Friday, January 14, 2011

Review: Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution, by Richard Fortey

I’ve been trying to figure out what to say about Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution, by Richard Fortey (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000; 284 pages), other than that it is a good book and you should read it, ever since I finished it the other day.

But really, it is a good book, and if you value good science writing, something that is all too rare in this world, and you should read it. You should read it because you’ll learn something new, always a good thing. But you should also read it because it isn’t just science writing. Fortey is a good writer in general, not just a good writer in communicating the facts of science.

He is funny, for one thing, and absolutely genuine for another. How could anyone resist a book, and an author, who writes, about getting a job: “When I received my first job description it said ‘to pursue research upon trilobites’ which was rather like saying ‘amuse yourself for money’.” How many of us wish we could say that about our work? Well, I rather like my job, but I honestly don’t know very many people who really love their jobs, on a day-in-and-day-out basis.

He is a master of understatement, as well. In a footnote (there aren’t many, which most people would think is a good thing, but have an affection for them), Fortey describes a book about trilobites that was published in 1832 and which came with a set of models of the species described therein. And then he ends the footnote with this: “Sadly, some of the reconstructions are somewhat approximate.”

His comparisons are generally spot-on. In describing irregular shape of some lenses in some trilobites’ compound eyes (some species eyes had thousands of lenses) due to the curved surfaces of the eyes, Fortey compares it to the difficulties of “wrapping a football in Christmas paper.”

But don’t think that because Forety’s writing is charming and literary to a degree that most science writing is not, it is not serious science. Fortey might love his job (he fell in love with trilobites at the age of fourteen on a beach in Wales), but he is also serious about it. He has made serious contributions to the study of trilobites and has, in fact discovered, and thus had the privilege of naming, a number of species. Because he is serious about his work, he discusses the science of paleontology seriously, relating the structure, the history and the evolution of trilobites from their appearance in the fossil record about 540 million years ago to their disappearance around 250 to 260 million years ago.

Fortey also discusses science more generally, including some of the disagreements between paleontologists about how evolution proceeds and the general rules for naming species. He warns that paleontology contains no final truth because new discoveries are always being made.

But, when it comes down to it, the best thing to say about Trilobite! is that it is a good book, and you should read it. Even if science wasn’t ever your best subject in school. And even if you aren't quite sure what a trilobite is. There isn't a better way to learn.

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