danger posed by Intelligent Design advocates and other creationists. The first three chapters emphasize the profound intellectual differences between valid mainstream science like contemporary evolutionary biology and pseudoscientific religious nonsense like "scientific" creationism in all of its flavors, especially Intelligent Design. Prothero offers a detailed look at the scientific method in the very first chapter, comparing and contrasting it with creationism (He also provides a superb introductory guide too to the writing of the Judeo-Christian Old Testament.). The second chapter is an in-depth exploration of creationism, tracing its roots in early 20th Century American Fundamentalist Protestant Christianity, and, of course, describing the emergence of Intelligent Design and its zealous promotion by the Discovery Institute, the Seattle, Washington-based "conservative" think tank (However, much to my amazement, he does not emphasize sufficiently, the important work done by philosopher of science Barbara Forrest and biologist Paul Gross in their book "Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design" in exposing the Discovery Institute's crypto-Fascist agenda for a future United States. Yet, to his credit, he does acknowledge that agenda by referring to its infamous "Wedge Document" while noting the Discovery Institute's deceitful promotion of Intelligent Design at the expense of valid mainstream science like contemporary evolutionary biology.). Finally, in Chapter Three, Prothero exposes both the intellectual inanity of "Flood Geology" and the popular creationist pastime of "quote mining"; the latter, a practice that's still popular with Discovery Institute Senior Fellows Michael Behe, William Dembski and Jonathan Wells.

The next two chapters comprise an excellent introduction to the history and science of evolutionary biology and the theory and practice of cladistic systematics. In Chapter Four, Prothero discusses the history of evolutionary biology, tracing its intellectual roots from the ancient Greeks to Lamarck, Darwin, and those biologists who became the "architects" of the Modern Synthesis Theory of Evolution (also known as the so-called "Neo-Darwinian Synthesis", since it merged population genetics with paleontology, biogeography, ecology and systematics). He also discusses some of the current controversies in contemporary evolutionary biology, beginning with evolutionary developmentaly biology, better known as "Evo - Devo", and, ending, of course, with punctuated equilibrium, noting how often it has been twisted and bent out of shape by creationists of all stripes, who have excelled only in "quote mining" from the published scientific and popular publications written by Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge; the two American invertebrate paleobiologists responsible for "punk eke". In Chapter Five, Prothero offers an especially lucid account of the theory and history of cladistic systematics, emphasizing its importance as a tool for studying both Earth's current biodiversity and its history of life.

In "Part II Evolution? The Fossils Say YES!", Prothero gives us a whirlwind tour of the history of life on Planet Earth, emphasizing major episodes in the history of life on Planet Earth, beginning with the origin of life, and culminating with the emergence of mankind. In Chapter Six, Prothero offers clear, persuasive evidence for the relative ease in creating life from inert organic compounds, brushing aside creationist arguments to the contrary. He debunks the outdated notion of a "Cambrian Explosion" - which remains popular with creationists, including Intelligent Design advocates - in Chapter 7, observing that the fossil record points to instead, a "Cambrian Slow Fuse", involving the gradual diversification of hard-part skeletonized fauna over the span of eighty million years, from the Late Precambrian through early Ordovician. He discusses the emergence of tetrapods from limbless fish in Chapter 10, the rise of early amniotes (which includes the reptiles, birds and mammals) in Chapter 11, and the evolution of flight in avian dinosaurs in Chapter 12, demonstrating the existence of countless "transitional forms". Further chapters are devoted to the origin of whales (Chapter 14) and humans (Chapter 15), and thus, offer a terse, but still thorough, glimpse, at the history of life on this planet. Prothero's coverage is so superb, that I am surprised by his all too brief references to mass extinctions, especially when their very existence ought to raise ample questions about an Intelligent Designer and his ability to "design" life that is extinction resistant.

In the final chapter of his book (Chapter 16), Prothero makes a truly compelling argument explaining why creationism is a clear and present danger, not only to American education, but indeed, the very survival of the United States too. He quotes from an extended excerpt from the Los Angeles Times, describing creationist Ken Ham's indoctrination of young school children against evolution, conjuring up - at least for me - an image of Adolf Hitler's infamous Nuremberg Nazi Party rallies. He blames the advent of creationism since the late 1950s for fostering scientific illiteracy among Americans, and noting that this threatens our future economic success as we compete with other, better educated, countries like those in Europe and East Asia in a global economy increasingly dominated by science and technology. He also argues persuasively that denial of evolution is harmful to our health and well being, graphically illustrating this point by reminding us of the unsuccessful 1984 baboon to human heart transplant by a creationist Loma Linda University surgeon. Prothero's dire warning is a message I have read before, especially from Niles Eldredge, but here, Prothero's remarks are most compelling, and ones that ought to be heeded by all (Not surprisingly, Prothero compares and contrasts current denial of evolution with that of global warming, and finds obvious parallels with both.).
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on 12 January 2011
I enjoyed this book and did find it very insightful but as with S.Lloyds 3* review, I also grew tired of the constant references to creationism.

I realise it was a polemic against them but I am not interested in anything they have to say and prefer to devote my time to understanding evolution, not their nonsensical ramblings.

Loved the joke about inteligent design and the flu vaccination.
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on 1 December 2007
I have read many books by supporters of evolution, many of the authors were distinguished scientists. But this one is by far the best because the author, who is an expert on fossils, really describes the evidence. He goes through may topics in detail, origins of dinosaurs, birds, and mammals. Probably the best part is when he focuses on the semi recent past (50 MY ago) when the various types of modern mammals appeared. The fossil record is at its best so there are lots of transitional forms or "missing links", which actually are NOT missing, which really demonstrate that evolution did occur. This is the book I have been waiting for for years. Bravo
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