How the discoveries of 25 fossils provide links in the chain of evolution that confirm Charles Darwin’s primary thesis.
Paleontologist and geologist Prothero (Abominable Science: Origins of the Yeti, Nessi and Other Famous Cryptids, 2013, etc.) uses the discovery of a feathered dinosaur and 24 other fossils of missing links to make a strong case for the evolution of life from simple one-celled “mats of bacteria and (much later) algae, growing in the shallow waters of the shorelines and coating the rocks.” As the author notes, “when Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, the fossil record was a weak spot in his argument.” Some of the 25 finds occurred by chance. In 1860, the discovery in a limestone quarry of the impression of a single feather (and the subsequent find nearby of a nearly complete reptilian skeleton) provided evidence of a missing link between dinosaurs and birds. Tracing the history of life on Earth over the past 3.5 billion years was more complex, requiring advances in science and technology and a new field of research, “biogeosynthesis.” Not only did the condition of ancient rocks make discovery of fossils problematic, but microscopic fossil traces were difficult to decipher. Politics entered the picture in the 1970s, when the Pakistani government allowed access to American paleontologists on fact-finding missions. They were able to collect fossils of primitive land mammals that resembled whales, thus confirming Darwin's prescient hypothesis that whales were land mammals that had returned to the sea. The author convincingly attributes the controversy over the African origins of humans—anticipated by Darwin in 1871 but rejected by later proponents of a Eurasian origin—to “a deeply held racism that regarded African peoples as sub-human.”
A guide to museums where the original fossils or high-quality reproductions are housed and more than 150 illustrations accompany Prothero’s lively account of the science and politics that shaped the rich history of these discoveries.