BOOK: Discovering the Mammoth: A Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science

My friend John J. McKay, self-described “underemployed, grumpy, and aging liberal who lives in the Great Northwest” who blogs here and here, has recently published his first book on the history of how discoveries of mammoth bones (or what some people thought they were before the idea of a mammoth came about) influenced the developing science of paleontology.


John J. McKay, Discovering the Mammoth: A Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science (New York: Pegasus, 2017), 256 pp.

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Publisher’s description Today, we know that a mammoth is an extinct type of elephant that was covered with long fur and lived in the north country during the ice ages. But how do you figure out what a mammoth is if you have no concept of extinction, ice ages, or fossils? Long after the last mammoth died and was no longer part of the human diet, it still played a role in human life. Cultures around the world interpreted the remains of mammoths through the lens of their own worldview and mythology. When the ancient Greeks saw deposits of giant fossils, they knew they had discovered the battle fields where the gods had vanquished the Titans. When the Chinese discovered buried ivory, they knew they had found dragons’ teeth. But as the Age of Reason dawned, monsters and giants gave way to the scientific method. Yet the mystery of these mighty bones remained. How did Enlightenment thinkers overcome centuries of myth and misunderstanding to reconstruct an unknown animal? The journey to unravel that puzzle begins in the 1690s with the arrival of new type of ivory on the European market bearing the exotic name “mammoth.” It ends during the Napoleonic Wars with the first recovery of a frozen mammoth. The path to figuring out the mammoth was traveled by merchants, diplomats, missionaries, cranky doctors, collectors of natural wonders, Swedish POWs, Peter the Great, Ben Franklin, the inventor of hot chocolate, and even one pirate. McKay brings together dozens of original documents and illustrations, some ignored for centuries, to show how this odd assortment of characters solved the mystery of the mammoth and, in doing so, created the science of paleontology.

I am happy to see this book out, and am looking forward to reading it! In the meantime, here are some plugs/reviews online: Greg Laden’s Blog, NatureChristian Science Monitor, Twilight Beasts blog, Richard Conniff for the Wall Street Journal (paywall), Publisher’s Weekly, and Library Journal.


ARTICLE: Progress in life’s history: Linking Darwinism and palaeontology in Britain, 1860–1914

A new Darwin article in the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences:

Progress in life’s history: Linking Darwinism and palaeontology in Britain, 1860–1914

Chris Manias

Abstract This paper examines the tension between Darwinian evolution and palaeontological research in Britain in the 1860–1914 period, looking at how three key promoters of Darwinian thinking – Thomas Henry Huxley, Edwin Ray Lankester and Alfred Russell Wallace – integrated palaeontological ideas and narratives of life’s history into their public presentations of evolutionary theory. It shows how engagement with palaeontological science was an important part of the promotion of evolutionary ideas in Britain, which often bolstered notions that evolution depended upon progress and development along a wider plan. While often critical of some of the non-Darwinian concepts of evolution professed by many contemporary palaeontologists, and frequently citing the ‘imperfection’ of the fossil record itself, Darwinian thinkers nevertheless engaged extensively with palaeontology to develop evolutionary narratives informed by notions of improvement and progress within the natural world.

BOOK: Ancient Earth Journal: The Late Jurassic

In 2015 I shared about a new children’s books about dinosaurs, Ancient Earth Journal: The Early Cretaceous, which “combines two things I really love: learning about dinosaurs and natural history illustration.” As I noted, the depiction of dinosaurs is done by  praised by paleontologists, is presented by Juan Carlos Alonso in a nature journal fashion, as if the artist is encountering them as wildlife on a nature trip. This helps to see these animals as actual, living entities.

Alonso has published his second book in this series:


Juan Carlos Alonso, Ancient Earth Journal: The Late Jurassic (Lake Forest, CA: Walter Foster Jr., 2016), 112 pp. Coauthored with paleoartist Gregory S. Paul.

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Publisher’s description What would it be like to see a living, breathing dinosaur? Following in the footsteps of Ancient Earth Journal: The Early Cretaceous, this next installment, The Late Jurassic, will take readers further back in time to a period when giants ruled the land and early mammals began to secure their place alongside the dinosaurs. The Late Jurassic period was home to many species of our favorite dinosaurs, such as Apatosaurus (or Brontosaurus), Allosaurus, and Stegosaurus, to name a few. The Late Jurassic includes the latest paleontological findings to build an accurate depiction of the dinosaurs, environment, and wildlife of the period. Due to the abundance of fossils available for both plants and animals of this period, the book paints a vivid, realistic picture of the flora and fauna of the time, with more emphasis on hunting and defensive tactics, as well as early mammals and their role in the planet’s evolution, for a thrilling, thoroughly enjoyable ride through the most popular time period of prehistory. Written and illustrated in the style of a naturalist’s notebook, the reader is given a first-hand account of what it would be like to stand alongside some of the largest creatures to ever walk the earth.


