The Smell of a Dead Fish

The Rise of Fishes, 500 Million Years of Evolution, John Hopkins University Press, 1995 is the topic of my book review this month. This $49.95 223 page volume is authored by John A. Long, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Western Australian Museum in Perth.

I bought this book with great expectations earlier this year hoping to improve my knowledge of prehistoric fish and sharks in particular. I was disappointed at first sight and further after I had read the entire book. Let me explain my disappointment more fully since my pet peeves may be unimportant to other people.

My first problem deals with my expectation versus what I received (I should mention that I mail ordered this direct from the publisher and hadn't seen a copy beforehand). I expected a technical book with lots of detailed text and "typical" scientific style illustrations - line drawings, charts, black and white photographs. What I got was a profusely illustrated book with color plates, line drawings, and semi-technical generalized text. What's my problem? Even after finishing the book, I had the impression that the author couldn't decide whether to make a technical book for fellow paleontologists or a non-technical book for general readership. I found this to be very frustrating reading.

The text contains a mixture of technical terms and anatomical names for skeletal parts. It is not hard to read if you are willing to skip over those words that aren't always defined. This of course means you will miss many of the author's points. I will mention here that the book does have a glossary at the back if you don't mind flipping pages. I don't want anyone to think Long doesn't define words in context, he just isn't consistent about it.

The Rise of Fishes also uses a format which irritates me - something I call side bars. These are pesky boxes of explanatory text outside of the main text which are intended to help the reader get more detailed information. Side bars can be a two by two inch box or two full pages including illustrations. My problem is I never know just when to stop reading the main text to read the sidebar.

I mentioned that the book has numerous illustrations. Illustrations can make or break a technical work because they are paramount in supplementing text descriptions. Most of my problems with this book revolve around the illustrations. I must say that there are many many color photos and drawings throughout the book which are beautiful works. The exceptions detract from the quality of the work however:

Coordination of text and illustrations is poor. The text and associated drawing or photo are usually one to three pages apart. Maybe this isn't too bad but the text rarely refers the reader to the page the illustration is on.

There are abundant photographs of actual fossils of which many are outstanding. Far too many others would benefit from an associated line drawing to help the non-expert figure out just what it is he's looking at.

I found at least two illustrations which told the reader to note specific details in the illustration that weren't even there! One of these was a photograph and the other an artists reconstruction. My guess is that this was a publisher problem in cropping the illustration to fit the format without a proper subsequent proofreading job.

Having a somewhat passing interest in quality photography myself, I was very disappointed by the inclusion of two poor photographs in this $50.00 book. One was of a very nice fossil from Europe, the photo contributed by another professional, in which only half of the specimen is in focus. The other, taken by the author, was of a coelacanth (stuffed?) behind glass in his own museum. The head of the fish can barely be discerned because the author/photographer's reflection and other glare is dominant in the glass!! Long even brings this to the reader's attention in the caption!!! In a later chapter he has a beautiful photo of a living coelacanth in its natural habitat which could have been used here if really needed.

One more jab at the photographic illustrations. No scale. I only recall a few photos with some type of scale reference included. Occasionally the text mentions the size of the fish being discussed but since the reader doesn't know if or where the fossil is shown (see my earlier comment) these notes are of little help.

Some of the best fossils shown in this book are from an exceptional site in Australia called Gogo. Fossil fishes from around the world are shown as well but in fewer numbers. I don't know if this bias is representative of the fossil record or is due to the author's specialization.

But what about the content? Did I like anything about The Rise of Fishes? Why yes, I liked the last chapter concerning the evolution of fish into amphibians. Long presents very logical and simple explanations of limb changes and lung development. He also poses some ideas as to why the move to land may have occurred. I did feel that Long projected the 19th century progression of life theme in his comments. His side bar "The Fact of Evolution" in the Introduction also indicates his support for strict Darwinian principles.

My overall opinion is that The Rise of Fishes is too technical for general readers and not technical enough for professionals. I think the author's purpose would have been better served by taking out most of the technical terminology, improving the illustrations, and publishing this as a coffee table book (Remember my definition? Lots of pretty pictures but little hard information). Alternatively, Long could expand the book for a professional audience by including more detail and better technical grade illustrations.

By the way, my friend Leland in Hawaii who is very interested in fossil fish, agrees with some of my complaints (although to a lesser degree). Leland does feel that this is still a worthwhile book for those who like fossil fish. My recommendation is to check this one out first hand before you shell out your $50.00.

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