Weekend reading…

27 04 2007

I received a few more books in the mail yesterday and I almost don’t know where to start; it all looks so good. Here’s my brief thoughts on what I’ve been going over lately (and most of these books are dirt cheap if you get them used from amazon.com), and you’re likely to hear more when I’ve finished them.

1- Omphalos by Philip Henry Gosse (1857, reprint 1998)

I first became interested in this book after reading Stephen Jay Gould’s treatment of it in The Flamingo’s Smile. Given that I’ve been keen to go back and learn more about the like of Hutton, Buckland, Paley, Steno, Smith, Mantell, Owen, Cuvier, Huxley, etc., I figured Gosse’s work wouldn’t be a bad place to start (especially since it was actually available in a reprint, otherwise I’d have to shell out over $260.00 for it). I started reading it yesterday during “video time” in my behavioral biology class, and although I’m only 60 pages in there are plenty of errors. Gosse starts off by stating the positions of various clergymen and scientists on the subject of an old earth, stating that we cannot abandon the Bible nor can we ignore the rocks; God’s handiwork must be apparent in nature and not conflict with Scripture. After this summary, he begins to explain fossils found at different strata, placoderms being referred to as “sharks” and all the dinosaurs being illustrated in woodcuts based off of Waterhouse Hawkins’ famous monsters from the Crystal Palace. What caught my attention most, however, was his brief discussion of pterodactyls where he says he has been convinced that they are actually flying marsupial mammals and was tempted to give them little furry ears in the woodcut (and although he did not, the flying reptiles do look awfully like bats; I’ll supply a picture at my earliest convenience). I’m sure it’ll get much more painful as Gosse tries to do mental somersaults, although I can’t quite help myself listening to his far-fetched ideas.

2 – Extinct Birds (revised edition, 2001) – Errol Fuller

I haven’t gotten a chance to sit down and look at every page, but this is an absolute beauty of a book. While I was disappointed with Wolfe’s Moa, Fuller’s book looks like it’s going to supply what I was looking for; a gloriously illustrated (albeit brief) account of the various birds that have gone extinct over recent centuries, including ratites like the moas and the ever-famous dodo. Even if the text turns out to be entirely worthless, the various photos, paintings, sketches, and other representations of the extinct birds as so well done that it’s well worth the money (even though I only paid about $6.00 for it).

3- Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology – (1995) by Lawrence Weschler

While I was somewhat disappointed by Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads (it’s still a good book, just not what I was expecting), Weschler’s book has already turned out to be a great joy. I read through the first 36 pages last night and just as Weschler was drawn into the curiosity cabinet of “Jurassic Technology”, so too is the reader. It’s no surprise that this book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, which goes to show how interesting science can be when written about in an engaging way. The book is also fairly well illustrated, providing plenty of little diagrams and pictures of the subjects mentioned so that the reader is not left in the dark about what is being discussed, and it’s likely that I’ll finish this one tonight or tomorrow.

4- Rivers in Time (2000) by Peter Ward

I started this book months ago but put it down for some reason, only to pick it up on the way to my evolution class last week. While Ward’s writing can be a little tedious at times, it has proved to be a rewarding book, especially in his discussion of the K/T extinction controversy. I do wish that there was some more illustration in his works (rather than the photos of various formations and a fossil here and there), but the book has gotten better as I’ve progressed through it. Part of the problem may be that dinosaurs and their extinction is so familiar that it’s easy to picture and imagine, whereas the equally fascinating (if not moreso) Permian/Triassic extinction is a bit more difficult to visualize. Ward gives plenty of background on the major players in these debates as well, a topic I think that is all-too-often glossed over elsewhere, and so it’s a record of changing ideas about extinction as much as it is about extinction events themselves. I may finish some of my other books first, but I’ll certainly complete this one soon.

5- Aquagenesis (2003) by Richard Ellis

I’ve actually had the pleasure of meeting Richard and I have some correspondence with him now and then, and there’s little doubt in my mind that he’s the #1 science writer/artist when it comes to life in the seas. That being said, it’s been a little difficult to get into Aquagenesis so far. Indeed, it reminds me a little bit of Ward’s book (see above) in that there are some parts that are very engrossing and others than seem to drag a bit. Even so I’m still a long way from finishing the book and I’ll likely finish it right after I complete Rivers in Time.

6- Life of the Past; An Introduction to Paleontology (1953) by George Gaylord Simpson

While Simpson’s The Meaning of Evolution proved to be an interesting look at the state of evolution in the 1950’s, I wasn’t that impressed with Life of the Past. Meant to be a popular work that would communicate basic ideas in paleontology, this short book merely recaps much of what was said in The Meaning of Evolution and doesn’t shed much light on the process of paleontology, from figuring out where to dig to study of what has been removed from the ground. There wasn’t very much that was notable in the book overall. Despite this, however, I am still hoping to get my hands on his famous Tempo and Mode of Evolution, right after I scrape enough money together to purchase a copy of A.S. Romer’s Osteology of the Reptiles. (Minor tangent; I find it funny how so many paleontologists/evolutionists end up being referred to by their first two initials followed by their last name. If I were to follow, I’d be B.J. Switek, which doesn’t sound as distinguished as the late scientists I just mentioned).

7- Marine Mammals (1999) by Berta and Sumich

This is probably one of the best textbooks I’ve ever seen, giving the reader an evolutionary take on marine mammals. The book is bursting with illustrations that are actually helpful and relevant to the text (as opposed to a picture of Oprah eating a hot dog, like in my biology textbook), giving the reader a visual representations of the skeletal or other structures being discussed. The famous swimming sloth Thalassocnus natans is included (albeit briefly) in the text as well, and it is an excellent resource for anyone interested in marine mammals. I have yet to read it cover to cover (I got as far as pinniped phylogenetic relationships), but I find it to be very informative and accessible.

That’s all for now; I have a habit of starting up books that I’m semi-interested in while I’m waiting for new ones, only to put them aside and tear through the new arrivals. Many of the books that have just arrived are short, however, so even though I seem to have a lot of reading to do it’s not nearly as time-consuming as it may seem. To my own regret, however, I have yet to finish Gould’s The Structure of Evolutionary Theory and the textbook The Functional Anatomy of the Vertebrates, and I hope to complete both, cover to cover, by the end of the summer.


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