In place of a legitimate review this week, I offer a tale of two “false starts”.
The first is “In Search of Deep Time: Beyond the Fossil Record to a New History of Life” by Henry Gee. The first chapter of this book was deeply intriguing, but my excitement soon fizzled as I got the idea that I had gotten the idea from those opening pages, and the rest was going to be a lot of flogging. Of course, I don’t know that, but I felt I could go on to greener pastures. That being said, the one idea of this book did immediately enter (and alter) my view of prehistory, that idea being this: the depth of earth-history time is so vast, and the fossil record so sparse in comparison, that our natural human tendency to build linear narratives from one fossil to the next (say from one hominid or early mammal fossil to us modern humans) is insupportable by the actual evidence. (This idea informs a section of this week’s sermon).
The description that the author gives of how we fall into this trap grabbed me, because it is exactly what I’ve done: in my own attempt to make “deep” time accessible (as I have in earlier “sermons”), I have also brought it down to a scale that makes our human-scale narratives seem applicable. Oops. Well, live and learn. “In Search of Deep Time” is, in essence, an introduction to “Cladistics”, “The basic idea behind cladistics is that members of a group share a common evolutionary history, and are “closely related,” more so to members of the same group than to other organisms.” (quoted from the linked website: http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/clad/clad1.html).
Fear not. That we all share a common evolutionary history is not in doubt. What is still very open to discovery is the actual lines (with their twists and turns) of that descent.
This is the tale of a series of great dinosaur discoveries in Mongolia by the leader of the American team that made those discoveries (which is generally the source I most want to hear from!) Turned out I just wasn’t in the mood for a desert adventure story this week (though I may well come back to this book later). Despite my deep interest in the past, my response to this book told me that I am much more focused on current thought and theory, so I put it down and looked for something else to read.
I made it through several of the early chapters, however, that give a detailed history of fossil-hunting in Mongolia (and the mechanical challenges of using surplus Russian military trucks to drive across the foreboding Mongolian landscape). As happens with many a true adventure story, the reader is teased along through a deep back-story before the final payoff. And as I said above, I just wasn’t in the mood (I want to make that clear so as not to cast unwarranted dispersions on the book itself).
According to the jacket description, the team eventually makes “one of the most miraculous fossil discoveries in history”. And from what I read, the conditions in Mongolia provide for an amazing level of detail in the preserved fossils…maybe I should have skipped ahead to those chapters!
So there you have: a couple half-assed reviews of half-read books. But what can you expect from a “fake” reverend?