ARTICLE: Darwin and Deep Time: Temporal Scales and the Naturalist’s Imagination

A new article in the journal History of Science (March 2016):

Darwin and Deep Time: Temporal Scales and the Naturalist’s Imagination

Peter Dear

Abstract Charles Darwin built a world around an implied metaphysics of time that treated deep time as something qualitatively different from ordinary, experienced time. He did not simply require a vast amount of time within which his primary evolutionary mechanism of natural selection could operate; in practice, he required a deep time that functioned according to different rules from those of ordinary, “shallow” time. The experience of the naturalist occupied shallow time, but it was from that experience that Darwin necessarily had to build his arguments concerning a transformism that took place on an entirely different temporal scale. Much of his reconstruction of what took place in deep time relied on inferences drawn from taxonomic classification, and those inferences in turn depended to a large degree on conclusions reached through the already-established practices of his fellow non-transformist naturalists. By bootstrapping his transformist arguments, focused on both natural and sexual selection, with non-transformist classificatory judgments, Darwin attempted to convince his fellow naturalists of the truth of evolution in deep time. In other words, while Darwin argued for the existence of selectionist processes themselves in contemporary shallow time, their transformist consequences could only be traced out in deep time, being evidenced by both contemporary and paleontological slices, or laminae, of shallow time. This served to protect transformism from the dangers of unorthodoxy by preserving uniformity within shallow time.

BOOK: The Story of Life in 25 Fossils

Donald Prothero, paleontologist, prolific writer, and recipient of this year’s Gregory Service Award from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, has added to his list of numerous books another that relates the wonderful world of fossils to the public:

Donald R. Prothero, The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 408 pp.

Publisher’s description Every fossil tells a story. Best-selling paleontology author Donald R. Prothero describes twenty-five famous, beautifully preserved fossils in a gripping scientific history of life on Earth. Recounting the adventures behind the discovery of these objects and fully interpreting their significance within the larger fossil record, Prothero creates a riveting history of life on our planet. The twenty-five fossils portrayed in this book catch animals in their evolutionary splendor as they transition from one kind of organism to another. We witness extinct plants and animals of microscopic and immense size and thrilling diversity. We learn about fantastic land and sea creatures that have no match in nature today. Along the way, we encounter such fascinating fossils as the earliest trilobite, Olenellus; the giant shark Carcharocles; the “fishibian” Tiktaalik; the “Frogamander” and the “Turtle on the Half-Shell”; enormous marine reptiles and the biggest dinosaurs known; the first bird, Archaeopteryx; the walking whale Ambulocetus; the gigantic hornless rhinoceros Paraceratherium, the largest land mammal that ever lived; and the Australopithecus nicknamed “Lucy,” the oldest human skeleton. We meet the scientists and adventurers who pioneered paleontology and learn about the larger intellectual and social contexts in which their discoveries were made. Finally, we find out where to see these splendid fossils in the world’s great museums. Ideal for all who love prehistoric landscapes and delight in the history of science, this book makes a treasured addition to any bookshelf, stoking curiosity in the evolution of life on Earth.

Chapter 1, “Planet of the Scum: The First Fossils,” can be read online here.

BOOK: Evolution: The Whole Story


Steve Parker, general ed., Evolution: The Whole Story (Buffalo, NY: Firefly Books, 2015), 576 pp. Foreward by Alice Roberts.

Publisher’s description What happened, how it happened, and when. Ten expert contributors tell the story.

Evolution: The Whole Story provides an in-depth and up-to-the-minute account of evolution, one of the ultimate keystone theories in modern science. Ten esteemed experts thoroughly survey how each of Earth’s major groups of living things diversified and evolved through time and using visual features that make the story comprehensible, the book gives readers, even those with no previous knowledge of the topic, a clear understanding of evolution and how it brought us to the present day. Each of seven chapters takes one of Earth’s major living groups and describes the evolution of its subgroups and how they diversified and evolved. The stories are fascinating. In some cases, a subgroup fell off the evolutionary chain, like the dinosaurs that were part of the Early Reptiles group, and which became extinct by the second extinction event. In other cases, a living subgroup may contain a life form virtually the same as its evolutionary ancestors, such as the horseshoe crab from the Invertebrates group, which is a “living fossil” closely related to prehistoric sea scorpions. Along with profiles of the most important scientists that have influenced evolutionary theory, the book reveals how these advances have added to and often changed the story. Evolution: The Whole Story makes the story of evolution comprehensible, straightforward and stimulating. The introduction provides an important overview.

