Book Review

Weanée Kimblewood

Michael Ruse & Robert J. Richards (Eds.):
The Cambridge Companion to “The Origin of Species”.

Paperback: 424 pages
Publisher: Cambridge University Press; 1 edition (November 24, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 052169129X
ISBN-13: 978-0521691291
Price: ca. 22.00 EUR

Colin Tudge:
The Link: Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor.

Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company; First Edition edition (May 20, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0316070084
ISBN-13: 978-0316070089
Price: 23.99 EUR

Going Further into Evolution

At the sesquicentennial of the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, about 150 commemorative books were rushed onto the market. In Lab Times 1-2009, we reviewed a few of them. Here come another two, which, whilst very different, are both easy reads.

When, on Thursday 24th November 1859, the former theologian Charles Robert Darwin published 1,250 copies of a text-heavy book with just one illustration, priced at fifteen shillings each, not even the author’s closest friends nor his most ardent supporters could foresee what might follow. The Origin of Species became a scientific smash hit and was seen as the work of the devil by some religious folk. Florida State University professor Michael Ruse characterises Darwin’s Origin today as “a major work of science” and a “major event in the history of Western civilisation”.

There is, however, a paradox around Darwin’s (in Ruse’s words) “work of vital significance and interest”. Just a handful of modern natural scientists have themselves read Origin, while the vast majority of researchers know the opus only from hearsay. The Cambridge Companion to the “Origin of Species”, a collection of 18 absorbing essays on Darwin’s masterpiece, has the potential to change this. Written by scientists, historians, literary scholars and philosophers, each of the book’s 18 chapters provides useful and interesting information on Darwin’s life, ideas, goals and troubles, as well as on the religious, social, political, literary and philosophical background in which Origin was composed and its author lived.

The scope of topics ranges from “The Origin of the Origin” (by Michael Ruse) over “Darwin on the Species Problem” (by Phillip Sloan), “The Rhetoric on the Origin of Species” (by David Depew) to the “Question of Religion” (by John Brooke). In the final chapter, the antiquarian booksellers Michèle and Chris Kohler talk about Origin as a physical object: what sort of book it was, how it was published and distributed and about the odd fact that today’s collectors pay small fortunes for good copies of the first edition of Origin with a record auction price of € 112,000 obtained in New York in 2001 for a specimen in original cloth.

Even though the Companion doesn’t address itself primarily to newcomers or laypeople, it is written in a clear and friendly style. Thus it deserves to find general approval with every reader who wants to learn more about one of the most important and controversial books of human history.

The first edition of The Origin of Species was sold out within weeks. Nowadays, scientific authors must make bigger efforts to gain comparable attention for their work. Sometimes, however, they overshoot the mark, as the overblown presentation of Darwinius masillae illustrates.

“The” link is just “a” link

Darwinius “The Link” masillae (right) most likely is just “a”, not “the”, link.

On May 19th this year palaeontologists under the Norwegian Jørn Hurum and German Jens Franzen revealed their “extraordinary, most complete fossil primate ever discovered” to the world at a huge press conference. They simultaneously presented a website that looked as if it was designed for the 4th episode of Jurassic Park; a book which had already been distributed to bookstores; and a TV documentary that was broadcast in several European countries. The unveiling of the 47 million year old and nearly intact fossil, that has, according to its discoverers, the status of an important transitional form (“link”) between the prosimian and simian primate lineages, came across, “as part of an orchestrated publicity campaign unusual for scientific discoveries” (as the New York newspaper Daily News scoffed).

Ok, sound bites like, “This specimen is like finding the Lost Ark” and “It’s the scientific equivalent of the Holy Grail, as important as the Mona Lisa” obviously should be regarded as utter nonsense. The accompanying book The Link: Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor, written by British biologist Colin Tudge, however, is really not all that bad.

First of all, The Link isn’t just about a monkey fossil and its discovery (the little information available about “Ida” seems to be recorded mainly to exaggerate the importance of the find). A good portion of Tudge’s story is a walk back into human history, showing what we know about the evo­lution of primates and ourselves (and what we don’t yet know). Tudge provides a broad survey of Eocene paleontology, of the prehistoric “hothouse period” and of fauna and flora at Ida’s excavation site, the Messel Pit about 35 km southeast of Frankfurt am Main. Sometimes, it reads like a shopping list of fossils found at Messel. It’s not the newest information nor the most sensational here, but lay readers won’t notice. Paleontologists, on the other hand, will prefer Hurum and Franzen’s PloS One paper.

The book is a quick read, written by a skilled science writer and contains some pretty high quality colour images of the fossil and of its computer reconstruction (unfortunately, there are no artist’s impressions of the impressive world in which Ida lived). Tudge has a knack for making difficult material understandable and his book could therefore spark an interest in paleontology amongst many lay people.

Hyperbolic boosterism is annoying

On the other hand, the permanent and hyperbolic boosterism of Ida becomes rapidly annoying. Admittedly, Ida’s remains are extremely important for research into primate (though not human) evolution, but sentences like, “This is the fossil that should help us to see that all human races are equal” are, sadly, pure nonsense. The study of Ida has just begun and to trumpet potential sensations beforehand isn’t serious science.

Another weak point is the book’s misleading title and its false subtitle. The prefix “the” before “link” pretends two things: Firstly that Ida alone is the embodiment of this mysterious link and secondly that other “links” don’t exist. This again is nonsense in the light of the multiplicity of important fossils we know today, quite apart from the fact that a term such as “missing link” is one of the silliest and most inaccurate in the whole of paleontology. The subtitle Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor makes no sense either, and should read Uncovering a potential anthropoid ancestor from the Eocene. You don’t agree? Well, our earliest ancestor drifted 3.5 billion years ago through a lukewarm soup and was a microscopic vesicle filled with primordial molecules.

The Link contains several scientific errors, probably caused by an overworked editor under time pressure. On page 41, for example, it is maintained that “the commonest form of carbon in the world [...] is known as carbon 14”, while carbon 12 would be rare. That is untrue, of course. The opposite would be correct. Later, we read the absurd myth about old windows being thicker at the bottom due to glass flowing downwards with gravity over time. In the face of such rookie mistakes in the fields of chemistry and physics, one can assume that the book contains plenty more errors that only skilled paleontologists are able to see.

Much ado about (nearly) nothing?

Michael Ruse, author of the Companion, meets with a rare dodo (Raphus cucullatus) specimen. Photo: University of Alabama

The biggest problem for the originators of the hype around Darwinius masillae, however, is recent research by Chris Beard at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. Beard asserted that Ida is most likely a member of the lemur family Notharctidae – an important finding upon which most other experts agree.

This, however, would mean that Ida the “wonder fossil” has no claim to human ancestry. Oops!

Letzte Änderungen: 24.07.2013