Journal special issue on “Replaying the Tape of Life: Evolution and Historical Explanation”

A whole issue of the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences is devoted to the topic “Replaying the Tape of Life: Evolution and Historical Explanation.” The contents are as follows:

Introduction: Evolution and historical explanation
Peter Harrison, Ian Hesketh

What was historical about natural history? Contingency and explanation in the science of living things
Peter Harrison

The “History” of Victorian Scientific Naturalism: Huxley, Spencer and the “End” of natural history
Bernard Lightman


Theological presuppositions of the evolutionary epic: From Robert Chambers to E. O. Wilson
Allan Megill


What are narratives good for?
John Beatty


Counterfactuals and history: Contingency and convergence in histories of science and life
Ian Hesketh

The spontaneous market order and evolution
Naomi Beck

Contingency and the order of nature
Nancy Cartwright


Freedom and purpose in biology
Daniel W. McShea


“Replaying Life’s Tape”: Simulations, metaphors, and historicity in Stephen Jay Gould’s view of life
David Sepkoski

A case study in evolutionary contingency
Zachary D. Blount


Can evolution be directional without being teleological?
George R. McGhee Jr.

Evolutionary biology and the question of teleology
Michael Ruse

Contingency, convergence and hyper-astronomical numbers in biological evolution
Ard A. Louis


It all adds up …. Or does it? Numbers, mathematics and purpose
Simon Conway Morris

BOOK: The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs

When I became obsessed with dinosaurs in 1993 following seeing Jurassic Park on the big screen, one of the first serious dinosaur paleontology books I read – having found it on the shelf in my local public library – was paleoartist Gregory S. Paul‘s Predatory Dinosaurs of the World: A Complete Illustrated Guide  (1988; see this three-part blog series about this book from Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs: 1 2 3). His vivid depictions of dinosaurs in action and streamlined lateral-view skeletal reconstructions became how I would imagine dinosaurs appearing as I continued to read up on the prehistoric beasts. And I credit all the reading I did on dinosaurs for introducing me to the larger subject of Darwin and evolution. So I am indeed a lover of quality books about dinosaurs.

Paul published in 2011 The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs, which included illustrations and descriptions of species beyond those that were predatory, as well as sections covering a wide range of topics in dinosaur biology and evolution, including the evolution of birds.

This year Paul published a second edition of The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs, which has been updated with the many new dinosaur species described since the first edition was published (I believe it includes those discoveries through 2015). Paleontology is an ever-changing science, and this book will most likely need to be updated again in the future.


Gregory S. Paul, The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs: Second Edition (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2016), 2016. Hardcover, $35.00

Publisher’s description The best-selling Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs remains the must-have book for anyone who loves dinosaurs, from amateur enthusiasts to professional paleontologists. Now extensively revised and expanded, this dazzlingly illustrated large-format edition features some 100 new dinosaur species and 200 new and updated illustrations, bringing readers up to the minute on the latest discoveries and research that are radically transforming what we know about dinosaurs and their world. Written and illustrated by acclaimed dinosaur expert Gregory Paul, this stunningly beautiful book includes detailed species accounts of all the major dinosaur groups as well as nearly 700 color and black-and-white images—skeletal drawings, “life” studies, scenic views, and other illustrations that depict the full range of dinosaurs, from small feathered creatures to whale-sized supersauropods. Paul’s extensively revised introduction delves into dinosaur history and biology, the extinction of nonavian dinosaurs, the origin of birds, and the history of dinosaur paleontology, as well as giving a taste of what it might be like to travel back in time to the era when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

With almost 750 species’ descriptions, this book will surely get some use when my son and I wish to look up a dinosaur. But I will, as I have already done, find myself just picking up this book and perusing its pages, enjoying the colorful, anatomy-driven depictions of dinosaurs going about their dinosaurian days. And, as a field guide, Paul includes fun but thoughtful sections on how one might expect a dinosaur safari to actually take place and what if dinosaurs had actually survived, and given that, a quick discussion of large dinosaur conservation.

A preview of the book, including a nice overview of the history of dinosaur research and discoveries, can be seen here.

Purchase The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs through the publisher or the independent Powell’s City of Books (affiliate link).

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.