Monday, May 19, 2008

Sunday Book Review: Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters by Donald Prothero (Columbia University Press, 2007)

Yes, I know it's Monday, but I was busy with graduation yesterday...

Prothero takes an impressively comprehensive approach to debunking the claims that creationists have made about the fossil record. The most useful part of the book debunks the creationist's claims that the fossil record contradicts Darwinian theory. He hits all the creationist's favorites, from the Cambrian explosion and its implications to the proposed absence of transitional forms between ungulates and whales. Prothero rarely minces words in delivering a major smack-down to ignoramuses like Duane Gish. Although the details may leave some hard core evolutionary biologists a bit unsatisfied, Prothero provides all the references to the primary literature that are needed to fill in the gaps. This will be an important reference work.

I do wish he had made a bit more of an effort to integrate the stunning new conclusions revealed by molecular phylogenetic analyses, which serve to further reinforce the validity of Darwin's theory. On a related point, I also can't stand to see so many phylogenetic trees without one iota of support. In some cases, failure to consider molecular phylogenetic studies and phylogenetic uncertainty results in presentation of potentially outdated relationships, like the repeated depiction of turtles as the outgroup to all other extant reptiles and birds (Fig. 5.4 & Fig. 11.1 [which also appears to suggest that snakes are the sister taxon to lizards]). The position of turtles remains controversial, but numerous molecular phylogenetic analyses suggest that they may be closely related to archosaurs rather than branching off at the base of the reptile lineage.

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