This is a weighty tome, and perhaps one might worry about the binding remaining intact. While the text is small and might be difficult for some readers, this book is just packed with evolution goodness. It’s printed on quality paper with fill-color photographs and illustrations throughout. An introduction gives a condensed overview of the history of evolutionary thought, while the bulk of the book has the feel of a chronological encyclopedia of the history of life on Earth. Evolution: The Whole Story would be a great addition to the bookshelf of any fan of evolution; more especially it would make a nice gift for a young, burgeoning biologist or paleontologist. Here are some sample images from the book:

BOOK REVIEW: Prehistoric Predators & thoughts about Jurassic World

Last weekend my nine-year-old son and I went to the movies and saw Jurassic World, the fourth film in the Jurassic Park series (but really, a direct sequel to the original film). I was fifteen when I saw Jurassic Park in 1993, and became dino-obsessed. I devoured books and articles about paleontology. Reading about dinosaurs led to reading about evolution in general, and then to Darwin (and the rest is history, as they say). So while my son has seen the other films, I was excited to take him to see this new offering on the big screen. We loved it! The film was exactly what big movie theaters are for: suspenseful action in imagined worlds.


We enjoyed the film immensely despite its major drawback. As many paleontologists have shared since the movie’s trailers started appearing, Jurassic World does not do what Jurassic Park did in 1993: to share with the public the latest vision of what dinosaurs looked like (click here for a bunch of links to posts/articles from paleontologists on JW). In the twenty years since, a lot has changed; most notably, that many dinosaurs had feathers or feather-like structures. Not in Jurassic World. Even some representations of dinosaurs in the new film ignore how the other films got it right (the posture of Stegosaurus, for example). The new film also does not introduce film-goers to the wide variety of new species discovered in the last couple of decades, instead sticking with the familiar: Tyrannosaurus rex, Apatosaurus, Triceratops, and Velociraptor.

The amazing David Orr and I worked together on this comic (check out his site for more great paleo design). As the owner of two feisty parrots, I feel like feathered raptors are just as exciting as those scaly ones we grew up with.

We are introduced to a new dinosaur, however. Not a real species that paleontologists have found the bones of, but a genetically-engineered monstrosity that comprises the DNA of several dinosaurs and other critters. The carnivorous and unstoppable Indominus rex is the film’s antagonist. While her presence on screen is exciting, it’s disappointing that the film’s creators felt the need to invent a new dinosaur – “probably not a good idea” – when the annals of paleontology are full of awesome theropods that could have been amazing on-screen additions to the story.

I hope the new film will inspire a new generation of dinosaur fans, and that many of these young paleontologists will seek out reading material to satiate their curiosity, and in the process, learn a little about what dinosaurs really looked like and how they behaved. For those interested in carnivorous dinosaurs (theropods), I recommend a new book by dinosaur writer Brian Switek and beautifully illustrated by paleoartist Julius Csotonyi. In Prehistoric Predators (Kennebunkport, ME: Cider Mill Press, 2015, 104 pp.), Switek profiles and Csotonyi brings to life over 40 dinosaurs and other animals from the past that dined on the flesh of other creatures. Old favorites are here, such as Allosaurus, but the book offers a look at a variety of lesser-known or more recently discovered species, including many with feathers or feather-like structures and some flying reptiles. There is Cryolophosaurus, the Antarctic theropod with an Elvis-like head crest, and the early tyrannosaur Guanlong. Ever heard of Eocarcharia? How about Deltadromeus? Why create a fictional dinosaur when nature had so many to choose from?

The profiles are arranged chronologically, starting with the Permian Period (and thus predators that pre-date dinosaurs) and into the Mesozoic Era and its trio of periods, Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous, as well some marine reptiles and land mammals in the Cenozoic. The book lacks, however, some of the diversity of marine reptiles during the age of dinosaurs (there are no species of mosasaur or plesiosaur, for example). But for each entry, nothing is better than Csotonyi’s realistic renderings full of color, behavior, and feathers. The book also features a textured cover, with the sensation of touching dinosaur skin. The Jurassic Park series will never likely yield dinosaur depictions with feathers, but let’s hope in the near future that a studio green lights a dinosaur film that will. For now, enjoy Jurassic World for what it is, a science fiction movie, and check out some books, like Prehistoric Predators, and visit a local natural history museum, to learn more about the actual science.

Want more dinosaurs? The publisher of Prehistoric Predators has another book worth checking out. The whole dinosaur kingdom is featured in Discovering Dinosaurs (2014), by Bob Walters and Tess Kissinger. More encyclopedic, this volume is chock full of dino diversity. Great information and great art from a classic dinosaur artist.

