Book Review: Evolution by Don Prothero


Even though I didn’t get to go to SVP this year, my friends Julia and Neil were in attendance and were kind enough to send me a *signed* copy of Don Prothero’s newest book, Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters. Although I was already in the middle of a book when Prothero’s book arrived at my door, I dropped what I was reading and started tearing through the glossy pages, and I have to say that I was impressed. Aside from the excellent illustrations by the talented Carl Buell (plus tons of photographs and other diagrams), Prothero’s book doesn’t hold back when it comes to creationism, refuting creationist lies as well as acting as a guide to the overwhelming fossil evidence that shows the reality of evolution. While it isn’t necessarily the book I’d write, it is the best treatment of the fossil evidence for a popular audience yet, and rather than write a whole new review from scratch here in my endorsement of the book;

A cursory look at the science section of any bookstore will reveal a current glut of books about evolution and creationism, some works being excellent reviews of the debate while others are not worth the paper they’re printed on. Prothero’s book falls into the former category, being the best popular resource I’ve come across to date about evolution and the evidence from the fossil record.
One of the most important (and appealing) aspects of Prothero’s book is that he takes a “gloves off” approach to creationism, not waffling on the subject like other recent works (i.e. Whitham’s Where Darwin Meets the Bible). This more up-front tone allows Prothero to look at the claims of creationists and ID advocates in depth, his excellent review of the formation of the Grand Canyon (the only one I know of in the popular literature) being a fantastic example of melding positive scientific evidence with a thorough refutation of pseudoscience. Still, while Prothero takes a more aggressive approach than other recent authors the book is hardly a long diatribe against creationism; Prothero combines personal experience debating YEC stalwarts like Duane Gish with his extensive knowledge of paleontology, geology, and evolution, delivering a successful one-two punch that is informative on more than just one level.
If I have any complaint about this book, it is only that some of the sections require a little more fine-tuning or focus to bring out the important evolutionary trends. The chapter on Dinosaurs is a good example of this; while Prothero provides a good review of important fossil finds, the origin and diversification of sauropod dinosaurs, ceratopsians, and dromeosaurs could use some further clarification as there is certainly more to the story than was given room for discussion. This is a minor point, though, as the book proceeds at breakneck speed through geologic time, providing an overview of various transitional fossils and important evolutionary changes. Indeed, while this treatment might not entirely satisfy a reader looking for excruciating detail, it is an excellent primer for those largely unfamiliar with the fossil record.
As Prothero himself notes in the book, the fossil record is incredibly rich and paleontologists continue to accumulate knowledge with every new day in the lab and the field, but up until now many writers have avoided listing many of the important fossils with unfamiliar and tongue-twisting names in popular works. Fortunately for us, Prothero breaks from the older approach and acts as a guide to the diversity of the fossil record, recognizing that it is no longer sufficient to place a group of fossils in a straight line in an attempt to convince the reader that evolution has occurred without illuminating the “bushiness” the evolution produces.
In summary, Prothero’s book is a joy to read and provides an excellent summary of the current richness of the fossil record for specialist and layman alike, with the added bonus of a comprehensive refutation of creationist claims about the fossil record. If you’re looking for a comprehensive primer on evolution, or even a refresher on the current state of fossil finds important to evolution, you need look no further than this book.

While I have hardly read every work on the evolution/creationism confrontation, many look at the philosophical underpinnings of both standpoints without necessarily providing positive evidence for evolutionary change. Even worse, some take the “Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone was nice?” approach and respect creationists so much that the authors aren’t critical of the bold-faced lies of creationists, this result a product of a modern media that believes that writers must give “equal time” to both sides of an issue, no matter how nutty the beliefs of one side. As stated in the review and my introduction, Prothero is more content with calling a spade a spade and this was a big relief to me, and while the book is not the be-all and end-all of treatments of evolution I must say that even despite sections I disagreed with I still enjoyed the book immensely.

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