Review: Origins, by Frank H. T. Rhodes

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Published by: Cornell University Press

Publication Date: 6th Septhember 2016

Format: Hardback

Price: £22 (approx.)

I.S.B.N.: 9781501702440

Blurb

Fossils are the fragments from which, piece by laborious piece, the great mosaic of the history of life has been constructed. Here and there, we can supplement these meager scraps by the use of biochemical markers or geochemical signatures that add useful information, but, even with such additional help, our reconstructions and our models of descent are often tentative. For the fossil record is, as we have seen, as biased as it is incomplete. But fragmentary, selective, and biased though it is, the fossil record, with all its imperfections, is still a treasure. Though whole chapters are missing, many pages lost, and the earliest pages so damaged as to be, as yet, virtually unreadable, this—the greatest biography of all—is one in whose closing pages we find ourselves.”—from Origins

In Origins, Frank H. T. Rhodes explores the origin and evolution of living things, the changing environments in which they have developed, and the challenges we now face on an increasingly crowded and polluted planet. Rhodes argues that the future well-being of our burgeoning population depends in no small part on our understanding of life’s past, its long and slow development, and its intricate interdependencies.

Rhodes’s accessible and extensively illustrated treatment of the origins narrative describes the nature of the search for prehistoric life, the significance of geologic time, the origin of life, the emergence and spread of flora and fauna, the evolution of primates, and the emergence of modern humans.

My Review

A useful introduction for people who haven’t read any science since school, this book covers the fossil record from the beginning 4.55 billion years ago, from the first signs of life 3.85 billion years ago, to the modern day. Very much recommended for those struggling with the concept of evolution, especially those demanding intermediate forms; the author lays them all out for you in pictures, and descriptions of easy prose.

Unfortunately the author falls back on the ‘great chain of being’ mindset that places the earliest life at the bottom and humans at the top as the pinnacle of evolution. This is a remnant of religion in science that needs to go the way of Bishop Usher’s dating of creation (9.00 a.m., 26th October 4004 B.C.E., apparently); humans are not the greatest feat of evolution, we’re a single species that happens to be around now, just like the other 1.3 million + other species on the planet. He also consistently uses the phrase ‘Cretaceous (or whichever era he is discussing) times’, rather than ‘in the Cretaceous (etc.)’. It reads like he’s talking to children rather than an adult audience, the repetition is dull (especially in every other sentence), and it bugged me.

Other than that I quite enjoyed this book, partly because I learnt some things about now-extinct species, and partly because the author made an effort to explain isotope dating to readers. There were helpful drawings although I think some colour photographs might be useful too, especially of strata.

Overall, a good book for the non-specialist but it might be a bit basic for people who already have some understanding of the topic.

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