Thursday, December 23, 2010

On My Shelf: Written in Stone (Review)

Brian Switek's Written in Stone is a quiet testament to the power of the fossil record. Page after page, Switek takes the reader through a deftly narrated tale of evolution as told by fossilized remains that have been interpreted, reinterpreted, manipulated, marketed, destroyed, and ultimately preserved. This is a journey not just through natural history, but through science. The real impact of Written in Stone is that it highlights the cast of characters who shaped our understanding of evolution—allowing readers share firsthand with the frustrations, ambitions, conflicts, and successes of the scientists. It's certainly an interesting approach to a history that has the potential to be dry and unappealing.

The examples are engaging. My personal favorite comes from the chapter on tetrapod evolution and the images evoked by the "drying pond hypothesis." Switek writes:
Eventually, however, there came a time when the rains did not return quickly enough. If the fleshy-finned fish trapped in the isolated ponds were to survive they would have to set off across the baking mudflats in search of more water sources. They would have propped themselves up on their fins and dragged their bodies over the searing mud, and those that could wriggle the farthest would survive to perpetuate that strength in the next generation (78).
I can't help but grin at idea of this persistent figure doggedly pushing on using its fins and laying the foundation for terrestrial limbs. Of course, we know now (and this chapter illustrates) that the traits that allowed for terrestrial habitation were developed millions of years before life actually tested dry land. In a similar fashion, we are whisked along through our evolutionary history.

Written in Stone is very real when it comes to the nature of science. The stories are not told solely in terms of successes. Readers are made to understand that science is subject to revisions as our understanding of our world expands. This builds a strong case for the processes within science—and the public gets a glimpse of science in action in a way that is often absent in media depictions. 

Written in Stone | Brian Switek | Bellevue Literary Press | 320 pages | $16.95 (Paperback)


  1. Thanks for the review! How's the level of the language? (I.e., is it appropriate for, say, Intro to Human Evolution for undergrads?) I'm always looking for better things to assign than Mayr, etc.

  2. I definitely think it's accessible. There's enough here to keep them entertained while you're busy educating them! ;) The quotation I shared is fairly typical for the writing style, so even when things get a bit technical it's still understandable.