Remarkable Creatures

By

Sean Carroll

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Boston     New York

2009

The author is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin

 

This book describes thirteen expeditions and other episodes of special interest to biology, all occurring in the last two centuries starting with Alexander von Humboldt’s explorations to Central and South America and finishing with our Neanderthal relatives.  It is unlikely that even a well-informed reader will fail to find many new and interesting technical details and especially interesting vignettes of the protagonists.

 

For example, I had wondered why finding iridium in the sediment dividing the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary was so indicative of a collision of a sizeable asteroid with the earth.  It turns out that meteorites contain more of all the platinum metals than ordinary rocks of the crust of our planet—the iridium content just happened to be more convenient to determine.  Finding the point of impact of the fifteen-kilometer diameter “meteorite” is a fascinating sequel to the worldwide evidence that such a collision had occurred.  This was a team effort of the scientific community.

 

I was especially interested in Chapter 10,  “It’s a Fishapod!”,  because at the AAAS Annual Meeting, February, 2009, I heard Neil Shubin describing his four summers off from teaching anatomy at the University of Chicago School of Medicine looking for the missing link between marine and terrestrial vertebrates in the Canadian Arctic.  Shubin is an eminent  paleontologist who moonlights teaching anatomy to medical students.   He obviously thoroughly enjoys the teaching.  Furthermore, he believes that the medical curriculum benefits from some correlations with evolutionary biology.  I heartily agree.  (See Biology’s Integrating Insights for Medical Science on www.frantzmd.info).

 

Sean Carroll, in his discussion of Linus Pauling’s contributions to science, may have missed an opportunity to caution us never to imitate a saint’s one weakness (a precaution that I learned verbatim from my mother)--Pauling, in spite of two unshared Nobel Prizes, turned out to be wrong about some of his promotion of unnaturally large doses of vitamin C.  On the other hand, so much of the public is still convinced about vitamin C preventing colds that our author might have lost credibility with his audience by even touching the topic.  On that premise I don’t fault him for leaving the vitamin C allusion completely alone.

 

In summary: Remarkable Creatures is a fascinating and authoritative summary of evolutionary biology both for non-specialists and experts--all of it high quality writing.   I highly recommend it.  It may even be the book of the decade.

 

John A. Frantz, MD,

August 17, 2009