Great reads: Written in Stone

My WiSci blogging colleague, Brian Switek, AKA Laelaps, has written a book, Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature (Bellevue Literary Press), that’s out this week. It’s his first book, and it’s very good. (To sample some of the swelling chorus of praise, visit Speakeasy Science or The Intersection or Skulls in the Stars or Not Exactly Rocket Science or Observations of a Nerd. Everyone loves it.)

Laelaps and I seem to be connected on multiple axes: We both have new books (here’s mine), we both are science bloggers here at the new Wired network, and we were both also bloggers at Scienceblogs until earlier this year. (Also, we were both on a panel at ScienceWriters 2010 this past weekend.) So because everyone else is already kvelling about the excellence of the book, I asked Brian instead to talk about why he wrote it, and about how he sees blogging intersecting with science writing.

Superbug: Written in Stone came about after your proposal to teach a class of fifth graders about whale evolution was turned down as being too controversial. If common misperceptions about evolution were better understood — or if some of today’s spectacular discoveries were better reported — would creationism be put to rest?

Laelaps: There is no single reason why the best of evolutionary science is not being communicated to the public; evolution remains a persistent public controversy for a variety of reasons ranging from how science is communicated to the background of those receiving the messages. But our fragmented media landscape makes it very difficult to develop an understanding of evolution. Many news stories are one-shot pieces about new discoveries that provide little context as to how the new findings fit in with what has been found before. That was part of my motivation behind composing Written in Stone; I wanted to tie together the disparate threads of recent discoveries and place them in a historical context.

S: What role have scientists and the media played in creating our misperceptions about evolution?

L: There have been a slew of books about evolution by scientists that basically say, “Here are the facts. You would be a fool to disagree.” These titles present an array of evidence that support the fact of evolution, but they are usually so shallow in detail that they hold little power to help readers really understand why those things are true.

The popular media has different problems. Many newspapers have shut down their science sections or reduced their science coverage, and much of what appears today is a kind of “churnalism” in which press releases are regurgitated with little comment. There is still good science journalism out there, but often you must go out of your way to find it. Furthermore, many science writers don’t necessarily have a strong background in paleontology or evolution

I am hoping that Written in Stone will be something of an antidote to these problems as it covers some of the intricate details of famous transitions in the fossil record while also placing them in their wider context. I wanted to dig into the details I felt were so often missing from popular treatments of evolution and the fossil record while also providing the requisite background to understand why this is really a golden era for paleontology.

S: What surprised you the most in your research for the book?

L: One of the themes I stumbled upon over and over again was how politics — especially during the age of Empire — influenced science and how scientists thought about evolution. Had the British not had interests in South America, for example, Darwin probably would have never visited Patagonia on the Beagle and made his important fossil discoveries. Had other European powers not been competing for oil interests in Greenland, the bones of some of the first land-dwelling vertebrates might have gone undiscovered and we might still be in the dark about their origin.

S: We’re Sciblings — that is to say, we’re both former members of Scienceblogs, a network that was attacked by the New York Times for being full of “trivia, name-calling and saber rattling.” How do you see science blogging contributing to the larger culture?

L: The Darwinius controversy of last year is a perfect illustration of how blogs can correct misconceptions and hold scientists accountable. As I summarize in a paper just published in the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach, the science writer Carl Zimmer used his blog to dig into the PR hype surrounding the primate fossil and uncovered how a media company gained an unhealthy amount of control. Zimmer also brought to attention the fact that the authors of the description made two major errors; 1) they did not follow proper procedure to name the fossil, meaning that the Darwinius fossil was not officially named for nearly a week, and 2) that despite the heavy involvement of media companies the authors of the paper said they had no competing interests.

S: Do you imagine an ideal reader for this book?

L: Anyone who wants to know how we have come to understand the life of the past and its connection to the present. Rather than make Written in Stone a comprehensive look at the entirety of life’s history, I wanted to pick evolutionary transitions (such as the origin of birds or our own species) that have fascinated both the public and scientists alike and explain how the history of discovery has altered our perspective on evolutionary history. Readers who are already interested in science, fossils, history, and evolution will find much to like about the book, but I think the ideal reader would be someone who has a lot of questions about evolution, what the fossil record has to say about it, and how we came to our present understanding.

This post is published as part of Written in Stone‘s blog book tour. For more, check out Laelap’s own entries here.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *