Monday Reading Update

16 07 2007

Just a quick summation of how my reading has been coming along;

I put down Edwin Colbert’s Evolution of the Vertebrates (1/3 of the way finished) and H.F. Osborn’s From The Greeks To Darwin: An Outline Of The Development Of The Evolution Idea (3/4 of the way finished) as some more “fun” reading showed up on Friday. In addition to a 1st edition review copy of E.D. Cope’s The Primary Factors of Organic Evolution and Andrew Dickson White’sA History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom (available, in it’s entirety, online), which will both require careful and focused reading, a collection of sf short stories simply titled Dinosaurs arrived, featuring some of the best fictional stories about dinosaurs ever written. While The Ultimate Dinosaur had some hits and misses as far as the fiction went, Dinosaurs was thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end, and the stories “The Fog Horn,” “Time’s Arrow,” “A Gun for Dinosaur,” and especially “The Last Thunder Horse West of the Mississippi” should be required reading for anyone interested in dinosaurs.

I also received my copy of Adrienne Mayor’s The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times. I’m about 50 pages from the end (there are extensive endnotes, making the actual book much shorter than it appears), but it is certainly a very interesting and much-needed work. I had always wondered what ancient people thought of fossils (they did not just wait in the ground for Richard Owen or Georges Cuvier), and Mayor’s work goes a long way to showing how fossils (especially of Cenozoic mammals) went a long way towards Greek mythology. There are a few minor errors (she calls a mosasaur a dinosaur at one point), but as a whole it is a fascinating read, a good companion to Osborn’s book about the origins of evolutionary thought in ancient Greece. All to often discussions of evolution begin and end with Darwin, often neglecting those who came before and after. As Peter Dodson mentions in the preface to the book, the lack of historical understanding in science today is appalling, leading to our own brand of condescending mythology about how misguided our predecessors must have been. It’s important to keep up with the new trends, but I have to wonder how much we’re cheating ourselves by not going back to the origins of our respective fields and having a look at what past inquiring minds had to say; I’ve found that they often show at least inklings of what has later been confirmed to be true.

I also should note that I put my other books aside for Mayor’s work as I’m visiting the AMNH this coming weekend to view the mythology exhibit, Mayor being one of the contributors to the exhibit. What she has revealed, essentially in a place where few cared to look previously, shows that if I am to discuss the history of evolution and of paleontology in my own book, I’m going to have to go back much further than Buckland and Mantell, further than the Monster of Maastricht, and perhaps even further than the Greek mythology based upon huge fossil bones; there is some evidence that people before the dawn of civilizations collected (or at least brought home) fossils. Once we see that dragons have nearly always been with us, the superstitions and myths of various cultures begin to make a lot more sense, and I hope that cultural historians, archaeologists, etc. begin to take natural history into greater account when studying societies and peoples long gone.

Note: I should also probably note that my “paper anniversary” gift was a 2nd edition set of both volumes of Charles Darwin’s Animals and Plants Under Domestication. Given how important the changes artificial selection can produce are to natural selection and it’s development as an idea, I know I’ll enjoy reading this one.


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