The history of life on earth is surely one of the most fascinating subjects in the world. Paleontology is a compelling area of study – if only for the sense of perspective that it brings. Since I’m an old man, I can still remember learning in biology class back in the 60’s about a very dramatic and thought-provoking demonstration done only ten years earlier by Miller and Urey – in which “living” amino acids were created in the laboratory from scratch. “What? Spontaneous Generation?” we exclaimed. I simplify, but what they did was to pass an electrical charge for a couple of days though a big Mason jar filled with an “early earth” mixture of ammonia and something like Gatorade.
“Yikes!'” we said back then. And “Yikes!” is what we continue to say. For today’s scientists are revealing to us an increasingly detailed account of the evolution of life – from our earliest, single celled beginnings up to the current morass.
I heartily recommend the study of paleontology and geology (and indeed all the “hard” sciences) for the enlightening perspective they provide. Besides, it’s fun stuff.
As a non-scientist, I dabble in these various popular science books. There are lots of them. Here are a couple of reviews. Like anything else, you pick up a little from each one. I rarely read one cover to cover. Ever the cheapskate, I take them out from the library. I return them, sometimes I take them out a couple of times. Kinda like dating. Most, I regret to say, of these “popular” science books (like a lot of those dates) feature an awful lot of unnecessary fluff: cutesy, anectdotal, generally a personal sort of verbage – which of course is designed to hold the lay reader’s attention. Actually, much of the historical information about the great scientists, and even about the authors’ own research experiences, is very interesting. But when it comes to non-fiction, I’m a “just the facts, ma’am” kind of guy. I like to see the numbers, the charts and graphs. Most of all, I like to try to get to the underlying principles, those fundamental principles that underly and govern this illusory world we see.
There’s a kot to think about, and there’s so much in these books to get you thinking. And despite some cynical claims to the contrary, thinking is generally a beneficial activity. Most of us think, nay, we believe, that it’s good to think: good to ponder, to puzzle, to learn more….Hey, soon you’re reaching for another book. There are a kazillion of books about Darwin and Evolution. The libraries are full of them. And indeed, Darwin was a monumental genius. Quotations from Darwin appear profusely in most of these books and they are often the most insightful selections.
Origins of Existence by Fred Adams, 2002.
This 222 page book provides an excellent overview of the fundamental physical laws that govern our universe, and considers the quandaries facing today’s cosmologists and biologists. Beginning with a fine, amazingly clear and concise, description of the fundamental physical forces and particles, Prof Adams describes the Big Bang creation. He then methodically presents chapters on the Universe, the Galaxies, the Stars, the Planets and finally, in the second part of the book, he tackles the subject of Life. Quite a fine book, featuring an excellent glossary and bibliography.
Life On a Young Planet by Andrew H. Knoll 2003.
An ambitious attempt to review, and put into context, much of the recent (well, 1999) paleontological finds concerning life’s earliest beginnings. The introduction is good, but Knoll goes over this reviewer’s head with technical detail, personal asides and reminiscences.
History of Creation by Bill Mesler and H. James Cleaves II
Brief review: not so hot.
The Sixth Extinction – An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert, 2014
This highly popular book presents a fine history of the science of paleontology. But it soon devolves (please excuse the closeness of the metaphor) into a series long-winded, political arguments about declaring an “Anthropocene”, or “Sixth Extinction” stratigraphic category. The book , further “devolves” into a “personal journey” about the author’s reportage about a number of various climate studies and investigations around the globe. The case for defining a new geological era is not particularly interesting, and from a stratigraphic view, unnecessary. However, I found it very interesting to learn about the previous five great extinctions.
Cradle of Life – The Discovery of Earth’s Earliest Fossils by J. William Schopf. 1999
When Schopf is lecturing he’s great. There’s a lot of technical detail, which requires, for me, a lot of work to understand. The chemistry of that describes the workings of the genomes, the electron microscopy etc. all require a bit (OK, a lot) of time. But the explanations are clear. Thumbs up.