A warm, intelligent yeoman’s guide to the progress of life.

WRITTEN IN STONE

EVOLUTION, THE FOSSIL RECORD, AND OUR PLACE IN NATURE

A highly instructive tour of the fossil record, from New Jersey State Museum research associate Switek.

“[E]very single bone has a story to tell about the life and evolution of the animal it once belonged to,” writes the author in this easily digestible survey of paleontological history. Some of the scientists reading the evidence brought the quirks and contingencies of their times to the stories they told, trying, for example, to corroborate science with scripture, while others sallied into new and blasphemous realms. Switek invests all of them with a wonderful engagement as they try to make sense of the stone bones. The author weds the geological conjectures of James Hutton to the comparative anatomy of Georges Cuvier, and shows how the tinkerings of Charles Lyell influenced French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Charles Darwin enters the picture along with Alfred Russell Wallace, allowing Switek to examine inherited variation, advantageous traits and natural selection. In his discussion of Thomas Huxley’s skirmishes with reptile-bird relationships, the author conveys the heroic nature of field science—“In order to approximate the dinosaurian physiology, the…scientists carried out the unenviable task of sticking thermometers in the cloacae of American alligators”—while also pondering the self-contained life of the amniotic egg, the energy and perseverance of scientists like Albert Koch and his sea monsters and Hugh Falconer’s tribulations with prehistoric elephants. Switek ranges across an astonishingly diverse variety of topics, including the evolution whales in Pakistan and the connection between jaw and ear bones in early mammals. The author brings all the branching patterns into focus, even when the language threatens to overwhelm, in a way that permits readers to fill the gaps in the circumstantially incomplete fossil record.

A warm, intelligent yeoman’s guide to the progress of life.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-934137-29-1

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Bellevue Literary Press

Review Posted Online: Aug. 30, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2010

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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Unsentimental nature writing that sheds as much light on humans as on eels.

THE BOOK OF EELS

OUR ENDURING FASCINATION WITH THE MOST MYSTERIOUS CREATURE IN THE NATURAL WORLD

An account of the mysterious life of eels that also serves as a meditation on consciousness, faith, time, light and darkness, and life and death.

In addition to an intriguing natural history, Swedish journalist Svensson includes a highly personal account of his relationship with his father. The author alternates eel-focused chapters with those about his father, a man obsessed with fishing for this elusive creature. “I can’t recall us ever talking about anything other than eels and how to best catch them, down there by the stream,” he writes. “I can’t remember us speaking at all….Because we were in…a place whose nature was best enjoyed in silence.” Throughout, Svensson, whose beat is not biology but art and culture, fills his account with people: Aristotle, who thought eels emerged live from mud, “like a slithering, enigmatic miracle”; Freud, who as a teenage biologist spent months in Trieste, Italy, peering through a microscope searching vainly for eel testes; Johannes Schmidt, who for two decades tracked thousands of eels, looking for their breeding grounds. After recounting the details of the eel life cycle, the author turns to the eel in literature—e.g., in the Bible, Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea Wind, and Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum—and history. He notes that the Puritans would likely not have survived without eels, and he explores Sweden’s “eel coast” (what it once was and how it has changed), how eel fishing became embroiled in the Northern Irish conflict, and the importance of eel fishing to the Basque separatist movement. The apparent return to life of a dead eel leads Svensson to a consideration of faith and the inherent message of miracles. He warns that if we are to save this fascinating creature from extinction, we must continue to study it. His book is a highly readable place to begin learning.

Unsentimental nature writing that sheds as much light on humans as on eels.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-296881-4

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: March 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020

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