Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters, Donald R. Prothero. Columbia University Press, New York, NY, 2007, $29.50, hard-cover; 381 pp. Includes an eleven page Bibliography and a nine page Index. Well illustrated with primarily black and white photographs and other graphics. A number of key fossils are presented in twelve color plates.
The Foreword, Why People Do Not Accept Evolution, by Michael Shermer has provided me with the wonderful epigraph I have used to begin this review (xi). Shermer lays the groundwork for Prothero's excellent presentation on evolution and science. This three page section offers a logical and better word choice to designate ones agreement with evolution: "accept evolution" rather than "believe in evolution" (xi). This simple change of wording removes the connotation of dogmatic faith from evolution thus illustrating that evolution and religious belief systems are approached quite differently.
Prothero's prefatory comments, To The Reader: Is Evolution a Threat to Your Religious Beliefs?, are meant to reassure the reader that evolution and religious belief systems need not be at odds. People who accept evolution are not de facto atheists. He also contrasts his personal experience as a paleontologist with that of the creationists regarding qualifications to comment on geology and fossils. To use an example, even though Albert Einstein was a genius, his explanation for plate tectonics or the biological relationships among dinosaurs would not be considered credible. Scientists in one field of expertise are generally not qualified to comment in depth on topics for which they have no training but that is, on the other hand, what is commonly done by creationists.
Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters is divided in to two main sections. Part I: Evolution and the Fossil Record and Part II: Evolution? The Fossils Say YES! Part I covers a wide range of topics in its five chapters all of which are intended to give the reader a broad background in the basics of science and evolution. Throughout these chapters, Prothero introduces the techniques and arguments used by creationists to discredit the findings of science. The eleven chapters of Part II describe specific data from the fossil record that supports the concept of evolution.
Chapter 1, The Nature of Science, is particularly well done. Anyone with a clear understanding of the principles of science as presented here should easily see why "scientific creationism" and Intelligent Design (ID) have failed in the court system when they have tried to present their tenets as legitimate science in order to inject their beliefs into public schools. Prothero presents nine principles that are paramount to seeing pseudoscience for what it is - this of course includes ID and other versions of creationism. To mention a few of these: Anecdotes are not scientific proofs. This can be seen in action on a currently running television commercial that makes no claims about the product's medical benefits but exhorts the viewer to, "ask someone who has [used it]." The FDA dictated that this company not make scientifically unsubstantiated claims in advertising. Prothero uses examples in the world New Age alternative medicine to support the principal that "Bold Statements and Scientific-Sounding Language Do Not Make It Science" (17). In explaining "Correlation Is Not Causation" Prothero reports a science based example: Raup and Sepkoski's study on extinctions in the mid 1980's indicated that mass extinctions were periodic on a 26 million year time scale and that some had coincided with extraterrestrial impacts. Further scrutiny and statistical analysis of the data revealed the presumed correlation was nonexistent. In an effort to illustrate the detection of non-scientific "Special Pleading", Prothero uses a biblical example. He asserts, "If we point out that there are millions of species on earth that could not have fit into the Biblical Noah's ark, the creationists try to salvage their hypothesis by saying 'only the created kinds were on board' or . . . 'God miraculously crammed all these animals into this tiny space . . .' or some similar garbage" (19). The closing phrase of that last sentence shows Prothero's contempt for the creationists and their attempts to derail science - a recurring theme throughout this book.
Science and Creationism, Chapter 2, is an excellent overview of the roots of creationism. Prothero shares creation myths from many different religions while contrasting their similarities and differences. The Christian Biblical version (Genesis) is shown to be a book of many authors, blended over time with conflicting versions of identical events. When discussing 20th century creationism and ID, Prothero shares just a few of the many examples of the not so perfect designs of the natural world including Gould's favorite example of the panda's thumb.
