Written in Stone – Wrapping up is hard to do

Written in Stone

Now that the details about Australopithecus sediba have been published, I am faced with an important question – how am I going to fit the new hominin into Written in Stone?

When I started composing Written in Stone I was determined to make it as up-to-date as possible. This was not only out of a concern for accuracy, but also stemmed from a desire to present the public with some discoveries that they may not have heard about before. Given that new paleontological papers are being published every week, however, I have often been faced with the question of how to incorporate interesting new research into a book that I thought was nearly finished.

My response has not always been the same in every case. When Puijila, a relative of early seals relevant to their origins, was described I wondered if it might be a good idea to include it in the chapter on whale evolution as an alternative manner by which mammals became adapted to life in the sea. The problem was that I had already used ichthyosaurs to contrast whales with, and I ultimately decided that they were better for comparison than Puijila. I ended up mentioning Puijila in a footnote, as I did the supposed early tetrapod tracks announced a few months ago.

There have been a few discoveries which have forced me to significantly alter particular chapters, however. As I was writing the human evolution chapter, for example, I had heard that Ardipithecus ramidus was going to be published soon, and so I wrote the relevant portion of the chapter such that I could alter the section on Ardipithecus if the papers came out before I sent the book off to be published. Fortunately, the papers were released earlier than I had expected, and I was able to include a more in-depth discussion of the fossils than in the previous draft. Then there was the unexpected announcement that Tyrannosaurus rex suffered from infestations of microorganisms very similar to those which plague modern birds. I felt that this discovery added an interesting twist to the evidence I had summarized on the relationship between dinosaurs and birds, so I found a way to work it into the feathered dinosaurs chapter.

In each case I had to look at the story I had already laid out and ask myself 1) whether the new discoveries were significant enough to retain the attention of readers, 2) if the conclusions drawn from the findings were well-supported, and 3) how the new findings might fit into the story I had already laid out. If I felt a story was significant, but I doubted the conclusions or it just did not fit with the narrative I had laid out, I typically mentioned it in a footnote. Interesting finds which highlighted the point I was attempting to make, on the other hand, I worked into the text. Even using these guidelines, I could not include everything I wanted to, but Written in Stone will most certainly contain some information that has not yet been covered by any other popular science book.

So, what about Australopithecus sediba? I think it definitely merits mention in a footnote, though it also adds to the theme of hominin diversification I highlight in the latter part of the hominin chapter. Given that it was just formally published a day ago there are probably more questions than answers about its relationships to other hominins, but I think it merits at least a brief note.

Whatever I end up doing with A. sediba, it will be one of the last scientific updates to Written in Stone. This weekend I will be arranging illustrations and combing through the text one more time before sending the manuscript to be copy-edited. I will still be able to make some changes to the book during this next phase of production, but this weekend is my last chance to make any large-scale changes to the story I want to tell. This means that, between now and the time the book is released, I won’t be able to keep going back to the manuscript to make updates on new discoveries, but that may be for the best. If I had the ability to keep fiddling with the book it might never be finished. At some point I am just going to have to jump in with what I have, and now is as good a time as any.

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