My knowledge of Paleontology begins with a grade school trip to The Museum of Natural History and ends with seeing Jurassic Park eight or nine times. I don’t think I’m alone. Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species by Sean B. Carroll seeks to remedy this gap in public knowledge. The book is an overview of the history of Evolution, starting with Darwin (where else?) and ending in Space. It is well written, informative and mostly interesting. However, it does get off to a slow start.
Remarkable Creatures is divided into three parts. Part One, unfortunately, comes across as targeting young adults – which I don’t think was the author’s intent. Sometimes, even in science, life is about being in the right place at the right time. That becomes all too apparent in the book’s early chapters. Fossils and skulls seem to have been so thick on the ground in the beginning days of paleontology that a would-be naturalist only had to take three steps into the Gobi Desert to trip over a major find. Of course it wasn’t that simple (is it ever?), but Dr. Carroll’s writing in these early chapters has a sing-song, disingenuous quality to it that can be a tad too enthusiastic. Much of what these early naturalists did, though extraordinary, frankly isn’t all that complicated to explain… They researched what they were looking for, found the most suitable geological conditions on a map, and off they went. Nothing easier. Anyone can do it. Why am I reading this when I can be watching an Indiana Jones Marathon??? (Parts 1-3. We at BookSexy like to pretend that the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull NEVER happened).
Well, enjoy your false sense of superiority while you can. Approximately halfway through Part Two, in Chapter 8: The Day the Mesozoic Died to be exact, it’s over. Along with the more recent discoveries in paleontology you will learn a little lesson on humility. Dr. Carroll introduces the K-T Boundary: proof that a giant comet probably did kill the dinosaurs and **SPOILER ALERT** impacted off the Yucatan Peninsula. (Uh…yeah… anyone else think that was made up by Hollywood?) Suddenly you’ll be learning about things with names like Foraminifera, Isotopes, Tektites and that the half life of beryllium-10 deposits in clay is too short to be usefully measured after 65 million years. And that’s still just in Chapter 8! Later chapters go on to discuss the relationship between dinosaurs and birds, the discovery of the “fishapod“, and the use of DNA in tracing human origins. (I’m not ashamed to admit to wiping away tears of gratitude as I read the three page explanation of how DNA is decoded that the good Doctor so thoughtfully inserted into Chapter 12). The book ends with a too brief discussion on the continuing search for life in space and how its existence, or non-existence, will impact our own. The search for the origins of species is a science that is far from being exhausted.
Sean B. Carroll is one of those intelligent human beings who offers the rest of us the chance to become smarter. Because of that, Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species is a great book. Dr. Carroll builds the story slowly and carefully, each section creating a foundation of knowledge that allows us to understand the section which follows. At its end, you still won’t be an expert. But you will walk away much smarter than when you started, with a deeper understanding of things most people know of without really knowing anything about. And while this may have limited applications socially – (“Hi! My name is _____! Did you know that mitochondrial DNA can in theory be traced back to a single maternal ancestor – a hypothetical Eve?” may not be the strangest pick-up line I’ve ever heard, I still wouldn’t really recommend it.) – when the topic of conversation does eventually come up you will definitely be ahead of the curve. Unless, of course, you’re meeting someone at the Museum of Natural History. Which really isn’t a bad idea at all.