Latest spin on earth's evolution

Deep Time
December 15, 2000

This is a book that I find particularly interesting because it attempts to demystify the work of palaeontologists in an approachable, almost jocularly non-threatening way by tackling, of all subjects, systematics.

From personal experience, I know that the mere mention of this topic is capable of inducing a glazing of the eyes and semi-torpor in the great majority of students and the public alike. Quite why this reaction is so marked is a bit of a mystery. It must be something to do with the very nature of the word. It is similar to the effect produced by the linked word taxonomy. Perhaps they both conjure up mental images of dusty museum basements lined with endless specimen boxes; such places are inhabited (in the mind's eye) by strange bespectacled creatures in Victorian garb who might fix you with a gimlet eye and proceed to bore you to death by enthusing about the number of spines on the legs of beetles or some equally arcane topic. But these old tags and prejudices are all wrong, systematics is sexy, it is the new rock and roll. We are not boring old farts, we are doing interesting and important "stuff" (oops, has my thin disguise slipped?).

Does this book help to show that this is true? It is aimed firmly at a popular audience and is one of the steadily increasing number that have been rightly encouraged by the vigorous promotion in this country of the public understanding of science. The title is pinched from the wonderfully evocative phrase created by John McPhee back in the 1980s in an attempt to echo the resonance of the astronomer/cosmologist's "deep space". It also echoes Martin Rudwick's excellent book Scenes from Deep Time (1992). The title might attract the reader to pick up the book, but the subtitle gives the real topic away.

Henry Gee has a disarmingly open and engaging style. The book is very easy and pleasant to read, and is quite manageable. It sets out to explain how the people who study fossils make sense of these fragments of the history of the earth and frame a sensible scientific approach to this information. He is able to do this with a frankness and candour that comes from his experience as a palaeontologist Ñ and he is still intimately involved with its science in his present job as an editor for the journal Nature .

In elaborating this topic, Gee leads the reader into the genuine problems that fossils present to the investigator: they are generally very rare (preservation is like that), they are serendipitous (why should the most important specimens be preserved selectively for our use?), they are fragmentary (the soft tissues have usually vanished, and the remaining skeletons are often crushed or scattered). In this way, we are drawn into the innate difficulties inherent in studying this type of subject (history with a depth of hundreds of millions of years, rather than a few trifling centuries of human derring-do). This is genuinely difficult stuff to deal with, requiring an extraordinary range of skills and disciplines that need to be integrated if we are to learn anything meaningful about the history of life on earth and, ultimately, how we came to be here.

Systematics is an approach that helps us to sort out and characterise species into discernible groups in a way that begins to make sense of what otherwise would be a bewilderingly rich and diverse world of organisms. It has noble roots in attempts to systematise all nature (in parallel to the systematisation of chemistry through the periodic table) as a means of discovering an overarching pattern (originally with a view to discerning the idea in the mind of the Creator). Such approaches were overturned (and in part corrupted by the Darwinian revolution) and the subsequent attempts to deduce simple lines of evolutionary descent from fossil ancestors. Cladistics, the modern systematics, takes a strictly logical approach to the identification of patterns between and among groups of living and fossil species. The pattern is the key, the philosophy that interprets the pattern (the evolutionary spin, if you like) comes later.

All this is explained clearly and with the provision of interesting examples in this book. Admirable. However, stepping back slightly from the text, I have a few observations to make. First, this is actually a book for palaeontologists. It misses its mark (the general populace) by quite a long way, no matter how jocular and accessible the writing. You simply have to know the groups to which Gee is referring to be able to appreciate his points.

Second, there are no pictures, apart from a few, quaintly amusing, cartoonish cladograms. Given the range and variety of vertebrates that are discussed, uninitiated readers would have benefited enormously from some helpful guidance in the form of basic illustrations.

Third, the examples chosen are all vertebrates (the group to which humans belong), even though the vast majority of animals in the present day and the past are invertebrates. A little more balance would perhaps have been better.

Finally, there are so many references to articles in Nature that in the end I actually found them, although perhaps understandable, rather irritating.

But all in all, I like the book a great deal. It is easy, familiar and written in a style that allowed me to hear Gee's dulcet tones. I hope it does the job it is clearly intended to do: raise public awareness of the principled approach to the interpretation of fossils. However, I have a nagging suspicion that I should not have found it so enjoyable. To do the job well, I think that the reader's hand should have been held more firmly as he or she is led through the minefield of doubt, data and debate. I do hope that I am wrong.

David Norman is a research fellow at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, United States.


Deep Time: Cladistics and the Revolution in Evolution

Author - Henry Gee
ISBN - 1 85702 986 0
Publisher - Fourth Estate
Price - £20.00
Pages - 220

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