TAKING WING by Pat Shipman


Archaeopteryx and the Evolution of Bird Flight
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 An anthropologist (Penn State Univ.) examines one of the most famous fossil organisms ever discovered, and discusses its meaning in the ongoing debates about evolution. The first hint of Archaeopteryx--the impression in stone of a solitary feather--was unearthed in the limestone quarries of Solnhofen, Germany, in 1861. At an estimated age of 150 million years, it was immediately hailed as representing the earliest known bird. The fossil, and seven more specimens later uncovered, reveal a creature much like many small dinosaurs--but with the unmistakable impressions of feathers around its forelimbs. The first discovered skeleton appeared to be a clear-cut example of the sort of intermediate form, part reptile and part bird, that Darwin's brand-new theory of evolution needed to bolster its case. But was it really? One German scientist tried to rename it Griphosaurus, classifying it not as a bird, but as a feathered coelurosaur. Others argued that the feather impressions were faked--a claim that still surfaces in anti-evolutionary tracts. Thomas Huxley led the evolutionists' countercharge in several seminal articles, deploying evidence for the now widely accepted position that birds are the direct descendants of dinosaurs. Shipman (The Evolution of Racism, 1994) presents a detailed history of the fossils and the debate around them, including quotations from many of the original articles. Shipman pays particular attention to the question of flight itself--how and why over many generations, a small dinosaur developed anatomical structures that allowed it to take to the air. In the process of answering this question, the author investigates aerodynamics, the anatomy of birds and other flying creatures from insects to pterosaurs to bats, modern theories of dinosaur life and ecology, and other issues that will fascinate natural-history buffs. Lively and well written, offering a good sense not only of the intriguing first bird, but of the way science works.

Pub Date: Jan. 15th, 1998
ISBN: 0-684-81131-6
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15th, 1997


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