Prothero includes quotes from creationists and ID leaders that showcase their views and motivations. Paul Nelson is quoted (2004) as saying what should be the obvious, "Easily the biggest challenge facing the ID community is to develop a full-fledged theory of biological design. We don't have such a theory right now, and that's a problem" (40). Even more blatant is a quote from Phillip Johnson in 1996, "This isn't really, and never has been, a debate about science . . . It's about religion and philosophy" (41). These statements show not only the motivation for their efforts but also that even they recognize there is no valid foundation for their viewpoint. An interesting point made here by Prothero is that most proponents of ID "regard the 'young-earth' creationists [YEC] . . . of Answers in Genesis as irrelevant as dinosaurs, relicts of the past" (41). In order to seem more acceptable to the mainstream and appear more scientifically savvy, the ID supporters must distance themselves from the extreme fundamental views of the YECs. Prothero also shares a statement from the summary by judge John E. Jones III after the Kitzmiller vs Dover Area School Board trial in 2005, "Both defendants and many of the leading proponents of intelligent design make a bedrock assumption which is utterly false. Their presupposition is that evolutionary theory is antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to religion in general" (43).
In his chapter, The Fossil Record, Prothero delves into the mechanisms for fossil preservation, exposure and discovery so the reader understands the processes. He also explains why Darwin's lament of a sparse and incomplete fossil record 150 years ago is now an "embarrassment of riches" (51). Flood Geology as embodied in the Biblical story of the universal flood of Noah is specifically attacked as a ludicrous explanation of the world's geological phenomena. Prothero easily explains away the fantastic and inconsistent accounts offered by creationists for the appearance of "simpler" fossil forms in the lower strata to the "higher" forms at the top. He uses the stratigraphic sequences of the Grand Canyon as classic examples and turns a favorite of the creationists against them. Prothero offers that had the canyon strata been laid down in one flood event as flood geology states, not only would the layers of shales, sandstones and volcanic events been in a different sequence, but the receding flood waters also could not have cut such a clean channel through these unconsolidated materials - they would have slumped. Prothero observes, "In a supreme twist of irony, the disproof of 'flood geology' is found just beneath the new creationism museum in Kentucky. The museum is built upon the famous Ordovician rocks of the Cincinnati Arch, which span millions of years of the later Ordovician. If you poke around the slopes all around the area (as I have often), you will find hundreds of finely laminated layers of shales and limestones, each full of delicate fossils of trilobites and bryozoans and brachiopods preserved in life position that could never have been disturbed by flood waters - and each layer of hundreds represents another community of marine organisms that grew and lived and then were gently buried in fine silts and clays" (62).
The rest of this chapter explores the determination of the age of the earth, transitional forms, and the implausibility of the ark story. The transitional forms in the fossil record are not described in detail but only discussed as they relate to one of the deceptive creationist techniques - quote mining - in which statements from legitimate scientists are taken out of context and presented in such a way that they appear to either refute evolution or support creationism (78 - 85).
Chapter four, The Evolution of Evolution, begins with the earliest thoughts on the matter by Greek philosophers in the fifth century B.C. (87). Prothero leads the reader through history into the present to illustrate that 1) change in life forms on the planet has occurred over time; 2) many before Darwin understood this change; 3) Darwin proposed the best workable idea for how this change happened; 4) others in Darwin's time had theories much like Darwin's (92); 5)scientists since Darwin have refined the theory to account for recent scientific findings in many fields. Prothero points out, "Despite the misleading misquotations of creationists, none of these ideas challenges the well-established fact that life has evolved or that natural selection is an important (if not exclusive) mechanism for evolution" (94). Concluding information illustrates a number of examples of the process of evolution occurring today in organisms from viruses to house sparrows.
Systematics and Evolution, chapter five, is the last of Part 1 of Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters. The origins and the fallacy of the "Great Chain of Being" and the "Ladder of Life" are described and then contrasted to the current view of evolution as a bush. Prothero debunks the "Missing Link" concept as a hold-over from these obsolete terms yet shows that creationists continue to use this in their arguments asking, "'If humans evolved from apes, why are apes still around'" (125)? Mosaic evolution is explained by revealing that species are made up of features from their ancestors but that these features can appear at different times. Prothero uses Archaeopteryx and the genus Homo as examples. For those wishing to have a better understanding of Cladistics as a way to describe evolutionary relationships, this chapter concludes with a simple and understandable explanation.
