Monday, March 23, 2009

Asteroid strikes, jungle expeditions, prehistoric fish, and so on - Sean Carroll's Remarkable Creatures

This will almost be a proper book review.

Sean Carroll's Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origin of Species is a pop science book about naturalists and their expeditions. Each chapter, beginning with Alexander von Humboldt's Amazonian journey of 1799-1804, describes a scientific adventure that led to a major discovery. The earliest expeditions - Humboldt, Darwin on the Beagle, Arthur Wallace on the Malay Archipelago, Henry Bates in the Amazon, Eugène Dubois digging up the "Java Man" - really are like traditional adventures, long, slightly crazy voyages to barely known lands by naturalists who have no idea what they will find, while later chapters are inevitably stitched together from the work of a multitude of researchers, although one or two scientists always keep center stage.

Still, each narrative really is an adventure story, even if a lot more of the work moves into the laboratory. The Roy Chapman Andrews-led 1922 Monogolian Expedition is pretty exciting, with nomadic bandits, tents full of vipers, and the discovery of the first dinosaur egg fossils. But the steps that led Luis and Walter Alvarez to the proof that an asteroid strike ended the Mesozoic era and wiped out (most of) the dinosaurs is at least as thrilling, although it would be harder to turn into a movie.

Carroll's style is conversational and pleasant. The quality of his writing is comparable to that of a good National Geographic article. Each piece is logically structured - I was never confused - and the book as a whole successfully presents an overarching argument.

Remarkable Creatures fits in well between two other recent books. The Great Naturalists (2007) begins with early modern naturalists and ends just after Darwin, just as biology professionalizes. Carroll can't compete with the amazing illustrations in The Great Naturalists, but he's a better storyteller than most of the many contributors to that book, and of course the loss of those stunning paintings is part of the story of how the science changed. And he demonstrates that the era of great expeditions has changed, but not ended. Carroll's last chapter, on the history of the study of Neanderthals, is like a shorter version of Nicholas Wade's equally exciting Before the Dawn, which blends various strands of up-to-date research on human prehistory into a coherent story about the global spread of Homo sapiens.

Many conventional book reviews include some piece of pro forma negative criticism, to show that the reviewer is a serious person, I guess. Let's see. Carroll is inconsistent with the use of first and last names. In the chapter on the Leakey family, for example, it's easy to see why first names are necessary (Louis, Mary, Richard). But why is Darwin "Charles" while Charles Walcott (discoverer of the Burgess Shale fossil deposits, among many other achievements) is "Walcott"? Hmm, why?

I have a more serious - well, not a criticism, exactly - idiosyncratic comment, let's say, that I will save for tomorrow.

Carroll's book is almost propagandistic, for Darwin and natural selection, I suppose, but also - but mostly - for scientific fieldwork, for getting out of the lab and into the world. I understand that Carroll has put together a not-quite-the-same version of the book, Into the Jungle, where the propaganda is directed at high school and university biology students. I found the propaganda to be extremely effective. Really, what could be more satisfying than identifying a previously unknown species, or finding a new fossil. Carroll's book gives stay-at-homes like me an easy way to share some of that excitement. A little too easy! No, that's for tomorrow.


  1. Hello. Just out of curiosity, are you from Wisconsin? I ask b/c I thought I would see if you are interested in publishing your review of the Carroll book in print format in my magazine, Wisconsin People & Ideas? Drop me a note if you are. Thanks.


  2. Unfortunatley, I am not and have never been from Wisconsin. It seems like a nice place.

    A review of Carroll's book would fit well in your magazine. I'll bet he's a good interview subject, too.