Mr. Zimmer, an honored science journalist, reports what has been learned (and how, and by whom) about two great evolutionary events--the conversion of fish to land animals, and the subsequent return of land animals to the sea. These studies depend on the discvery of fossils, and fossil hunting, although slow, can be almost melodramatic in the jolts and surprises it inflicts on paleontologists and the entertainment it provides for Mr. Zimmer's readers. The author observes that "there is always a little sadness mixed into the great discoveries because they take away some of the confusion that brightens life." Mr. Zimmer avoids confusion but leaves life among the fossils agreeably bright.
Macroevolution is the study of evolution on the grand scale, the scale at which continents crash into each other and climates change; dinosaurs go extinct and mammals thrive. Within that enormous realm, Carl Zimmer's subject is "the transitions from fish to tetrapod, and from land mammal to whale"--in other words, how life left the water and created the whole class of terrestrial vertebrates and how, in mammal form, it returned to the oceans. The story Zimmer tells is a fascinating one, and not only because it is so skillfully written and so readably presented. To watch that double motion--fish turning terrestrial, mammals becoming aquatic-is to learn something deep about the work of evolution.
Tracing the ancestry of early land animals back to fish and of whales back to later land animals has long required strong faith in Darwinian doctrine, largely unsupported by biological or fossil evidence. The recent discovery of that long-sought evidence-paleontological, genetic, and anatomical-makes a fascinating story, which Zimmer unfolds as a tale of high-stakes scientific sleuthing. Thanks to marvelously lucid writing, readers can decipher clues (a fossil skull from Pakistan, a DNA study in Brussels, a statistical brain dissection at UCLA) right alongside some of the world's greatest researchers, starting with Darwin himself. While steering clear of technical minutiae, Zimmer allows readers to wrestle with theoretical problems that have long attracted strong minds (and combative personalities) to evolutionary biology.
Modern biology at its most lively and successful [At the Water's Edge] covers it advances in so many diverse disciplines that even researchers at the cutting edge of one of these will discover much that is new and relevant in other fields.
More than just an informative book about macroevolution itself, this is an entertaining history of ideas written with literary flair and technical rigor.
The Quarterly Review of Biology:
When he wrote this book, Zimmer, a senior editor at Discover magazine, undoubtedly set out to provide readers with an entertaining, easily digestible account of how evolution operates at a variety of organizational levels to overcome seemingly insurmountable problems. As a byproduct of his success at that endeavor, Zimmer might have inadvertently helped to dampen creationst fervor, for a little while anyway.
The Times (London)
It is wicked, I know, but I have the habit of turning over the corners of pages whenever I chance upon something unexpectedly interesting, exciting, or informative. Zimmer's At the Water's Edge quickly became the most dog-eared book on my shelves.
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