Part 2 of Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters offers a wealth of material supporting evolution through transitional forms in the final two thirds of the book. Each chapter covers a different group of creatures. As in Part 1, Prothero continues his attack on the creationist techniques and distortions of this evidence.
Part 2 begins with a chapter discussing the origins of life. Here Prothero presents the latest thinking by specialists in the field. The earliest undisputed life forms are cyanobacteria 3.5 billion years old. In strata older than that chemical signatures are found in the rocks that infer a biological origin. Recognizable fossils have not been discovered from these times. As Prothero explains, the creationists prefer to point out these uncertainties as proof that evolution is wrong "and refuse to accept any of the experimental evidence to understanding life's origins" (147). Scientific explanations of phenomena may not always have every detail entirely worked out or perhaps a transitional fossil between two species has not yet been found. Creationists see these "gaps" as indisputable proof of evolution's shortcomings. They insert God's causative creative ability to fill the gap. This technique is jokingly termed the "'god of the gaps' approach" (147). Scientists, however, do not give up but continue their research and as far as the fossil record is concerned, they have been very successful in filling these gaps.
In the next chapter, the Cambrian Explosion is shown to have been a slow process rather than that implied from its name. The term Cambrian Explosion was coined long before the extensive Pre-Cambrian fossil record was known and the term is now factually invalid. Creationists continue to use the term as its perceived connotation fits their misinformation campaign.
In Spineless Wonders of Evolution, Prothero introduces the best record of continuous evolution - the microfossils preserved at the bottom of the oceans. These sediments cover millions of years of the "rain" of foraminifera, radiolarians and diatoms. Other examples are presented including trilobites and mollusks. The changes shown here represent microevolutionary events that creationists say show variation within the "created kinds" (189) and, in effect, this provides an admission to evolution at work. To counter the "kinds" issue, Prothero shows macroevolutionary changes in sand dollars and horseshoe crabs. An excellent example of macroevolution is that of Neopilina, a perfect transitional form between segmented worms and mollusks (192).
Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters moves to vertebrate evolution with the fishes beginning with the development of the first chordates. Not so many years ago, a British paleontologist proposed a controversial idea that echinoderms were closely related to chordates and vertebrates. Embryology has borne this out (200). The earliest known chordates come from the Middle Cambrian of China and Canada and these resemble the modern lancelets. Sharks have long been termed "living fossils" and as unchanged for millions of years - this unfortunate use of words co-opted by creationists is used to deny evolution. Prothero debunks this by showing a vast amount of evolutionary change in sharks since the Silurian.
Fish Out of Water chronicles the transition from fish to land vertebrates. Including the most recent discoveries, a perfect set of transitional fossils is now known and illustrated in Figure 10.7 (227). Prothero offers that the Devonian Panderichthys seems well suited to fill the bill as the "fishibian" that creationists insist does not exist (224).
Creationists can't seem to pull themselves away from outdated terminology and their love of "the missing link" concept. To them, a fossil of an earlier animal cannot be considered a transitional form if it is not on a direct line of descent. This is no more evident than in the treatment of Archaeopteryx as a transitional fossil between dinosaurs and birds in Dinosaurs Evolve - and Fly, chapter 12. In a lengthy explanation lambasting creationist Duane Gish, Prothero argues, "Gish has absolutely no qualifications to interpret dinosaur fossils or to make judgements about them. He may try to glean what impressions he can from reading children's books and quoting them out of context, but he is no more qualified to make pronouncements based on such simplistic book reports than your average high school kid" (250). Prothero goes on to illustrate numerous transitional forms for the dinosaur - bird transition that Gish and other creationists just ignore. Besides bird evolution, Prothero attacks another creationist staple, ceratopsian evolution, where they also maintain the stance of no transitional forms. Here he focuses on the creationists distortion of the geologic age of these creatures to advance their argument. Prothero's closing statement in this chapter applies to most creationist arguments, "The creationist book that focuses only on Archaeopteryx and distort[s] the fossil record are so laughably outdated by the new discoveries that their writings are only fit to line the bottom of a bird cage" (268).
