This book describes and illustrates the evolution of life, as has been traditionally accepted for the past approximately 100 years. It is edited by Stephen Jay Gould and contains a wealth of colorful art and technical illustrations provided by scientists and artists with expertise in various technical fields that contribute to the understanding of evolutionary theory. The late Dr. Gould was the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology at Harvard University and remains one of the most renowned evolutionary biologists of our time. The authors of various chapters of the book are (the late) J. John Sepkoski (past professor of paleontology at the University of Chicago), Jr., Michael Benton (professor of vertebrate paleontology at the University of Bristol), Christine Janis (professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Brown University), Peter Andrews, and Christopher Stringer (research scientists in the Human Origins Group at the British Museum of Natural History).Gould expresses unease at reissuing the book without thorough revision. However, he summarizes key issues left out of the first edition and states that errors of fact have been corrected. Discoveries since the 1993 edition include novel fossils, more evidence of the Cambrian explosion of life, and new discoveries about the vertebrates and the evolution of whales. He discusses the integration of new paleontological data with the biology of modern organisms; and our ability to investigate the history of life with modern genetic techniques. Gould spends essentially the entire lengthy preface discussing the history and use of illustrations (iconography) of dinosaurs. The 1993 introduction discusses time and geology relative to evolution, then the book progresses over six chapters beginning with the simplest organisms and ending with the primates. The evolutionary story begins with the coalescing of the earth and its oceans about 4 billion years (By) ago. At that time the Earth’s day was about 10 hours long, the sun was still red, and the atmosphere was mostly carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide and methane. Basic cell structures and DNA are explained along with DNA’s ability to code cellular functions and reproduction. Evolution is described as the driver for the development of life, but without purpose or any specific intent - an it operating essentially chaotically. At the beginning, it worked upon basic prokaryote and eukaryote cells to create complex life, leading to: early animals; the explosion of life at the beginning of the Cambrian (about 550 million years (My) ago); the sudden multiplying of species; animal phylogeny (evolutionary development); and the development of plants.The story goes on to tell that fishes arose beginning in the Ordovician (505 My ago), but really exploded in the Devonian (408 My ago). This information is provided by, among other fossil findings, by the Old Red Sandstone in the north of Scotland, one of the richest fossil fish formations in the world.
The science of taphonomy (the study of the physical, chemical, and biological circumstances in which fossils are deposited and preserved) is credited for providing an understanding of why the Old Red Sandstone fossils are so well preserved. The movement of vertebrates onto land occurred as fishes became amphibians then left the water (possibly in the Silurian, about 438 My ago), possibly to escape as pools of water dried up. Other drivers for moving onto land included the desire to find more resources, like food and oxygen. However, apparently the main obstacles to movement onto land were related to overcoming gravity, which was much less a problem in the water. Substantial detail is provided regarding the mechanical changes that occurred in fishes’ and amphibians’ bodies as they adapted to gravity and became four-legged land creatures (tetrapods). Dinosaurs arose in the late Triassic (more than 208 My ago) and were essentially extinct at the end of the Cretaceous (65 My ago). ThePangaea supercontinent began to break up in the Jurassic (208-144 My ago) and it is thought that this is the reason identical genera of dinosaurs (and fossil plants as well) are found worldwide, although separated by oceans. Mammals lived during the time of the dinosaurs and their rise before, during, and following the separation of the supercontinent Pangaea is discussed. Much information is provided describing the phylogeny of the genera and effects of environmental change (particularly glaciation and plate tectonics) on the evolutionary trends. The book culminates with a discussion of the primates. A few of the most distinguishing features of primates include 5-digit hands with opposable thumbs. It is observed that no undisputed fossils date back to the Cretaceous and all the significant human fossil artifacts can be displayed on a pool table. Modern molecular biology has provided information on the genetic distances between various primate groups and how a very small a genetic difference divides humans from apes. The affect of particular types of environment on the evolution of human body forms and the evidences of Africa as the birthplace of humankind are presented. However, it is observed that attempting to fit the fossils into any single branching tree of evolutionary theory is not without its contradictions.