ARTICLE: Darwin and palaeontology: a re-evaluation of his interpretation of the fossil record

In the journal Historical Biology (online first):

Darwin and palaeontology: a re-evaluation of his interpretation of the fossil record

Warren D. Allmon

Abstract Charles Darwin’s empirical research in palaeontology, especially on fossil invertebrates, has been relatively neglected as a source of insight into his thinking, other than to note that he viewed the fossil record as very incomplete. During the Beagle voyage, Darwin gained extensive experience with a wide diversity of fossil taxa, and he thought deeply about the nature of the fossil record. That record was, for him, a major source of evidence for large-scale transmutation, but much less so for natural selection or single lineages. Darwin’s interpretation of the fossil record has been criticised for its focus on incompleteness, but the record as he knew it was extremely incomplete. He was compelled to address this in arguing for descent with modification, which was likely his primary goal. Darwin’s gradualism has been both misrepresented and exaggerated, and has distracted us from the importance of the fossil record in his thinking, which should be viewed in the context of the multiple, sometimes competing demands of the multifaceted argument he presented in the Origin of Species.

BOOK REVIEW: Terra Tempo: The Academy of Planetary Evolution

I reviewed the second of the Terra Tempo graphic novel series for kids for the Portland Book Review in 2013:

In the first Terra Tempo graphic novel, Ice Age Cataclysm!, twins Jenna and Caleb and their know-it-all friend Ari find themselves, with the aid of a special map owned by their adventurous naturalist uncle, time traveling into the Ice Age of 15,000 years ago. They came across prehistoric mammals and witnessed the grand Missoula Flood, caused when a gigantic ice dam burst and Glacial Lake Missoula (in Montana) drained, its gushing torrent flowing west and sculpting the channeled scablands of the Pacific Northwest. The trio saw that the flood’s waters had covered their home – present day Portland, Oregon. Author David Shapiro, illustrator Christopher Herndon, and colorist Erica Melville continue the time traveling adventures in The Four Corners of Time, bringing the kids through several older time periods represented throughout the American southwest. They pass out in the Cambrian because of low oxygen levels, meet early tetrapods in the Devonian, get chased in the Carboniferous by humans, dodge pre-dinosaur reptiles in the Triassic, and face the tyrant lizard king in the Cretaceous. Those humans, by the way, are men out to abuse time traveling for profit, seeking to steal the maps the kids possess. A lesson in geology and paleontology, the Terra Tempo series so far has proved that learning science does not have to be boring. It can be – and perhaps should be – an adventure!

The third in the series has just been published, and when we got it in the mail, my eight-year-old son grabbed it and read it completely before I could even take a look at it!

terra tempo

David Shapiro, Christopher Herndon (illustrator), and Erica Melville (colorist), Terra Tempo: The Academy of Planetary Evolution (Portland, OR: Craigmore Creations, 2014), 168 pp.

In their latest adventure through time and space, Jenna, Caleb, and Ari find themselves as students in a summer program at the prestigious Academy of Planetary Evolution. Their classroom: environments millions of years old across what is now the western United States and classic American natural history museums. Their subject: various topics in geology – such as plate tectonics – and paleontology – such as mammalian evolution. Their instructors: paleontologists and naturalists from the past, like Alfred Russel Wallace, Herman Melville (he was a student of nature as well as a writer), and Winifred Goldring (a paleontologist from New York).

The conflict in the story is how the kids – who are joined by two other female students – are intertwined in the struggle between the geosophists (those who want to use the maps to time travel in order in add to humanity’s knowledge of science) and the treasure hunters (others who wish to time travel in order to exploit earth’s natural resources to get wealthy). Obvious as a statement about our current society’s issues with things like oil, climate change, etc., this third installment ends with the suggestion of a continuing series with an increasingly environmental theme.

Dinosaurs, a nod to Alfred Russel Wallace, and stressing the importance of learning knowledge for knowledge’s sake and taking care of our planet? All in one graphic novel? Terra Tempo: The Academy of Planetary Evolution not only entertained my son and made him think. Adults can get something out of it, too.

ARTICLES: Disciplining and Popularizing: Evolution and its Publics from the Modern Synthesis to the Present

The journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences has a set of articles in its March 2014 issue that all stem from a conference session for the History of Science Society in 2012:

Disciplining and popularizing: Evolution and its publics from the modern synthesis to the present (Introduction)
Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis

Darwin’s foil: The evolving uses of William Paley’s Natural Theology 1802–2005
Adam R. Shapiro

Making the case for orthogenesis: The popularization of definitely directed evolution (1890–1926)
Mark A. Ulett

Paleontology at the “high table”? Popularization and disciplinary status in recent paleontology
David Sepkoski

Claiming Darwin: Stephen Jay Gould in contests over evolutionary orthodoxy and public perception, 1977–2002
Myrna Perez Sheldon