In explaining one of the more difficult transitions for many people to grasp - the reptilian jaw changing into the mammalian inner ear bones, Prothero offers the perfect transitional fossil. Diarthrognathus actually possesses the typical reptilian jaw along with the bones of the typical mammalian jaw (278).
I have chosen but a few examples to give an overview of the depth and tenor of Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters. I was not able to go into great depth in these few examples because of space limitations. You can be assured that the author does go into detail and that of course is one reason to read this book. In addition to my brief look at a few specific groups, Prothero covers transitional forms in areas including the evolution of some land animals into marine forms (Mosasaurs and Ichthyosaurs from terrestrial reptiles and whales from land mammals).
The author admits that he has only presented a fraction of the micro and macroevolutionary transitional fossils known but what really matters to people, and creationists in particular, is the story of human evolution from the apes (331). While creationists may bend a bit on accepting some variation within the "created kinds" they are adamant about the special creation of humans. As in other chapters, The Ape's Reflection, the typical errors, misrepresentations and ignorance of the fossil record and anatomy by creationists are showcased. One such case is that of Nebraska Man erroneously described by Henry Fairfield Osborn as a human fossil based on a tooth. The tooth turned out to be that of a fossil peccary. Creationists mock this by announcing to their flock that a paleontologist thought a "pig" tooth was that of a human. Prothero emphasizes that peccary's are related to pigs but are not pigs and that their teeth look remarkably like human teeth - so much so that Prothero has shown that creationists are unable to tell one from another themselves. In the true workings of scientific study, the Nebraska Man error was discovered and corrected in short order. Even the slightest disagreement in the interpretation of hominid fossils between legitimate scientists is trumpeted by creationists as more proof of the failure of evolution. In fact, the scientific debate is merely the normal process of scientific endeavor. Prothero goes on to present what the human fossil record actually shows. Our family tree is a remarkably complex bush showing any number of different hominids existing at the same time. The human fossil record spans 7 million years and boasts thousands of specimens - not at all what the creationists would have us believe.
The closing chapter answers the question, Why Does it Matter? Here Prothero makes seven major points: 1) "Creationism is a narrow sectarian religious belief" the teaching of which in public schools is, and has repeatedly been proven to be, unconstitutional (352); 2) "The attack on evolution is really an attack on all of science" (352); 3) "Creationists are threatening, harassing, and intimidating our public schools, universities, and museums" (353); 4) "Thanks in part to creationists, the American public is appallingly illiterate in basic science"(355); 5) "America has fallen behind many other nations in technological and scientific supremacy . . ." (356); 6) "Denial of evolution ... threatens our heath and well being" (356); 7) "Allowing ideologues of any type to suppress science through political means is deadly for a society as well'' (356). These points are fleshed out with the author's usual style and thoroughness. An interesting if not frightening example is given in support of Prothero's third point. YEC Ken Ham is quoted at length from an event for elementary children wherein he instructs the students in the means to disrupt any teacher's efforts to teach evolution, the geological age of the earth, or the origins of the earth.
In some ways, this was a difficult review because there are so many quote worthy statements made by Prothero as well as by those whom he has chosen to quote within Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters. The contempt toward the untenable positions taken by creationists is clearly communicated. Prothero, I am sure, has taken delight at times in using religious phraseology to make a point as in, "I can testify and bear witness from personal experience that what I tell you about the fossil record in this book is based largely on my own observations and experience " (xvii). I don't think that particular choice of words was coincidental.
Readability - For students of science, High School and up.
On the Upside - A fairly high road approach to the problem of continued creationist attempts to wedge their beliefs in to science education. Written in a plain language style that makes the scientific information presented easy to grasp by any reader. Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters is full of examples of transitional forms from the fossil record.
On the Downside - Those who should read and consider Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters will in all likelihood not be the ones to do so. Prothero's use of phrases that ridicule or express contempt for the creationists and ID supporters will undoubtedly turn them away from reading this valuable book.
Overall Rating - An important book in the ongoing conflict with creationists. It would be difficult to rate Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters at anything less than excellent. A must read for a better understanding of the overabundance of proofs of evolution. This is a serious wake up call for anyone thinking that fundamentalist creationism advocates will eventually give up or that their efforts will not affect the breadth of science education.