Paleontology 101

It’s been a long time since I reviewed a text book on paleontology. I recently picked up an introductory level text that may be of interest to many of you. The fourth edition of Life of the Past by William Ausich and N. Gary Lane is the book in question. Unfortunately, Life of the Past is priced like a text book and retails for $48.00. The 321-page fourth edition was published in 1999 by Prentice Hall. Interestingly enough, I happen to own a copy of the 1978 first edition which was written solely by Lane—this one was only $5.00 on the used book market.

William Ausich is a professor at The Ohio State University, a crinoid expert, and occasional co-author with U. C. professor David Meyer. N. Gary Lane is a professor at Indiana University and is also a crinoid expert.

Since I do not have the second or third editions of Life of the Past I can’t be certain which sections were specifically added or updated for this edition. I do know that since the first edition the sections on extinction and chapter 17, Primate and Human Evolution, are new.

Life of the Past has a novel organizational scheme as compared to many of the available texts on paleontology. While other texts are organized either chronologically or taxonomically, this one is unique. Life of the Past begins with chapters covering the basics of paleontology and geology. Sections include geologic time, the biological organization of life, how fossils are formed, the origin of life on earth, evolution and extinction, and plate tectonics. The beginning chapters are followed by numerous chapters dealing with ancient marine life. These are handled chronologically. Life on land is also done chronologically and constitutes the final section.

As I read Life of the Past, I found that the organization of the book produced a logical flow and increased the ease with which earth history could be understood. By taking marine life, for example, from the Precambrian up through modern times, it is much easier to grasp the transitions through the ages. Again, since Life of the Past is an introductory text, this technique makes the concepts much easier to grasp.

Life of the Past contains some technical terms just because of the subject matter. Ausich and Lane have defined terms well in context and have used boldface type to emphasize key words. Each chapter ends with a list of the key terms used (so you can study for the test) and a short list of publications for further reading. A glossary of terms is also provided that repeats and defines the key words boldfaced in the text. The first chapter has a list of Internet sites recommended for additional study. The web sites listed are for museums and professional organizations such as the Paleontological Society.

Anyone having had high school biology will find Life of the Past to be fairly easy to read and understand. I will admit that it has been a little while since I had a course in biology and the section about plant reproduction slowed me down a bit. Since this is an introductory level text, no subject in the book is discussed in any great detail. This is one of the reasons Life of the Past is so readable and understandable. Readers desiring more depth are encouraged to seek out the books from the lists at the chapters’ end.

I was pleased to see that Ausich and Lane have made efforts to keep Life of the Past as up to date as possible. I found many instances of very current research topics throughout the book. This applied to the discussion of evolutionary theories in general and again when human evolution was discussed. Where competing theories exist, both are presented while the authors remain neutral.

The introduction to the chapter on evolution and extinction describes the transition in thinking that has occurred over the past 300 years or so. This provides a nice summation of the history behind today’s science. It also logically leads to the authors’ statement that, “. . . the fact that the sequence of occurrence of fossils in the rocks of different ages and their transition from one form to another through time provide the material evidence for the evolution of life that has, indeed, taken place on earth.”

I had only one small issue with Life of the Past and since the authors have requested suggestions for improvements in the Preface, I will offer this small nit. Mass extinctions including the Big Five are discussed in chapter 5, Patterns of Evolution and Extinction. In this chapter, and again in chapter 15 where the extinction of the dinosaurs is discussed, the authors present the end Cretaceous extinction event (K-T) as number three of the Big Five. This ranking differs with that presented by Hallam and Wignall in Mass Extinctions and Their Aftermath which I reviewed last month. It is certainly possible that one set of authors is right and one set is wrong. It is also possible that they are using different sets of data to arrive at these differing ranks. What is more troublesome to me in Life of the Past is that contradictory information is presented in Table 5.7 that adjoins the first text claim of tertiary rank for the K-T event. The table clearly shows the late Devonian event as third in magnitude with the K-T tied for fourth with the end Triassic event. This data agrees more closely with that presented by Hallam and Wignall. Hopefully this discrepancy will be corrected in the fifth edition of Life of the Past.

Despite the extinction ranking issue, I can highly recommend Life of the Past to anyone that would like an overview of life changes through earth history. The presentation is excellent. The illustrations, which include black and white photographs, charts, and line drawings, nicely supplement the text.

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